Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 R.I.P.

The year 2013 is coming to a close. And I rather suspect that when most fans of vintage film, television, and music think of the year it will be on the many deaths that occurred during the year. Now I don't think more classic stars died during 2013. As I recall many, many more died in 2009 and 2010 respectively. That having been said, 2013 saw the passings of some very big names.

Indeed, I suspect I was not alone in feeling that my youth was passing before my eyes for much of 2013. Several individuals died who had an immeasurable impact on my life. Among those who died was stop motion animator, special effects creator, and film producer Ray Harryhausen. I am sure I have told many that his film Jason and the Argonauts (1963) was the first film I can remember watching all the way through, to the point that I am sure many of you are sick of hearing about it. The film made a lasting impression on me, to the point that I am not sure I would be a classic film buff or a writer without having seen it as such a young age.

Sadly, Ray Harryhausen was not the only person who died in 2013 who had a huge impact on my life. W. Watts Biggers was the creator of my favourite animated cartoon from my childhood, Underdog.  As the writer of many old films and episodes of The Twilight Zone Richard Matheson would have a lasting influence on my life. As an adult I would discover his books as well. Two musicians died during 2013 who would a lasting effect on my life. Reg Presley of The Troggs wrote and performed some of my favourite songs, and would have a lasting impact on punk music. Lou Reed's influence would go even further. He would not only have an impact on punk rock, but glam rock, New Wave, and power pop. Much of the music to which I listen might not exist had it not been for Lou Reed.

Beyond Ray Harryhausen, the death that would have the largest impact on me would be Joan Fontaine. In fact, while others may disagree, I think she may have been the biggest film star to die this years. Joan Fontaine was among the very first classic film stars I discovered and she has remained one of my favourite stars throughout the years. Indeed, I consider her role as the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca (1940) to be one of the most iconic in film history, perhaps surpassed only by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942).

Here I feel I have to apologise for discussing those people who had an impact on myself, and I am sure that many of the other big stars who died during 2013 had a huge impact on others' lives. Indeed, some of the biggest names in film history died this year. Eleanor Parker (the character actress who looked like a leading lady), Deanna Durbin (the soprano who became America's sweetheart), Esther Williams (the Olympic level swimmer who became a film star), Annette Funicello (star of the "Beach Party" films and America's Sweetheart if there ever was one), Jean Kent (British screen legend and last of the Gainsborough Girls), Audrey Totter (the queen of film noir) and Peter O'Toole (the man most nominated for the Best Actor Oscar without actually winning) all died in 2013. What is more, many more big name stars of film and television died during the year, including Frank Thornton, Joanthan Winters, Miles O'Shea, Jeanne Cooper, Dennis Farina, James Gandolfino, Jean Stapleton, Michael Ansara, Eileen Brennan, Julie Harris, and Tom Laughlin. With regards to film, Bryan Forbes was not simply a film star, but a director and writer as well. He was a multi-talent who not only directed such films as The L-Shaped Room (1962), Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), and The Wrong Box (1966), but acted in film and wrote books as well. Sir David Frost was not a film star, but he was very nearly as famous. A consummate satirist and interview, he was famous on both sides of the Pond.

Several great musicians besides Reg Presley and Lou Reed died in 2013. Indeed, I've always maintained that Ray Manzarek was as responsible for The Doors' success as Jim Morrison. Quite simply, The Doors would not have been The Doors without Mr. Manzarek's incredible keyboard work. The year would also see the passing of Peter Banks, formerly of Yes, one of the most legendary progressive rock guitarists of all time, as well as Kevin Ayers, leader of the influential but under-appreciated band Soft Machine. The year would also see the passing of legendary vocalist Patti Page, Patty Andrews of The Andrews Sisters, Rick Huxley of The Dave Clark Five, Bobby Rogers of The Miracles, Alvin Lee of Ten Years After, Trevor Bolder of The Spiders From Mars and Uriah Heep, and Eydie Gorme.

Of course, more than deaths occurred in 2013. Indeed, I honestly think American network broadcast television saw some improvement during the year. After years of churning out the same old thing, the four networks seemed more willing to experiment in 2013. On NBC The Blacklist, which perhaps can best be described as a thriller, debuted this season. ABC ventured into the world of superheroes with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Several genre shows debuted this fall, including Sleepy Hollow, Dracula, and Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.  It seems as if the networks are finally trying to break free of the cops and robbers and lawyers shows they have made for so many years. While I can't say all of these shows are necessarily good, they are at least different. As to the best new show in the 2013-2014 season, I would have to give that to The Michael J. Fox Show. Not only is it good to see Michael J. Fox back on television, but the show is genuinely funny and well written.

Living on a slightly more limited income than I have in past years, I have to confess that I did not pay too much attention to what was released at cinemas this year. With regards to quality, then, I can't say if 2013 was any better or worse than past years. I do have to say that it seems as if Hollywood's trend towards sequels has continued unabated. Of the top ten films of 2013 so far, six were sequels (Iron Man 3, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Monsters University, Fast & Furious 6, and  Star Trek Into Darkness). What films were not sequels were often based on properties from other media (Man of Steel, Oz: The Great and Powerful). In the end, the only two wholly original films among the highest grossing movies of 2013 were Gravity and Frozen (and even it was very  loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen). People have been complaining about a lack of originality on the part of Hollywood for years now. Sadly, the top movies of 2013 show that they have reason to complain.

Over all I cannot say 2013 was a bad year for pop culture. Over all television seems to be improving slightly. That having been said, film seems to be stuck in a rut of sequels and giving us little in the way of original material. And, of course, the year saw many, many deaths of big name stars. Sadly, given the ages of actors and directors from the Golden Ages of Film and Television, I fear that is a trend that will continue for many years. At any rate, I think I can speak for everyone when I say that I hope 2014 is a much better year.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Tom Laughlin Passes On

Tom Laughlin, perhaps best known for the lead role in the "Billy Jack" films (which he also directed), died on 12 December 2013 at the age of 82. The cause was complications from pneumonia.

Tom Laughlin was born 10 August 1931 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He attended the University of South Dakota, where he met his future wife Delores Taylor, and later Marquette University. He became interested in acting after seeing a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Tom Laughlin made his television debut in a 1955 episode of Climax. In the late Fifties he guest starred on such shows as Matinee Theatre, Front Row Centre, Navy Log, The Millionaire, Lux Video Theatre, The Silent Service, Man With a Camera, M Squad, Wagon Train, The Deputy, and Tales of Wells Fargo. He made his film debut in an uncredited bit part in These Wilder Years (1956). In the late Fifties he appeared in the films Tea and Sympathy (1956), The Delinquents (1957), South Pacific (1958), Lafayette Escadrille (1958), Senior Prom (1958), Gidget (1959), Battle of the Coral Sea (1959), and Tall Story (1960).

It was in 1960 that Tom Laughlin broke into directing with The Proper Time, in which he starred and which he also produced and wrote. It was released in 1962. In 1961 he left the entertainment industry to operate a  Montessori preschool in Santa Monica that he and his wife had founded in 1959. The school closed in 1965 and Mr. Laughlin returned to acting and directing. He wrote, directed, and starred in The Young Sinner (1965) before acting in, directing, and writing a film that would change the course of his career. The Born Losers (1967) starred Tom Laughlin as Billy Jack, a half Native American veteran of the Vietnam War who finds himself at odds with a motorcycle gang. The film was notable not only for introducing the character of Billy Jack, but as one of the earliest films in the West to feature martial arts (a full six years before the kung fu fad of the Seventies).

Tom Laughlin followed The Born Losers with a sequel that would prove even more successful. Billy Jack proved an unlikely hit given its history. Filming began in 1969, but was halted when American International Pictures pulled out of the project. 20th Century Fox then took over and the film was eventually completed in 1971. Unfortunately 20th Century Fox elected not to distribute the film. It was then distributed by Warner Brothers. Unfortunately, the film did poorly at the box office. Tom Laughlin was unhappy with Warner Brothers' distribution of the film and sued the studio to get it back. Mr. Laughlin then re-released the film in 1973, whereupon  it became a hit, earning $40 million at the box office.

Tom Laughlin followed Billy Jack with a sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack, in 1974. It also proved to be a hit, in a large part due to its promotion (more on that later). The following year Tom Laughlin starred in The Master Gunfighter (1975). Directed by his son Frank and written by himself,  it was a remake of the Japanese film Goyokin (1969) with some basis in a historical massacre of Native Americans in California in the late 19th Century. The Master Gunfighter fared poorly both with critics and at the box office.

Tom Laughlin appeared in the films The Littlest Horse Thieves (1976) and Voyage of the Damned (1976) before making the final "Billy Jack" film. Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977). The film never received a regular theatrical run and as a result of its poor distribution failed at the box office. It would be the last completed film that Tom Laughlin directed and the last completed "Billy Jack" film. Tom Laughlin appeared in The Big Sleep (1978)  and The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981), which proved to be his last appearances on the big screen. In 1986 he attempted to make another "Billy Jack" film, The Return of Billy Jack. Unfortunately, during the shooting of the film Mr. Laughlin suffered a head injury. By the time he recovered the production had run out of money. The film was never finished, with only an hour of it shot. Various attempts over the years to relaunch the project all failed.

Over the years Tom Laughlin engaged in activities beyond film making. Although he had no degree in the field, Mr. Laughlin was regarded as quite knowledgeable about Jungian psychology. He lectured on the subject at various universities across the nation (including Yale and Stanford). He also wrote the book Jungian Theory and Therapy (Jungian Psychology, Vol. 2). He also attempted a political career, running for President in 1992, 2004, and 2008.

I doubt that there are many who would consider the "Billy Jack" films "classics". That having been said, I do think they work on a visceral level and they very much captured the Zeitgeist of the Seventies. And, for all their flaws, the "Billy Jack" films can be said to be ahead of their time. The Born Losers, Billy Jack, and The Trial of Billy Jack touched upon Native American rights, an issue still largely unaddressed in American films and television shows. Both The Born Losers and Billy Jack presaged the martial arts craze of 1973 and 1974 by several years. In both films Billy Jack utilised hapkido in his fights. Indeed, in many respects both The Born Losers and Billy Jack could be considered early, American martial arts films, this before the Hong Kong films had made inroads into the United States.

The films themselves would not only be ahead of their time, but so too would be the distribution of The Trial of Billy Jack. While the practice of wide releases (debuting a film in multiple cities all on the same day) had existed since the Fifties, it was still rare in the Seventies. When The Trial of Billy Jack opened in several theatres across the United States on the same day , then, it was a somewhat revolutionary move. And while television advertising for films was an established practice by that time, The Trial of Billy Jack was even advertised during the national news. Or course, today wide releases and national television advertising are established practices.

While in many respects Tom Laughlin was ahead of his time, he was also no darling of the critics. To this day his oeuvre is not highly regarded. While he may not have necessarily been a great director, writer, or producer, however, I do think Tom Laughlin was a good actor. He gave a very good performance in the Wagon Train episode "The Mary Halstead Story", playing a young outlaw. And while the scripts and direction of the "Billy Jack" films may have left something to be desire, Tom Laughlin was very convincing in the role. Indeed, it seems possible, even likely, that the reasons the films succeed and continue to be remembered to this day is that Tom Laughlin played the part of the hapkido using, half Native American Green Beret very well. Indeed, if the "Billy Jack" films are remembered (and I suspect they will be), it will be for Tom Laughlin's performance in the role.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Marta Eggerth R.I.P.

Film actress and opretta star Marta Eggerth died on 26 December 2013 at the age of 101.

Marta Eggerth was born on 17 April 1912 in Budapest, Austria-Hungary (now Hungary). Her father was a banker, while her mother was singer. Encouraged by her mother, Miss Eggerth began singing when she was very young. While only a teenager she toured Denmark, Holland, and Sweden. By the time she was 17 she was in Vienna as an understudy to coloratura Adele Kern in a production of  The Violet of Montmartre. When Miss Kern was unable to perform due to her health, Marta Eggerth went on in her place. It turned out to be her big break. She went onto appear in director Max Reinhardt's production of Die Fledermaus.

It was in 1930 that she made her film debut in Csak egy kislány van a világon (1930). She made her English language film debut in Let's Love and Laugh (1931).  Over the next several years she made several films in both Europe and the United Kingdom, including  Der Draufgänger (1931), Where Is This Lady? (1932--directed by Billy Wilder),  Es war einmal ein Walzer (1932),  Ein Lied, ein Kuss, ein Mädel (1932), Die Czardasfürstin (1934), Die blonde Carmen (1935), Die ganze Welt dreht sich um Liebe (1935), Zauber der Boheme (1937), and Immer wenn ich glücklich bin..! (1938).

It was in 1940 that Marta Eggerth made her debut on Broadway in the Rogers and Hart musical Higher and Higher. She was signed by MGM, who featured her prominently in the film For Me and My Gal (1942). She also had a prominent role in Presenting Lily Mars (1943). Despite meeting with success, Miss Eggerth asked to be released early from her contract with MGM. She appeared on Broadway in a revival of The Merry Widow, which she would perform with her husband Jan Kiepura ( in various venues over the next two decades. She appeared one more time on Broadway in Polonaise. She went onto appear in the films Valse brillante (1949), Das Land des Lächelns (1952), and Frühling in Berlin (1957).

Following the death of her husband, Jan Kiepura, in 1966, Miss Eggerth retired from singing for a time. She eventually started singing again, and went on to perform concerts in Europe. In 1984 she appeared in Colette in both Seattle and Denver. She also appeared in Stephen Sondheim's Follies in Pittsburgh. At 97 years of age, in 1999, she sang at the Vienna State Opera. It was also in 1999 that she made her only guest appearance on a television programme, in the detective series Tatort. She had two concerts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006 and 2007. She continued to perform in cabarets well into her nineties.

Marta Eggerth was an incredible singer. In fact, she may well have been one of the greatest sopranos of the 20th Century. Her voice was light and mellifluous, perfect for operettas. And she was an artist when it came to delivering a performance. She deliver the perfect amount of emotion for any given lyric she sang. Of course, she was obviously beautiful. It is little wonder she had a thriving film career in Europe in the Thirties, and I suspect I am not the only classic film fan who wishes she had made more films in Hollywood. She was in many ways the perfect star: talented and beautiful, and possessed of an incredible singing voice.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

"September Gurls" by Big Star

It was today in 1950 that Alex Chilton of  Big Star was born. In a sad coincidence it was also yesterday in 1978 that  Chris Bell of Big Star died in a car crash. In honour of the 63rd anniversary of Alex Chilton's birth and the 35th anniversary of Chris Bell's death, then, I thought I would leave you with a song by Big Star. It is my favourite song that they ever did, "September Gurls".

Friday, December 27, 2013

LinkedIn Eliminates Activity Feed from Profiles

From my perspective LinkedIn, the social networking site for professionals, has always had a bit of a problem. On the one hand, the media (both the mainstream media and the more specialised tech media) seem to adore LinkedIn. I do not know how many articles I have seen on how important it is for professionals to be on LinkedIn, on how one can find a job through LinkedIn, on how important LinkedIn is to sharing information among professionals, and so on. On the other hand, it seems to me that the average person, even professionals, is largely indifferent to LinkedIn. They use LinkedIn as little more than a place to put their  résumé online. They create a profile and then may not visit the site again until they need to update their profile (which may literally be months, if not longer). I am more active than most people I know on LinkedIn, and I only make an update there only every few days, much less than on Google+, Twitter, or even Facebook.

Despite the media's love affair with LinkedIn, it seems clear to me that the site really needs to encourage individuals to be more active on the site. Unfortunately on 16 December LinkedIn did something that I believe will do the exact opposite. Quite simply, they removed the activity feed from individuals' profiles. According to the help page on LinkedIn, this was "...so we can better invest those resources in building new and better LinkedIn products." Unfortunately, from what I have seen on both Twitter and LinkedIn itself, it seems a good many users disagree with the site's decision. I know I am one of them.

Indeed, on the surface LinkedIn's decision seems to make little sense. Nearly every other major social network includes a feed of one's own posts on one's profile. This is true of Twitter. It is true of Google+. It is true of Facebook. And I personally believe there are very good reasons for this beyond simply being able to see all of one's own posts in one place, reasons that for some odd reason LinkedIn has chosen to ignore.

First, having the activity feed on one's profile encouraged others to visit one's profile to see whatever updates one has made. I know that there were people who visited my profile regularly to see my updates. Now they have little reason to do so. This brings me to the second reason for having the activity feed on one's own profile. Quite simply, it insures that one's updates will be seen, at least if people visits his or her profile. Without an activity feed on profiles, chances are good that one's updates will be lost among the "noise" on the activity feed on LinkedIn's main page.

Indeed, the sad fact is that the activity feed on LinkedIn's main page is a hot mess, much worse than even Facebook's news feed. Worse yet, one has little control over what appears in the activity feed on the main page. One cannot set the activity feed so that one will not see "such and such liked such and such update" or "such and such has a new photo", or "say happy work anniversary". And while one can hide updates from specific individuals on the activity feed, one cannot hide updates from LinkedIn itself or, a feature I find particularly annoying, "Your network's talking about" (essentially topics LinkedIn thinks one's network is discussing). Now there are individual feeds for "Connections (new connections people have made)", "Shares (links one have shared, whether they're blog posts, news articles, videos, or so on), and Profiles (essentially profile updates), but they are little help. Indeed, the Shares feed has the same noise problem as the "All Updates" activity feed. On the Shares feed one will still see updates from LinkedIn, sponsored updates, and "Your network is talking about". On the "All Updates" activity feed and even on the "Shares" feed, then, it seems to me that the chance of one's updates getting lost in the noise is very, very good.

A third problem with eliminating the activity feed from individual profiles is that it is now much more difficult to tell if someone is actually active on LinkedIn. For instance, someone visiting my profile would have been able to tell that I make updates every so many days. By the same token, someone visiting my brother's LinkedIn profile would see that he has not updated in quite sometime. While it doesn't matter to me, I rather suspect many professionals on LinkedIn would prefer to be connected to people who are actually active on the site. This brings me to a fourth problem with eliminating the activity feed on LinkedIn. It was a good way of weeding out spammers. If one visits the profile of someone and his or her activity feed is filled with links to nothing but pages promoting "male enhancement products", it is fairly certain that he or she is a spammer!

In the end I have to say that in eliminating the activity feed LinkedIn has made a very serious mistake. They have taken away the primary reason for people to visit other's profiles and also made it more difficult for individuals' updates to be seen. They have also removed a useful tool for telling if someone is active on the site or if they are a spammer. What LinkedIn has apparently failed to realise is that while there may be newer LinkedIn products than the activity feed on profiles, there are and can be none better. I have to wonder that ultimately LinkedIn's removal of activity feeds won't result in people updating much less often, if at all. Indeed, I have to wonder that it won't result in some people leaving the site entirely. Either way I have to wonder that in eliminating the activity feed from profiles LinkedIn has not effectively consigned itself to oblivion.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Why We Should Return to the 12 Days of Christmas

For many in the United States today is the day after the Christmas season. They will take down their Christmas trees. They will take down their Christmas lights. Every single Christmas ornament will be taken down and put into storage. And while I suspect that while there are many who are relieved that the Christmas season is "over", there are many of us who are a bit down because most of society thinks the Yuletide is over.

It wasn't always this way. Indeed, the original Twelve Days of Christmas run from the evening of 24 December (Christmas Eve) to the day of 6 January (Epiphany). The traditional Twelve Days of Christmas developed very early in the history of Christianity, and many of the customs associated with the season have their origins in the Germanic pagan festival of Yule (called Géol in Old English) and the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia. In England during the Middle Ages the Twelve Days of Christmas were a time of nearly continuous celebration, with the festival climaxing on Twelfth Night (the evening of 5 January). The early colonists of North America would bring the custom of the Twelve Days of Christmas with them from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Germany. The Twelve Days of Christmas are still celebrated to some degree in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth (indeed, in the UK and in many Commonwealth countries today is Boxing Day), but over time it was forgotten here in the United States.

It is difficult to say why the Twelve Days of Christmas ceased to be celebrated in the United States, but I suspect much of it has to do with the holiday shopping season. The Christmas shopping season evolved over a number of years starting in the late 19th Century. New York City sweet shops held Christmas sales as early as the 1820's and 1830's. By 1840 many stores began to advertise themselves as "Santa Claus' headquarters". In 1874 Macy's set up the first of their legendary Yuletide window displays and  had Santa Claus in the store for the first time. Eventually the day after Thanksgiving (now known as "Black Friday") would come to be regarded as the first day of the Christmas shopping season in the United States. As early as 1907 the The Evening Times of Cumberland, Maryland made reference to shopping on the day after Thanksgiving. In an issue of The Indiana Progress dated November 27, 1917, a retail store makes reference to their holiday line being ready the day after Thanksgiving.

There can be no doubt that by the Thirties the day after Thanksgiving was considered the first day of the Christmas shopping season in the United States. Indeed, it was  in 1939 that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving from the last (and that year, fifth) Thursday of November to the fourth Thursday of the month in order to create a longer Christmas shopping season. The move proved controversial and in 1941 Congress established the fourth Thursday of November as the date of Thanksgiving in something of a compromise.

Regardless, it seems likely to me that during the 20th Century (and probably very early in the 20th Century at that) the Christmas shopping season in the United States became conflated with the Yuletide itself. People stopped thinking of the Yuletide as the evening of 24 December to the day of 6 January and began thinking of it as lasting from the day after Thanksgiving to 25 December. Christmas Day, once the beginning of the festival, effectively became the end.

To me the conflation of the Christmas season proper with the Christmas shopping season in the United States is most regrettable. Quite simply, to me starting the celebration on the evening of 24 December and ending it on the day of 6 January is far better than starting it on the day after Thanksgiving and ending it on the day of 25 December. First, it must be considered that Christmas, like the Germanic Yule and Roman Saturnalia from which it borrows much of its imagery, is essentially a winter festival. Even today much of the imagery associated with Christmas is that of winter: snow, snowmen, Santa's fur lined suit. The songs associated with the holiday often mention winter imagery, even in their titles: "White Christmas", "Let it Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow", "Frosty the Snowman", and so on. The imagery of the Yuletide stands in stark contrast to the Christmas shopping season in the Untied States, now regarded by many Americans as the Christmas season. Astronomically winter does not begin until 21 December. This means the majority of the Christmas shopping season unfolds during autumn, when there is little chance of snow, much less cold weather, in many parts of the United States (indeed, here where I live there is even little chance of snow on Christmas Day itself). I suspect that this is why many Americans have trouble getting into the Christmas spirit. Quite simply, it's not yet winter and as a result it doesn't feel like Christmas.

Another reason the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas is superior to the American Christmas shopping season is that in many respects it would be more advantageous to the very merchants who invented the Christmas shopping season. As Christmas is celebrated in the United States today all gift giving is centred on brief time: Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Despite this, it was traditional to give gifts throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas. Indeed, the idea of giving gifts on all twelve days of the Yuletide forms the basis for the classic Christmas carol "Twelve Days of Christmas". In focusing all of their attention on Christmas Day, then, merchants are ignoring eleven more days during which gifts could be given. And, of course, the more gifts given, the more money they would make. Quite simply, the day after Thanksgiving would no longer be quite so important as far as Christmas shopping goes!

Third, I think the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas might be better for Americans' mental health. Let's face it, January can be a very depressing time for many Americans, and I think it is because of more than the holiday season being over. It's cold. The nights are long and the days are short. If you live in a small town or rural area there is often very little to do. In returning to the Twelve Days of Christmas, then, we could make at least the first few days of January a little brighter. Christmas carols would still play on the radio. The lights and trees would still be up. Suddenly the drab and dreary days following the New Year would be a little merrier. Indeed, we would have one more day to celebrate. In addition to Christmas Day and New Year's Even, we would have Twelfth Night! This would be of great help to the average American in that they might no be quite so susceptible to the January depression common to many.

Ultimately, I think a return to the Twelve Days of Christmas would be very beneficial to Americans and much preferred to the Christmas season as many celebrate it today. Regardless, I will keep my tree and my lights up until at least the day after New Year's Day. And I will continue to listen to Christmas music too. For me the Yuletide does not end with 25 December.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas 2013

Today is Christmas Day, so as usual I will have a full blog post for you. Instead I will give you my usual gift of Yuletide pin ups from the Golden Age of Film.

First up we have Jane Powell who is ready to go sledding!

Next we have Esther Williams and a friend. 

Clara Bow drags her gifts from her many admirers to her igloo.

Iris Adrian apparently intends to decorate her chimney with a wreath!

Debra Paget bearing a gift.

And, of course, it wouldn't be the Yuletide without Ann Miller

I Wish All of You a Very Merry Yuletide and a Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

What Is a Christmas Movie?

Classic film buffs who celebrate the holiday generally have their favourite Yuletide films. These are films they watch every single holiday season without fail, films that make the season feel more like Christmas. At the same time, however, there are those films that are often shown this time of year that leave at least some classic film buffs scratching their heads and saying, "Why did they show that? That's not a Christmas movie!" I know it happened to me a few Christmases ago, when  TCM showed both Little Women (1949) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) on Christmas Day.

Certainly what is considered a Christmas movie will vary from classic film fan to classic film fan, but for me it comes down to a few things. First, most of the film must be set at Christmas. The final scene in the classic spy spoof The President's Analyst (1967) is set at Christmastime, but given the majority of the film is set earlier in the year, it hardly qualifies as a Christmas movie. Second, Christmas must have a significant impact on the plot of the film. The classic Ocean's 11 (1960) starts around Christmas, but the holiday has no real impact on the film's plot (although New Year's Eve does). I would then say this disqualifies Ocean's 11 as a Christmas movie. Third the film must have strong themes related to the holidays. This is true of the most famous Christmas movies of them all. It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), The Bishop's Wife (1947), and so on all have this in common.

Now I have to say that films do not have to meet all of these criteria to be Christmas films. If they meet only one that is fine by me. That having been said, there are films shown this time of year that I would not consider Christmas films because they meet none of these criteria. While I love the aforementioned Meet Me in St. Louis, I do not consider it a Christmas film because of this. The film has does have a sequence set at Christmas (featuring the classic song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", no less), but it is only one sequence in a plot that stretches out over several months. Indeed, Meet Me in St. Louis also has a sequence set at Halloween (which I think may actually be longer than the Christmas sequence), but I don't consider it a Halloween movie either. While Christmas does have a significant impact on the plot, that impact is no greater than the sequences in summer or at Halloween. In the end, I just can't see Meet Me in St. Louis as a Christmas movie. In fact, I prefer to watch it in the springtime!

Another film frequently shown this time of year that I love but I do not consider a Christmas film is Auntie Mame (1958). While there is a sequence set at Christmas, if anything Christmastime plays an even less important role in Auntie Mame than it does in Meet Me in St. Louis. It is only a relatively brief sequence set in a plot that spans literally years. For me, then, Auntie Mame is something like The President's Analyst. A few scenes at Christmas does not make it a Christmas film.

Of course, earlier I mentioned Little Women (1949). It seems as if both it and the 1933 version are shown frequently this time of year and I have never quite understood why. Like Meet Me in St. Louis both versions of Little Women have scenes set at Christmastime, but they are only a small part of a plot that is set over an extended period of time. What is more, in both versions of Little Women I would have to say that Christmastime is even less important to the plot than other times of the year. Keeping in mind that, unlike Meet Me in St. Louis and Auntie Mame, I have no real love for Little Women. I find both versions exceedingly depressing to the point that they would not be suitable for holiday viewing even if Christmas played a bigger role in the films!

At least Meet Me in St. Louis, Auntie Mame, and Little Women have scenes set at Christmastime. This is not true of one film that is frequently shown this time of year, The Sound of Music. Indeed, not only are there no scenes set at Christmas, the holiday is not even mentioned in the film! It isn't even mentioned in any of the songs, which brings up the mystery of why "My Favourite Things" is played so often this time of year as well. Granted, I never cared for The Sound of Music (although I love the songs and Eleanor Parker), but even if I did I would not consider it a Christmas movie, nor would I consider "My Favourite Things" a Christmas song!

Of course, while there are films that are shown frequently this time of year that I do not consider Christmas movies, there are also films I do consider Christmas movies that are not often shown this time of year for whatever reason. Indeed, one of them numbers among my top five films of all time, The Apartment. The Apartment is certainly set during the holidays. It takes place over a period spanning from a little bit before Thanksgiving (or at least that's the impression I always had) to New Year's Eve. What is more, Christmas Day plays a very important role in the plot. Quite simply, the plot of The Apartment probably would not work (or at least it would be very different) if it was set at any other time of year. What is more, The Apartment touches upon themes of redemption that are very much in keeping with both Christmas and New Year's. Sadly, despite all this, it seems to me that The Apartment is rarely mentioned as a Christmas movie or shown during the holiday season very often.

Another film that qualifies as a Christmas film in my mind might surprise some readers. Quite simply, even though I first saw it in the summer, I've always thought of Die Hard (1988) as a Christmas movie. What does an action film about a New York cop fighting terrorists in a skyscraper have to do with Christmas? First, the entire film is set on Christmas Eve. This already makes it more of a Christmas movie than Meet Me in St. Louis, Auntie Mame, and Little Women. Second, the terrorists seized the Nakatomi Plaza building just as a Christmas party was taking place, complete with Christmas music and a gigantic Christmas tree. Third, the film deals with themes of reconciliation and redemption fitting the holiday.  I suspect the only reason that Die Hard is not generally thought of as a Christmas movie is that it an action movie and hence not exactly a traditional Christmas movie. Regardless, using my criteria above, it certainly qualifies as a Christmas movie.

I realise from my perspective that Die Hard is a Christmas movie and Meet Me in St. Louis is not that some might question my criteria for what is a Christmas movie. That having been said, to me a Christmas movie is one that makes one feel the Yuletide spirit, and for a film to do that for me it must meet some of those criteria for the entirety of the film. While Meet Me in St. Louis might make me feel the Yuletide spirit during the Christmas sequence, it doesn't during the rest of the film. Die Hard actually does succeed for me on that account.

Of course, in the end what is and is not a Christmas movie is entirely subjective. In the end, as I said, a Christmas movie is ultimately one that makes one feel the Yuletide spirit. For me it takes the criteria I mentioned. For others it might be as enough for a short sequence in which Judy Garland sings a classic Christmas song. While the holidays are an event celebrated by people at large, they are also highly personal. And while Yuletide celebrations vary from family to family, I suppose so too do what people think of as Christmas movies.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Golden Age of Christmas Songs?

If anyone spends much time listening to Christmas songs on the radio, on the internet, or in the many stores that play them during the season, they might soon realise one thing. The vast majority of popular Christmas songs played today are fairly old. "White Christmas" was first released in 1942. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" dates to 1949. "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" is actually one of the younger Christmas standards. It only dates to 1963. Why do so many of the popular Christmas songs to which we still listen go back several decades? The reason is simple. The mid-20th Century saw something of a Golden Age of Christmas songs.

Indeed, the bulk of the most popular Christmas songs date from a period lasting from the early Forties into the mid-Sixties. This is not to say that there weren't Christmas songs recorded earlier. "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" dates to 1922, while both "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" and "Winter Wonderland" came out in 1934. And there have certainly been a few hit Christmas songs in more recent years. John Lennon's  "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" dates to 1971, while Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" was released in 1994. That having been said, the mid-20th Century appears to have been a boom time for Christmas songs. From 1942 to 1964 there was at least one Christmas song that became a huge hit each year, and in some years there were many more.

If there can be any doubt that the period of 1942 to 1964 was a Golden age for Christmas songs, one must consider that not only were there a huge number of hit Yuletide tunes released during that time, but some of them would become the best selling singles of any genre. In fact, the biggest selling song of all time is still a Christmas song, "White Christmas" by Bing Crosby. Released in the year 1942 it became the best selling single of all time, a position it had kept to this day. For several years the second best selling single of all time was another Christmas song. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" by Gene Autry, released in 1949, sold more than 12.5 million copies and still numbers among the best selling singles of all time. Among the other Christmas songs from the era that rank among the top selling singles of all time are "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" by The Chipmunks and "The Little Drummer Boy" by the Harry Simeone Chorale, both released in 1958.

Of course, the years 1942 to 1964 are not only remarkable because it saw some Christmas songs sell phenomenally well, but also in that many years would see multiple Christmas songs become hit records. The year 1949 alone saw "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (multiple versions of the song, at that), "Blue Christmas" (also multiple versions), "Sleigh Ride" by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, and, one of the all time champs when it comes to Christmas songs, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" all become hits. The year 1958 saw the releases of "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" by The Chipmunks, "The Little Drummer Boy" by the Harry Simeone Chorale, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" by Brenda Lee, and "Run Rudolph Run" by Chuck Berry. What is more, these were not the only years in which multiple Christmas songs ranked high on the American singles charts.

A portion of the Golden Age of Christmas songs also coincided what could be considered the Golden Age of Christmas films. It was a period from about 1942 to 1950 that saw the release of some of the most popular Christmas films of all time, including It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Miracle on 34th Street (1947). It should come as no surprise, then, that some of the Christmas songs of the era came from movies. "White Christmas", the biggest Christmas song of all time, originated in Holiday Inn (1942), as did "Happy Holiday". "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" also originated in a movie, namely Meet Me in St. Louis (although it isn't really  a Christmas film). "Silver Bells" originated in the holiday themed Bob Hope vehicle The Lemon Drop Kid (1950).  "Santa Baby" was recorded by Eartha Kitt in 1953, but there can be no doubt that its inclusion in the 1954 film New Faces helped popularise the song.

Of course, in the latter part of the Golden Age of Christmas songs television would play a role in popularising Christmas songs as well. For the Rankin/Bass, stop motion animated special based on his hit song, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Johnny Marks wrote several new songs. One of the songs from the special, "A Holly Jolly Christmas", became a huge hit for Burl Ives in 1964, while "Silver And Gold" from the special would also become something of a Christmas standard. Andy Williams' song "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" also emerged from television. George Wylie, the choral director on The Andy Williams Show, wrote the song specifically for the show's second Christmas edition.

Following 1964 the number of Christmas songs that became huge hits, let alone Christmas standards, declined a good deal. "We Need a Little Christmas" from the Broadway musical Auntie Mame, released as a single in 1966 featuring Angela Lansbury and the cast, went onto become a Christmas standard, while the novelty song "Snoopy's Christmas" by The Royal Guardsmen from 1967 is still played to this day, but for the most part the years following 1964 would see far fewer Christmas hits than the years before them.

It might seem curious that the mid-20th Century would produce so many hit Yuletide songs, but the reasons it did so are not hard to find. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Golden Age of Christmas songs began in 1942. The United States was embroiled in World War II and there can be no doubt that both those on the homefront and the soldiers at war could use some Christmas cheer. Following the war there was a general boom in Christmas. It was during this period that decorating one's house with lights for the holidays became common. It was also the period during which many classic Christmas films (It's a Wonderful Life, The Bishop's Wife, Miracle on 34th Street, and others) were released. It seems likely that soldiers returning home from the war wanted a Christmas like those they had when they were young. And if they went a bit overboard in celebrating the holidays, well, that was perhaps because they had been denied a typical, family Christmas for many years. With a demand for anything Christmas related, it should not be surprising if songwriters and recording artists weren't happy to fill the demand.

As to why the Golden Age of Christmas songs ended, that is harder to say. I doubt it was the advent of rock 'n' roll. The Golden Age continued until 1964, many years after the arrival of rock 'n' roll on the scene. It must also be pointed out that rock 'n' roll artists would make their own contributions to the genre during the era. Elvis Presley covered several Christmas standards. Chuck Berry recorded "Run Rudolph Run", while Darlene Love recorded "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)". That the Golden Age of Christmas songs ended in 1964 might lead one to believe that the British Invasion was responsible for its demise. While The Beatles did make Christmas records, these were only issued to members of their fan club and, except for "Christmas Time is Here is Again", contained no original Christmas songs. Other British Invasion bands recorded little in the way of Christmas songs in the Sixties, although many would do so later (the most famous perhaps being "Father Christmas" by The Kinks in 1977).

Of course, even given the British Invasion bands recorded little in the way of holiday tunes, it seems unlikely the British Invasion was solely responsible for the end of the Golden Age of Christmas songs. In fact, it might not have had much impact at all. The fact is that from 1942 to 1964 there were several Christmas songs produced a year and an inordinate number of them became hits. If one were to look at a list of the hit Christmas songs one might well be surprised at how many there actually were. Given the Golden Age of Christmas songs lasted around 22 years and given the number of hit songs released during the period, it seems possible that there was simply a glut created on the market. Quite simply, then, the reason there have been far fewer hit Christmas songs since that time may simply be because there were so many in the years from 1942 to 1964. Not only must a newly released Christmas record compete on the charts with non-holiday offerings, but it must also compete with the old standbys for airplay. And I rather suspect that the majority of times the old Christmas standbys will win out.

Regardless, there can be no doubt that the years 1942 to 1964 produced some of the greatest and most popular Christmas songs of all time. A huge number of the holiday classics that we sometimes take for granted stem from those years. While Christmas seems to wax and wane from time to time in popularity, it seems unlikely we will see another period like the Golden Age of Christmas Songs, a time when a holiday themed song could become the biggest hit of all time.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Scrooge (1935)

The average person is likely to be familiar with the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol with Reginald Owen and the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol (also known as Scrooge) with Alastair Sim. While both of these versions of Charles Dickens' classic novel continue to be popular, even many classic film buffs have never seen the first sound version of A Christmas Carol. Scrooge, released in 1935, is in many ways a forgotten film.

Scrooge (1935) was produced by Twickenham Film Studios and starred Sir Seymour Hicks, who had been playing the character of Ebenezer Scrooge for literally decades by the time the film was made. Mr. Hicks first played the role on stage in a production of A Christmas Carol in 1901. He went onto play the character literally thousands of times on stage. In 1913 he appeared in a silent film based on the novel, simply entitled Scrooge. There can be no doubt that Scrooge was the part for which Sir Seymour Hicks was best known and by 1935 he was the actor most identified with the character.

Seen today Scrooge (1935) is an interesting contrast to later films. Those familiar with Charles Dickens' original work will be struck by how much more faithful it is than later film versions of A Christmas Carol. Due to its length Scrooge does omit some pivotal scenes from the novel (most notably the scenes of Scrooge as a young lad at school and as a young man working for Mr. Fezziwig) and other scenes are abbreviated. The setting of one scene (Scrooge's break up with his fiancée Belle) is changed entirely. That having been said, many scenes in the film play out exactly as they did in the novel and the film also includes scenes that are in the novel, but do not appear in many of the other film adaptations. Indeed, it is the only feature film with sound to include the scene of Tiny Tim lying dead in his bed (it was also included in the 1999 TV film version starring Patrick Stewart). Scrooge (1935) must also be given credit for a fairly realistic portrayal of the Victorian London of Mr. Dickens' book, right down to establishing the differences in the social classes. Particularly when compared to MGM's 1938 version starring Reginald Owen (which departed considerably from the novel), Scrooge (1935) is over all a much more faithful film adaptation than most.

Scrooge (1935) also differs from later film versions in that we do not see Jacob Marley's ghost on screen. We only hear Marley's voice and see Scrooge's reactions to his presence (Scrooge obviously sees him, even if we do not). On the surface this does not sound as if it would be very effective, but it actually proves to be, largely because of Sir Seymour Hicks' performance. In addition to Marley's ghost, the film also handles the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Yet To Come a bit differently than other adaptations. The Ghost of Christmas Past is seen only as the spectral outline of the actress Marie Ney, although the Ghost's voice is provided by an uncredited and as yet unidentified male actor. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is only seen as a shadow, an effect that in some ways makes him more terrifying than he is in some other, higher budget adaptations of the tale. Only the Ghost of Christmas Present is portrayed as we generally see him in most adaptations of A Christmas Carol. Played by Oscar Ashe, he is largely as Charles Dickens described him--a large jovial man wearing a fur lined robe with a holly wreath atop his head (Dickens was apparently inspired by early depictions of Father Christmas).

Of course, there can be no doubt that the star of Scrooge (1935) is Sir Seymour Hicks. After over three decades of playing the character,  Mr. Hicks had playing Scrooge refined to an art form. Like other film versions of the character, his Scrooge is suitably gruff and mean spirited; however, unlike some other films versions of the character, Mr. Hicks' Scrooge never succumbs to being merely a caricature. At the film's end, Sir Seymour Hicks convincingly portrays Scrooge's repentance with a good deal of glee, yet still keeps the old miser's transformation realistic. It is a shame that Scrooge (1935) is not better known, as Sir Seymour Hicks gave one of the best performances as Scrooge ever. Donald Calthrop also delivers a fine performance as Bob Cratchit, as does Robert Cochran as Scrooge's nephew Fred.

While Sir Seymour Hicks is the undoubted star of Scrooge (1935), credit must also be given to director Henry Edwards. Mr. Hurst made Scrooge (1935) a very dark and atmospheric film. More so than other film versions of the tale, Scrooge (1935) drives home the point that A Christmas Carol is essentially a ghost story. In some respects Scrooge (1935), with its long shadows and dim lighting, seems closer to Fritz Lang's early films than any of the later adaptations of A Christmas Carol.

Of course, this is not to say that Scrooge (1935) is a perfect film. Sir Seymour Hicks was 64 years old when he made the film and it is sometimes difficult to believe him as the young Scrooge (perhaps this is why the Ghost of Christmas Past sequence is shorter than the others). Mary Glynne, in the role of Scrooge's fiancée Belle, plays her role a bit too broadly, a case of overacting so bad that it is embarrassing to even watch. It must also be pointed out that while the dark atmosphere of the film is one of its virtues, there are times that it seems a bit too dark. Of course, much of this might have to do with the quality of the surviving prints. Turner Classic Movies showed one of the better prints in existence, but it still showed a good deal of wear.

Over all Scrooge (1935) should be counted as one of the best adaptations of A Christmas Carol. It is much more faithful to the novel than some of the more popular versions, and even captures the book's gloomy atmosphere better than most. If anything else, it must be seen for Sir Seymour Hicks' performance as Scrooge, one of the very best ever seen on screen. While any serious classic film buff should see Scrooge (1935) for its historical importance as the first sound adaptation of the tale, it should also be seen as one of the best and most enjoyable adaptations of A Christmas Carol as well.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Visit From St. Nicholas

The Coming of Santa Claus by Thomas Nast, 1872
On 23 December 1823 the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas", now better known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas", was published anonymously in The Troy Sentinel (of Troy, New York).  It would later be reprinted with no credit to an author. In fact, it was not until 1837 that credit for writing the poem would be given to Clement Clarke Moore in print. In 1844 Clement Clarke Moore included "A Visit From St. Nicholas" in his poetry anthology simply entitled Poems. While Clement Clarke Moore has traditionally been regarded as the author of the poem (indeed, before its appearance in Mr. Moore's anthology Poems at least seven other people other than himself had recognised him as the author), some have questioned if "A Visit From St. Nicholas" wasn't written by someone else.

Namely, even during the lifetime of Clement Clarke Moore there were those who believed it was actually written by artist and poet Henry Livingston, Jr. Mr. Livingston's sons as well as one of their neighbour's daughters claimed that Mr. Livingston had read the poem to them as far back as 1807. The family even claimed to have found Mr. Livingston's original handwritten copy, which they would later claim to have lost in a house fire. The dispute over authorship would be carried on by Harold Livingston, Jr. and Clement Clarke Moore's descendants well into the 20th Century.

Even the academic community has argued whether it was Clement Clarke Moore or Harold Livingston, Jr. who wrote "A Visit From St. Nicholas". Donald Foster, professor of English at Vassar College in New York, analysed the text of the poem and concluded that Harold Livingston, Jr. was most likely the author of the poem. Historical document dealer Seth Kaller has disputed Professor Foster's claims, relying on work done by autograph appraiser James Lowe and historical document expert Dr. Joe Nickell.

While we might never be certain who actually wrote "A Visit From St. Nicholas", we can be certain the poem helped shape the conception of Santa Claus in the United States. Much of the groundwork had already been done by Washington Irving, who established Santa Claus as a jolly, rosy cheeked figure who smokes a pipe, drives a sleigh guided by a reindeer,  and goes down chimneys to deliver his gifts. To this the author of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" added a few other details. It is here that Santa Claus is first portrayed as dressed in fur and having "a little round belly". It is also in "A Visit From St. Nicholas" that we are first told the specific number of reindeer who guide his sleigh (eight of them) and we are told their names. Cartoonist Thomas Nast would later further refine the image of Santa Claus starting with cartoons in Harper's Weekly in 1862. Of course, since the image of Santa Claus would be further shaped by artists Fred Mizen and, more significantly, Haddon Sundblom in advertisements for Coca-Cola. Of course, since then there have been numerous songs, films, and even television specials that have added to the legend of Santa, but it all began with Washington Irving and whoever wrote "A Visit From St. Nicholas".

Here is the original poem. Given the controversy over authorship, I am not giving credit except to say it was either Clement Clarke Moore or Harold Livingston, Jr. I will say it was not me (I'm not nearly that old).

 "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (AKA "'Twas the Night Before Christmas")

 'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle,
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night."

Friday, December 20, 2013

"Underneath the Tree" by Kelly Clarkson

I was meaning to write a blog post on Scrooge (1935), the first talkie adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, but my brother wanted to wait until tomorrow to watch it (I have never seen it). That left me with not blog post for today, so I will leave you with a brand new song just released this november. This is "Underneath the Tree" by Kelly Clarkson. I am not a huge fan of Kelly Clarkson's work. Some of her songs I like and others I do not. That having been said, "Underneath the Tree" is one of her songs I happen to like. It seems to me that it owes a good deal to Phil Spector's Wall of Sound and, more specifically, to Darlene Love's classic "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" (which first appeared on the album A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records in 1963).  While "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home" centres on someone who's lover is gone for the holiday, "Underneath the Tree" centres on someone whose lover has returned home for the holiday. Anyhow, without further ado, here is "Underneath the Tree" by Kelly Clarkson.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

"Christmas is All Around" from Love Actually

One of my favourite modern Christmas songs did not start out as a Christmas song. One of the many subplots in the film Love Actually (2003) centres around washed up rock star Billy Mack (played by Bill Nighy), who has recorded a cover of The Troggs' classic "Love is All Around" with  changes to the song to fit the holiday season right down to its title ("Christmas is All Around"). The song "Christmas is All Around" then serves as a bit of a leitmotif throughout Love Actually.

The original song was written by The Troggs' lead vocalist and composer Reg Presley in 1967 It was released in October 1967 in the United Kingdom and peaked on the singles chart there at #5 on 22 November 1967. It was released a little later in the United States, where it proved to be The Troggs' only huge hit besides "Wild Thing". It entered the Billboard Hot 100 at #98 on 24 February 1968 and peaked at #7 on 18 May 1968. In all it spent a phenomenal 16 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100.

"Love is All Around" would be covered several over the years, with versions by as R.E.M. and Sort Sol among many other bands covering the song. By far the most successful cover of "Love is All Around" would be the version recorded by Wet Wet Wet in January 1994 and released on 9 May 1994.  It reached the #1 spot on 29 May 1994, only three weeks after its release. It remained at #1 for a phenomenal 15 weeks, making it the second longest song to do so. Wet Wet Wet's version of "Love is All Around" also hit #1 on singles charts in Australia, Austria, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden. Strangely enough, it only managed to hit #41 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States.

It would be Wet Wet Wet's cover of "Love is All Around" that would lead to the creation of "Christmas is All Around" for Love Actually. Richard Curtis had written the screenplay for Four Weddings and a Funeral (2004), in which Wet Wet Wet's version is featured prominently. For Love Actually, which he directed and wrote the screenplay for, Mr Curtis thought it would be funny to start the film by making them listen to essentially the same song again. Of course, lyrically the song was substantially changed, with many of the lines altered so the song had a Yuletide theme. For instance, the lines "So if you really love me/Come on and let it show" were changed to "So if you really love Christmas/Come on and let it snow".

"Christmas is All Around" was included on the Love Actually soundtrack, which not only broke the top 40 of Billboard 200 chart in the United States, but went to #2 on the Billboard soundtracks chart as well. Ironically, while the Wet Wet Wet version of "Love is All Around' is now largely forgotten in the United States, the song "Christmas is All Around" has developed a rather substantial cult following!

Without further ado, then, here is Billy Mack's cover of The Troggs'  "Love is All Around","Christmas is All Around".

Christmas Is All Around from Clips on Vimeo.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

"Merry Christmas Will Do" by Material Issue

One of my favourite songs for the holidays is one that is not exactly well known. "Merry Christmas Will Do" is a song by power pop trio Material Issue, perhaps best known for the songs "Valerie Loves Me" and "What Girls Want" "Merry Christmas Will Do" was included on the Christmas compilation album Yuletunes - A Collection of Alternative Pop Christmas Songs, which was released on 3 December 1991. Since there isn't a proper video for the song I decided to make my own using clips from my two favourite Yuletide films, Christmas in Connecticut and It's a Wonderful Life. Without further ado, then, here is Material Issue with "Merry Christmas Will Do".

Merry Christmas Will Do by Material Issue from Terence Towles Canote on Vimeo.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Review of The Mitford Society (Volume 1)

For siblings the Mitford sisters, the famous daughters of  David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale and Sydney Bowles, were a diverse lot. They consisted of a renowned novelist and biographer, a devotee of rural life, a celebrated beauty who would become the wife of British Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, a Nazi sympathiser, a Communist who became a celebrated author and activist in the United States, and a duchess who would save one of England's great houses. While the Mitford sisters were very different from each other, they also had several things in common. They were all beautiful, intelligent, articulate, and possessed a wicked sense of humour. They may well have been the most famous set of sisters of the 20th Century, alternately celebrated and vilified. One thing for certain could be said of the Mitford girls--they were never boring.

Given the fame and notoriety of the Mitford sisters, it should come as no surprise that there are a large number of people who continue to be fascinated by them to this day. Indeed, it was around 1979 that the the London Evening Standard coined the term "the Mitford industry" to describe the ongoing creation of books, documentary films, and even works of fiction centred on the Mitford girls.  Today there is even an online community dedicated to the study of the Mitford sisters and their lives. The Mitford Society recently published their first annual, The Mitford Society (Volume 1). The annual was edited by Lyndsy Spence, author of The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life.

Like the Mitford sisters themselves, The Mitford Society (Volume 1) cannot easily be described in a few words. It is perhaps simplest to describe it as a compilation of Mitford related articles, features, personal reminiscences,  interviews, photographs, and even a mystery short story. Miss Spence assembled an impressive array of writers for the Mitford Society's first annual, including Meredith Whitford (author of Jessica Mitford: Churchill's Rebel), Rebecca McWattie (who has had articles published in both Best of British Magazine, Vintage Life, and other publications), Victor Olliver (astrologer for The Lady Magazine and author of the novel Curtains), Willie Orr (author of Deer Forests, Landlords and Crofters as well as Discovering Argyll, Mull and Iona), and others.

Given its contributors it should come as no surprise there is a good deal of truly great material to be found in The Mitford Society (Volume 1).  Meredith Whitford's article on Jessica Mitford's first husband, Esmond Romilly, is a particularly revealing piece that explodes the myth that he was merely "a wastrel nephew of Winston Churchill". In "Understanding Unity" Meems Ellenberg offers a good deal of insight into the most controversial of the Mitford sisters. In "Laying the Foundations of the Mitford Industry" by David Ronneburg examines the question of whether the Mitford Industry developed through circumstance or it was created by design. The editor of The Mtiford Society (Volume 1), Lyndsy Spence, also contributed pieces to the book, including one of interest to classic film fans. "In The Pursuit of Love: The perils of a would-be film" Miss Spence reveals how The Pursuit of Love was almost made into a Hollywood movie in the Forties. What makes The Mitford Society (Volume 1) a much more remarkable book is the sheer variety of its contents. In addition to serious articles there are also pieces of a lighter and even more humorous nature. Written by Madame Arcati in séance with Victor Olliver, "Stargazing with the Mifords" gives the horoscopes of each of the Mitford sisters in Madame Arcati's humorous fashion. As mentioned earlier, there is even a murder mystery, "Murder in the Hons Cupboard" by Meredith Whitford and Lyndsy Spence. In the interest of full disclosure, I am obligated to mention that I contributed an article to The Mitford Society (Volume 1) on the impact of Jessica Mitford's book The American Way of Death on American pop culture.

There is very little with regards to the Mitford sisters that is not covered in The Mitford Society (Volume 1). The various articles deal with such subjects as their books, their fashion sense, their relationships, and their lives. There are interviews with authors Meredith Whitford,  Deanna Raybourn, Tessa Arlen, and  Judith Kinghorn, as well as pieces on those with a connection to the Mitfords, such as Mariga Guinness and Diana Skeffington. While The Mitford Society (Volume 1) is not a long book, it is certainly a comprehensive one.

The variety of pieces in The Mitford Society (Volume 1) and the detail with which they are written makes it a great addition to the library of anyone interested in the Mitford girls and must read for those positively obsessed with them. If the high quality of The Mitford Society (Volume 1) is any indication, one can hope that there are many more similar annuals in the years to come.

The Mitford Society (Volume 1) is available at Amazon and other places where fine books are sold. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Late, Great Peter O'Toole

Legendary actor Peter O'Toole died Saturday, 14 December 2013, at the age of 81 after an extended illness. He played T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), King Henry II in Becket (1964), and King Henry II in The Lion in Winter among many other great roles. He was nominated 8 times for Oscars in the acting categories, but did not win any other them, although he was given an Honorary Award in 2003.

Even Peter O'Toole was uncertain of his birth date or his place of birth. While he knew he was born in 1932 and he accepted 2 August 1932 as his birthday, an Irish birth certificate gave his month of birth as June. As to where he was born, it was either Connemara, County Galway, the Republic of Ireland or Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. Regardless, he grew up in Leeds. His father was an Irish metal plater, racecourse bookmaker, and football player. His mother was a Scottish nurse. During World War II he was evacuated from Leeds. He attended St Joseph's Secondary School in  Holbeck, Leeds. After leaving school he took work at the Yorkshire Evening News, where he worked as a warehouseman, a copy boy, a photographer's assistant, and finally a reporter and photographer. Eventually his editor told him, "You'll never make a reporter--try something else." Mr. O'Toole then took up acting. He made his debut in Aloma of the South Seas. At Leeds' Civic Theatre he was cast in the lead role in an adaptation of  Ivan Turgenev's novel Fathers and Sons.

His acting career was interrupted by his National Service, which he completed  in the Royal Navy where he served as a signaller. After leaving the Navy he hitch-hiked to London where he eventually made his way to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. By chance he met acting legend Sir Kenneth Barnes there, who encouraged him to audition. As a result Mr. O'Toole received a full scholarship at RADA. Among his fellow students were . Albert Finney and Alan Bates. After graduating he joined the Bristol Old Vic's repertory company. He remained there for three and a half years. Afterwards he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company.

It was in 1956 that Peter O'Toole made his television debut in an episode of The Scarlet Pimpernel. He made his film debut in Kidnapped in 1960. Later in the same year he appeared in the films The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1960) and The Savage Innocents (1960). He also appeared in episodes of the television show Rendezvous . He was then cast in his breakthrough role as T. E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). He received his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance in the film. He followed Lawrence of Arabia with Becket (1964) in which he played King Henry II, for which he received his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Over the next several years Peter O'Toole appeared in such films as Lord Jim (1965), What's New Pussycat (1965), How to Steal a Million (1966), The Bible: In the Beginning (1966), The Night of the Generals (1967) , and Casino Royale (1967). He appeared in an episode of ITV Play of the Week.In 1968 he starred in The Lion in Winter, for which he received another Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. It was one of the few times an actor would be nominated twice for an Academy Award for playing the same role (Mr. O'Toole having previously played King Henry II in Becket). He close the Sixties starring in Great Catherine (1968), the ill fated musical Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), and Country Dance (1970). He appeared on stage in Waiting for Godot at Dublin's Abbey Theatre in 1970.

The Seventies would turn out to be a mixed bag for Peter O'Toole. He appeared in The Ruling Class (1972), for which he received another Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role, in addition to the well received Man Friday (1975). He also received another Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role for The Stunt Man (1980). Unfortunately he also appeared in several films that fared poorly at the box office, fared poorly with critics, or both, including the notorious Man of La Mancha (1972), Rosebud (1975), Foxtrot (1976), Zulu Dawn (1979), and Caligula (1980). He appeared on the TV series Strumpet City (1980) as well as the mini-series Masada.

The Eighties would see Mr. O'Toole receive yet another Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role for My Favourite Year (1982). He appeared in the ill fated film Supergirl (1984) as well as the films Creator (1985), Club Paradise (1986), High Spirits (1988), Up to Date (1989), Wings of Fame (1990), and The Rainbow Thief (1990). He had a major role in the 1988 winner for the Oscar for Best Picture (as well as several others) The Last Emperor (1987). On television he provided the voice of Sherlock Holmes in a series of animated adventures of the legendary detective. He appeared in the TV adaptations of Man and Superman, Pygmalion, and Kim. He also appeared on the TV series Uncle Silas. In 1987 he appeared on Broadway in a revival of Pygmalion.

The Nineties saw Mr. O'Toole do a good deal of television. He appeared in the TV show Civvies, as well as the mini-series Heaven and Hell: North and South Book III and the TV films Gulliver's Travels, Heavy Weather, and Coming Home. He appeared in the films King Ralph (1991), Isabelle Eberhardt (1991), Rebecca's Daughters (1992), The Seventh Coin (1993), FairyTale: A True Story (1997), Phantoms (1998), and Molokai (1999).

In the Naughts Peter O'Toole received one last Oscar nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for Venus (2006). He provided the voice of Anton Ego in the Pixar film Ratatouille (2007). He also appeared in the films Global Heresy (2002), The Final Curtain (2002), Bright Young Things (2003), Troy (2004), Lassie (2005), One Night with the King (2006), Stardust (2007), Dean Spanley (2008), Thomas Kinkade's Christmas Cottage (2008), and Eager to Die (2010). He appeared in the TV series The Education of Max Bickford, Casanova, The Tudors, and The Iron Road. In the Teens he appeared in the films For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada (2012) and The Whole World at Our Feet (2013). His last film, Katherine of Alexandria, will be released next year.

Peter O'Toole was a remarkable actor. In fact, he holds the record as the male actor to be nominated the most times for the Oscar for Best Actor in Lead Role without ever having won. Given the quality of his work, Mr. O'Toole should have won the Oscar many times over. Such was his skill as an actor that he could deliver a good performance even in the worst of films. A perfect example of this is 1969's musical Goodbye, Mr. Chips. The script was so dull that the film could have been used as a soporific. For the most part the songs were absolutely horrible. And yet Peter O'Toole delivered a great performance in the lead role of Arthur Chipping (not surprisingly, he received another Oscar nomination for the role). Quite simply, even when the film was beneath him, Mr. O'Toole delivered a great performance.

Of course, Peter O'Toole was at his best in truly great films, and he made quite a few. What is more, he played a variety of roles in those films. He may be best known for having played T. E. Lawrence, but he also played such diverse roles as King Henry II (twice, once in Becket and once in The Lion in Winter), art expert Simon Dermott in How to Steal a Million,  General Tanz in Night of the Generals, ageing actor Alan Swann in My Favourite Year, and the voice of egotistical food critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille. Despite the fact that these roles were each very different, Mr. O'Toole performed every one of the them convincingly and with conviction. Few actors had his track record for great performances and few actor had Mr. O'Toole's talent.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Late Great Joan Fontaine: More Than The 2nd Mrs.de Winter

Joan de Havilland, better known by her stage name Joan Fontaine, had a truly singular career. At age 24 she became the youngest winner of the Oscar for Best Actress at the time when she took home the award for her performance in Suspicion. Her win for her performance in Suspicion would make her the only actor to ever win an Academy Award for acting in an Alfred Hitchcock film. She and her sister Olivia de Havilland are the only siblings to have both won Oscars for Best Actress. Over the years she appeared in some truly legendary films, including The Women (1939), Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), Jane Eyre (1943), and many others. Sadly, Joan Fontaine died today, 15 December 2013, at the age of 96.

Joan Fontaine was born Joan de Havilland on 22 October 1917 to English parents in Tokyo, Japan. Her father, Walter de Havilland, was a patent attorney. Her mother, Lilian (born Lilian Augusta Ruse) had trained in acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and performed on stage before giving up her career to go to Japan with her husband. She would later return to acting under the name Lillian Fontaine, appearing in such films as The Lost Weekend (1945) and The Bigamist (1954). Her older sister, Olivia de Havilland, was born a little over a year before she was. The de Havilland sisters' parents separated in 1919, although their divorce would not be finalised until 1925. Neither Olivia nor Joan were particularly healthy children and so Lilian de Havilland moved to Saratoga, California in hope that the climate would be better for them. There Joan de Havilland attended Los Gatos High School. When she was 16 years old she went to Japan to be with her father. There she attended the American School in Japan, from which she graduated in 1935.

After graduating from the American School in Japan, Joan de Havilland returned to California. She made her stage debut in a production of the play Call It a Day.  She was soon signed to a contract with RKO and made her screen debut in the film No More Ladies using the screen name "Joan Burfield". She did not remain "Joan Burfield" long as she soon took the stage name "Joan Fontaine," taking her stepfather's surname. She appeared in the films A Million to One (1937) and Quality Street (1937) before receiving her first starring role in The Man Who Found Himself (1937).  Thereafter she was the female lead in You Can't Beat Love (1937) and Music for Madame (1937). She appeared in Damsel in Distress in 1937 alongside Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but sadly the film did poorly at the box office. She starred in the films Maid's Night Out (1938), Blond Cheat (1938), Sky Giant (1938), and The Duke of West Point (1938), and played the female lead in Gunga Din (1939). Unfortunately, given the poor box office performance of Miss Fontaine's films (except for Gunga Din), RKO decided not to renew her contract in 1939.

Fortunately, Joan Fontaine's luck was about to change. In 1939 she appeared in MGM's adaptation of the play The Women. While it was a small role, it was a significant one. What is more The Women would lead Miss Fontaine being cast in what would become her best known role. Alfred Hitchcock saw her performance in The Women and as a result she was cast in the lead role of the second Mrs. de Winter in his adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1940). It was a star making role and Miss Fontaine was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Alfred Hitchcock would call upon Joan Fontaine's services again, casting her as the female lead in Suspicion (1941). For her role in the film she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. She starred in the film This Above All (1942) before playing the lead role in The Constant Nymph (1943), for which she was once again nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Lead Role.

Joan Fontaine played the lead role in the 1942 adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre and it would be followed by the adaptation of another Daphne du Maurier novel, Frenchman's Creek. Thereafter Miss Fontaine was cast in more costume melodramas, including Ivy (1947), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), and The Emperor Waltz (1948). She also appeared in the comedies, The Affairs of Susan (1945) and You Gotta Stay Happy (1948), as well as the drama From This Day Forward (1946). Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948) marked Miss Fontaine's first film noir, a genre in which she would visit again in such films as Born to Be Bad (1950), The Bigamist, and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956).  The Fifties would see Miss Fontaine appear in a variety of genres of film. She returned to costume drama with Ivanhoe (1952) and Decameron Nights (1953). She appeared in the comedies Darling, How Could You! (1951) and Casanova's Big Night (1954) She also appeared in such dramas as Something to Live For (1952), Serenade (1956), Island in the Sun (1957), Until They Sail (1957), and A Certain Smile (1958).

In 1953 Joan Fontaine made her television debut in an episode of Four Star Playhouse. As the Fifties progressed she appeared more and more on television, making guest appearances on The Ford Television Theatre, Star Stage, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, Startime, Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond, and G.E. Theatre. She also appeared on Broadway in Tea and Sympathy. The Sixties would see Miss Fontaine make her final feature films: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), Tender Is the Night (1962), and her very last feature film, Hammer Films' The Witches (1966). She guest starred on such shows as Checkmate, The Dick Powell Show, Kraft Mystery Theatre, Wagon Train, and The Bing Crosby Show. In 1970 she appeared on Broadway in the play Forty Carats.

Following Joan Fontaine's last feature film, The Witches she made only a few more appearances. She guest starred on the TV shows Cannon, Aloha Paradise, The Love Boat, Bare Essence, and Hotel. She appeared in four episodes of the daytime soap opera Ryan's Hope, as well as the 1986 mini-series Crossings. Her last appearance was in the TV film Good King Wenceslas in 1994.

Just as Vivien Leigh remains forever identified with Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind and Margaret Lockwood with Barbara Worth in The Wicked Lady, there can be no doubt that Joan Fontaine will be forever identified with the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca.  That having been said, like Miss Leigh and Miss Lockwood, Joan Fontaine's career was much more than a single role She was a versatile actress who could and did play a wide variety of roles. She was well know for her portrayals of frail and often neurotic women. These were roles that she played very well, and there can be no doubt that her performance in Suspicion numbers among the best performance sin film history. At the same time, many of Miss Fontaine's heroines, although they may have had low self esteem, often revealed the hidden steel in their veins in the very end. This is certainly the case with her most famous role, that of the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca, as well as her roles in Jane Eyre and in her final feature film The Witches.

Of course, Joan Fontaine played more than timid and often neurotic heroines in her career. She played a beautiful and headstrong English lady in love with a French pirate in Frenchman's Creek. She played femmes fatales in both Ivy and Born to Be Bad. At 26 years of age Miss Fontaine could be convincing even as a lovestruck teenager in The Constant Nymph. Such was the talent of Joan Fontaine that she could often excel in roles that lesser actresses might find daunting. In Letter from an Unknown Woman she convincingly portrayed the lead character of Lisa from a teenager to a married adult woman. She played the difficult role of an alcoholic actress in Something to Live For and did it very well. Miss Fontaine was as adept at comedy as she was drama. She was one of the best things about the Bob Hope film Casanova's Big Night and was hilarious in The Affairs of Susan. Miss Fontaine could give great performances even when the material was beneath her. She was easily the best thing about Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in her role as Dr. Susan Hiller.

On a personal note I have to say that Joan Fontaine was always one of my favourite actresses and I considered her one of the last true film stars. Never mind that she was beautiful and extremely talented, she also had a magnetism on the screen that impelled one to watch her. Even in the worst of her films Joan Fontaine remained a delight to watch. Of course, what is not widely known is that Joan Fontaine was more than an actress. She was a licensed pilot, a skilled horsewoman, a Cordon Bleu chef, a  licensed interior decorator, an accomplished golfer, and even a champion balloonist. And while I never had the opportunity to interact with her, from those I know who have I know that Miss Fontaine was one of the sweetest, kindest, and most considerate women one could ever hope to know. An immensely talented actress and a woman of many skills, Joan Fontaine was a truly great lady of the silver screen.