Friday, February 1, 2013

Patty Andrews R.I.P.

Patty Andrews, who with her two older sisters formed the Andrews Sisters, died 30 January 2013 at the age of 94. Patty sang lead with the group.

Patty Andrews was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota on 16 February 1918. She loved music when she was growing up. It was Maxene who suggested that the three sisters form a singing group. They modelled their act after the close harmony group the Boswell Sisters.   She was only 12 when the Andrew Sisters won a talent competition at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis and only 14 when they started performing publicly at county fairs and in vaudeville theatres. In 1937 they were signed by Decca Records. It was later that year that they had their first hit wit their version of "Bei Mir Bistu Shein." It would be followed by more hits from 1938 to 1940, including "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "Tu-li-Tulip Time," "Hold Tight, Hold Tight," "Beer Barrel Polka (Roll Out the Barrel)," "Say Si Si (Para Vigo Me Voy)," "The Woodpecker Song," "Ferryboat Serenade," "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar."  

Arguably the peak of the Andrews Sisters' career was during World War II. It was in 1941 that the group released what would become the song with which they were most identified. While "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" only went to #6 on the Billboard chart, it would prove to be their signature song and one that has lasted through the years. It has been covered by artists from Bette Midler to the Puppini Sisters. From 1942 to 1946 the Andrews Sisters regularly hit the top ten of the Billboard charts. Their hits during this period included "(I'll Be With You) In Apple Blossom Time," "Aurora," "The Shrine of St. Cecilia," "Three Little Sisters," "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree,"   "Strip Polka," "Shoo-Shoo Baby," "Rum and Coca Cola," and "Money Is the Root of All Evil."

The Andrews would also appear in movies. In 1940 they were signed by Universal Pictures. Over the next seven years they appeared in such films as Argentine Nights (1940), Buck Privates (1941), In the Navy (1941), Follow the Boys (1944), Hollywood Canteen (1944), and Road to Rio (1947) .

While The Andrews Sisters did not hit the top ten of the Billboard singles chart quite as often, their career remained very healthy in the late Forties and into the early Fifties. They had such hits during the period as "Near You," "Civilization (Bongo, Bongo, Bongo)"(with Danny Kaye), "Toolie Oolie Doolie (The Yodel Polka)," "Underneath the Arches," "You Call Everybody Darling," "I Can Dream, Can't I," "I Wanna Be Loved," and "A Penny a Kiss, a Penny a Hug." In 1951 Patty Andrews decided to pursue a solo career and left the group. She had hits of her own with "Too Young" in 1951 and with "Suddenly There's a Valley" in 1955.  

The Andrews Sisters reunited in 1956 and signed a contract with Capitol Records, but their career never recovered. The singles and albums they released over the next several years did not chart. In 1967 the eldest sister, LaVerne, died of cancer. The remaining Andrews Sisters then broke up. Patty continued to perform solo.

The Andrews Sisters made a bit of a comeback in the Seventies. In 1971 Patty appeared in the revue Victory Canteen.  In 1974 Patty and Maxene appeared together in the Broadway, World War II homgage Over Here. In the late Seventies Patty Andrews regularly appeared as a judge on The Gong Show. In 1981 Patty began touring as a solo act.   U

ntil The Supremes in the Sixties, The Andrews Sisters were the most popular female vocal group of the 20th Century. Even after The Supremes, The Andrews Sisters could well be the most imitated female vocal group of all time. The McGuire Sisters, The Lennon Sisters, The Manhattan Dolls, and The Puppini Sisters owe something to the Andrews Sisters. Even male vocal groups were influenced by them, from The Four Freshmen to The Crewcuts. The Andrews Sisters influenced solo artists, including Mel Tormé, Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, and Christina Aguilera.   The reason the Andrews Sisters proved so influential is that they were innovative. They might have started out as imitators of the Boswell Sisters, but they went well beyond that. They combined close harmony with scat singing, and often sang both swiftly and powerfully. The end result was that they could easily overtake any band with which they sang. Beyond these stylistic innovations, the Andrews Sisters were also pioneers in new genres.  While they are primarily identified with boogie woogie and swing, some of their songs could be considered early examples of jump blues and rhythm and blues. As the Andrews Sisters' lead vocalist, Patty Andrews was then an influence on popular music in the latter half of the 20th Century and beyond.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Who Was That Masked Man?: The Lone Ranger Turns 80

It was 80 years ago yesterday that a brand new radio show made its debut on WXYZ in Detroit, Michigan. It was The Lone Ranger, and over the years it would become one of the most successful radio shows of all time. It would not be long before the character would be adapted to other media. In the end The Lone Ranger would appear in a pulp magazine, two movie serials, comic books, a highly successful television series (now perhaps the best known incarnation of The Lone Ranger), three feature films (with another one on the way), and two Saturday morning cartoons. Merchandising for The Lone Ranger in the 20th Century was huge, with everything from Halloween costumes to play sets to games to lunch boxes on the market. One would be hard pressed to find a character as successful as The Lone Ranger.

The creation of The Lone Ranger remains a matter of debate. The owner of WXYZ George W. Trendle often took credit for the character's creation, although there is evidence to suggest that it may well have been writer Fran Striker (who wrote most of the radio show).  A letter from the very date of the debut of The Lone Ranger, 30 January 1933, from George W. Trendle to Fran Striker, clearly credits Mr. Striker as the creator of the character. A year later, however, Fran Striker signed over his rights to The Lone Ranger and George W. Trendle assumed credit as the show's creator. While precisely who created The Lone Ranger would remain a subject of controversy for decades, it seems like that both men, as well as others, had a role to play in the creation of the character.

The roots of The Lone Ranger go back to circumstances surrounding George W.  Trendle's radio station WXYZ. The station was opened in 1925 as WGHP in Detroit and eventually became a CBS affiliate. In 1930 it was  bought by George W. Trendle's Kunsky-Trendle Broadcasting and received the new call letters WXYZ. Unfortunately, in the early days of the Depression WXYZ was not doing particularly well. George W. Trendle thought that a drama broadcast in the evenings would bring more money into the station than if they simply depended upon programming from CBS. Unfortunately, CBS did not like the idea of George producing a radio show independent of the network. As a result in June 1932 WXYZ ended its affiliation with CBS. No longer affiliated with a network, WXYZ then went to work producing its own radio dramas, such as the police drama Manhunters and the comedy Hank and Honey.

It was later in 1932 that George W. Trendle decided that WXYZ needed a Western. It was sometime during December 1932 that Mr. Trendle called together his staff to develop a Western series. Given there is no transcript for that meeting, it can not be said with any certainty who attended, much less who came up with what ideas. Similarly, it seems apparent that The Lone Ranger was not created all at once at that meeting, but developed over time. Various sources do credit George W. Trendle with coming up with certain key concepts behind The Lone Ranger. George W. Trendle wanted a hero who was a cross between Robin Hood and Zorro, but at the same time was honest, upstanding, and pure of heart. Various sources also suggested that it was George Trendle who wanted his hero to be masked and who thought he should be a former Texas Ranger. It was someone else who suggested that he ride a white horse and still later the idea of the hero using silver bullets was suggested. Precisely who named the character "The Lone Ranger" has been lost in the annals of history.

Following these early meetings The Lone Ranger was handed off to director James Jewell and writer Fran Striker for further development. It was Jim Jewell who chose "The William Tell Overture" as the show's theme song (Fran Striker had wanted "Beyond the Blue Horizon"). In the earliest episodes The Lone Ranger was literally a lone ranger--he travelled the West alone fighting outlaws. It was James Jewell who suggested to Fran Striker that The Lone Ranger should have a partner, "an Indian halfbreed" who would help him. Fran Striker then created the character of Tonto. Initially Tonto was an old wise man, although eventually he would evolve into a character who was about the same age as The Lone Ranger. Initially The Lone Ranger was also rather violent, having no problem killing bad guys. George W. Trendle put a stop to this, making it clear that he did not want The Lone Ranger to ever shoot to kill, but only to disarm or wound his opponents.

Despite the controversy over whether it was George W. Trendle or Fran Striker who created The Lone Ranger, it would appear that the show was created by committee. While Mr. Trendle would provide the initial idea for the show, various staffers at WXYZ would contribute their own ideas, while director James Jewell and writer Fran Striker would flesh it out. In some respects it can be easily understood why both George W. Trendle and Fran Striker wanted to take credit for the show's creation. As the owner of WXYZ who came up with the idea for a Western series, George W. Trendle probably felt he should have credit for the character's creation. As the writer of The Loner Ranger, who fleshed out the show and its characters, Fran Striker probably felt he should receive the credit. Regardless, it appears both men, as well as director James Jewell and others at WXYZ, played a role in the show's creation.

Regardless of who created The Lone Ranger, the show proved a recipe for success. The background of The Lone Ranger varied only a little over the years. Six Texas Rangers were ambushed by outlaw Butch Cavendish and his gang. The only survivor, Reid (whose first name was never given on the show) of the ambush is later discovered by Tonto. Tonto nursed Reid back to health and the two men dug six graves for the rangers, the extra one so that Cavendish would think all of the rangers had perished. Tonto then creates a mask from the vest of one of the dead rangers (Reid's brother, Captain Daniel Reid) to keep Reid's identity hidden. The two then bring the Cavendish gang to justice and continue fighting crime throughout the West.

The Lone Ranger proved phenomenally successful not long after its debut. It would become one of the cornerstones of the Mutual Broadcasting System when that network was formed by WOR in Newark, New Jersey, WGN in Chicago, and WXYZ. It would later move to the NBC Blue Network, which would become ABC after the FCC forced NBC to divest itself of it due to anti-trust concerns. In the meantime it would be adapted to other media. In fact, the show would be successful enough to produce a spin off of a sort. In many respects The Green Hornet was essentially The Lone Ranger set in modern times. The Green Hornet was The Lone Ranger's great nephew, newspaper publisher Britt Reid. With his valet Kato he fought crime as The Green Hornet. Like The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet used a special weapon (a gas gun) and had a special means of transportation, the car Black Beauty. The Green Hornet debuted on 31 January 1936,  a day after the third birthday of  The Lone Ranger.

As mentioned above, it would not be long before The Lone Ranger was adapted to other media. The Lone Ranger appeared in his first Big Little book in 1935, The Lone Ranger and His Horse Silver. Big Little Books featuring The Lone Ranger would continue to be published into the Sixties. The Lone Ranger would be adapted into other books as well. In 1936 the novel The Lone Ranger by Gaylord Dubois was published. It was followed by 17 more novels, which were written by Fran Striker himself.  From April 1937 to November 1937 Trojan Publishing published 8 issues of The Lone Ranger Magazine.

Of course, it was inevitable that The Lone Ranger would reach the big screen. In 1938 Republic Pictures released the first movie serial featuring the Masked Man, The Lone Ranger. The Lone Ranger's origin not having been established yet, the serial is very different from The Lone Ranger mythos as we know it. As the plot unfolds there are six different men who could possibly be The Lone Ranger. In 1939 Republic Pictures released a second "Lone Ranger" serial. The Lone Ranger Rides Again also departed from what would later be the established mythos of the show, with the Masked Man being homesteader Bill Andrews (played by Robert Livingston).

Not only was The Lone Ranger adapted into movie serials, but also into a newspaper comic strip as well. In  September 1938 King Features Syndicate distributed a Lone Ranger comic strip. It proved fairly successful, running until 1971. The Lone Ranger would also find its way into comic books. The Lone Ranger would first appear in comic books in 1939, in three issues of Large Feature Comics published by Dell Comics. In 1940 David McKay Publications began reprinting The Lone Ranger newspaper comic strip in its various comic book titles. The reprints would continue to appear in various McKay publications until 1950. In 1945 Dell Comics featured The Lone Ranger in their Four Colour Series. It was in 1948 that Dell Comics gave the Masked Man his own title, The Lone Ranger. Initially Dell's Lone Ranger comic book consisted of newspaper reprints, but in 1951 it began featuring all news stories. That same year Tonto received his own comic book, which lasted for 33 issues. Even Silver would receive his own comic book in 1952, which lasted for 34 issues. Dell's The Lone Ranger lasted until 1962. In 1964 Gold Key started its own Lone Ranger comic book, reprinting material from Dell's Lone Ranger until 1975 when it started featuring new material. Gold Key's Lone Ranger comic book ended in 1977. Since then both Topps Comics in the Nineties and Dynamite Entertainment in the Naughts published Lone Ranger comic books.

Of course, the most famous incarnation of The Lone Ranger is perhaps the television series starring Clayton Moore (except for two years in which the Masked Man was played by John Hart) and Jay Silverheels. George W. Trendle hired former MGM film producer Jack Chertok (who would go onto produce the TV shows Sky King, My Favourite Martian, and My Living Doll) to produce the television series. It made its debut in 1949 on ABC. The Lone Ranger TV show proved very popular; in the early Fifties it was the only ABC show to appear in the 30 top rated programmes for the  year. Even when the show was in its first run Clayton Moore became identified with the role. When Clayton Moore had a dispute with the producers in 1952, he was replaced by John Hart. Audiences did not accept John Hart as The Lone Ranger. Not only did Clayton Moore return to the role in 1954, but the episodes featuring John Hart would not be seen again until the Eighties. The Lone Ranger ran until 1956. The reruns air in syndication to this day.

The Lone Ranger TV show would prove so popular that it would lead to the Masked Man's first appearance in a feature film. The Lone Ranger (1956) was a colour film produced by Wrather Productions and released by Warner Brothers. The film would prove successful enough to warrant a sequel, The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958).  Both starred Clayton Moore as The Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto. The last feature film adaptation of The Lone Ranger  was  The Legend of the Lone Ranger in 1981. The film caused controversy among fans when the producers filed suit against Clayton Moore to keep him from appearing as The Lone Ranger anywhere. In the end The Legend of the Lone Ranger would prove to be a failure with both audiences and critics. It perhaps did not help that star Klinton Spilsbury's voice had to be re-dubbed by James Keach. Later this year a new feature film, The Lone Ranger, will be released, starring Armie Hammer as The Lone Ranger and Johnny Depp as Tonto.

The Lone Ranger would also be the subject of two Saturday morning cartoons. The first was The Lone Ranger, produced by Format Films and running from 1966 to 1968. It featured Michael Rye as the voice of The Lone Ranger and Shepard Menken as Tonto. It also featured some famous actors as guest voices, including Hans Conried,  Agnes Moorehead, and Paul Winchell. The series differed a great deal from most interpretations of The Lone Ranger in that it had a science fantasy bent much like the contemporaneous prime time series The Wild Wild West. Indeed, on the show The Lone Ranger's archnemesis was Tiny Tom (voiced by Dick Beals), a little person and criminal mastermind not unlike Dr. Miguelito Loveless on The Wild Wild West. The second Lone Ranger animated series was produced by Filmation and ran from 1980 to 1982. It featured William Conrad as The Lone Ranger and Ivan Naranjo as Tonto.  This series had a much more realistic tone than the Sixties series, with The Lone Ranger and Tonto firmly rooted in the context of the Old West.

The Lone Ranger would be adapted to television one more time, in a television movie meant to serve as a pilot for a prospective series. Airing on The WB, it starred Chad Michael Murray as The Lone Ranger and Nathaniel Arcand as Tonto. The TV movie departed from the Lone Ranger mythos a great deal, not only altering his origin, but also his identity (rather than a Ranger named Reid, he was law student named Luke Hartman).

 Beginning with the radio show in 1933, The Lone Ranger would prove to be one of the most successful franchises of all time. In many respects the appeal of The Lone Ranger is easy to see. While characters such as Robin Hood and Zorro influenced his creation, The Lone Ranger would appear to be a modern day Percival or Galahad. The Lone Ranger never shot to kill, treated everyone with respect, and always sought to help others. In many respects, one can imagine he was what most boys from the Thirties to the Fifties wanted to be. Of course, this is not to say that The Lone Ranger did not have its flaws. For much of the franchise's history Tonto was something of a stereotype, speaking in broken English and never really displaying any cultural traits of his tribe (the Potawatomi on the radio show, the Apache in other sources, and often some unidentified tribe). That having been said, when compared to other portrayals of Native Americans in the mid-20th Century, Tonto was a more positive one than most. He was intelligent, resourceful, and for most of the franchise's history as The Lone Ranger's equal.

Regardless, in the end The Lone Ranger would prove to be one of the most successful fictional characters of the 20th Century. It must be pointed out that he was also perhaps one of the most influential. Pre-dated only by a few characters such as Zorro and The Shadow, The Lone Ranger can be seen as one of the earliest superheroes. His influence would then extend well beyond his great nephew, The Green Hornet. The convention of concealing one's identity, the use of special weapons (in The Lone Ranger's case, silver bullets), the use of a special mode of transportation (the horse Silver), and even a partner to assist in crimefighting would become common place in superhero comic books from the Golden Age to today. Indeed, while Zorro and The Shadow have often been acknowledged as an influence on Batman, one has to wonder that The Lone Ranger wasn't as well. Both use special weapons (indeed, Batman has a whole arsenal of them, from Batarangs to capsules containing gas), both have special modes of transportation (in Batman's case, the Batmobile), and both have partners who help them in their fight against crime (in Batman's case, Robin).  One has to wonder how many other superheroes weren't also influenced by The Lone Ranger.

While The Lone Ranger is not nearly as popular he once was, as the production of a new movie shows, he remains a popular character. The TV series starring Clayton Moore are rerun to this day, while comic books featuring the Masked Man have been published as recently as 2010. One can still buy a Lone Ranger costume come each Halloween. After the radio show first aired 80 years ago, it would seem that The Lone Ranger could last for another eighty years.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

America in Monochrome: The Lack of Ethnic Diversity on American Television in the Sixties

When I was a lad watching reurns of The Andy Griffith Show I noticed something very odd about the show. Despite the fact that it took place in a small, Southern town, there were absolutely no African Americans. This was particularly noticeable for me as I happened to live in a small, Southern town where I am guessing about 10% of the population is black. It then seemed strange to me that Mayberry was composed almost entirely of people of Northern European descent.

Of course, Mayberry wasn't the only small town on American television in the Sixties where the population was entirely white. Hooterville, the setting for both Petticoat Junction and Green Acres, also lacked any sort of ethnic diversity. As a lad this was not quite as jarring to me, as I just figured Hooterville must have been located in Iowa or another state where there were very few ethnic minorities (even today only 0.4% of Iowa's population is black). As an adult, however, I learned that producer and creator Paul Henning had based the show on his wife's experiences at her family's hotel, the Burris Hotel, in Eldon, Missouri. Now Eldon is very much like my hometown or any other small town in Missouri in every way, including the ethnic make up of the population. If Hooterville is to be considered a fictional version of Eldon, then, about 10% of the population should have been African American.

Sadly, The Andy Griffith Show, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres were not the only shows on American television that not only featured all white casts, but almost never featured guest stars belonging to ethnic minorities either. Now it is true that many the dramas of the era had made substantial progress with regards to ethnic minorities. African Americans appeared as both extras and guest stars on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Bill Cosby was one of the two leads on I Spy. One of the leads of The Green Hornet was Asian, Bruce Lee as Kato. Star Trek had a truly diverse cast, whose regulars included not only an African and an Asian American, but a Vuclan/human hybrid as well. Mission: Impossible featured Greg Morris as electronics expert Barney Collier. Unfortunately, these shows were largely the exception to the rule. Particularly with regards to the situation comedies of the era, not only were the lead and supporting characters largely Northern European in descent, but so too were any guest stars. The casts of such classic sitcoms as Bewitched, Get SmartI Dream of Jeannie, Gilligan's Island, and The Beverly Hillbillies were all white.

While as a child I noticed the lack of African Americans in Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show, the truth is that most ethnic minorities were not to be found in the majority of television shows in the Sixties. Even though Anna May Wong had her own show,  The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, in 1951, characters of Asian descent were still a rarity on American television in the Sixties. Hong Kong, set in the city of the same name, obviously had a number of Asian characters, but the same could not be said of other shows from the Sixties. Valentine's Day (the first sitcom to feature an Asian American as one of the leads--the great Jack Soo), Star Trek, and The Green Hornet are the only ones to come to mind to feature people of Asian descent in major roles.

Jews were also invisible on American television in the Sixties. In fact, from 1956 when The Goldbergs went off the air until the Seventies, people of Jewish descent were hard to find on American television shows. While a number of the comedians who dominated American television in the Fifties and Sixties were Jewish, only one television character in the Sixties was Jewish. While it was not mentioned often, Buddy Sorrell (played by Morey Amsterdam) was Jewish. After The Dick Van Dyke Show went off the air there would not be another Jewish character on American television until The Mary Tyler Moore Show introduced the world to Rhoda Morgenstern.

Hispanics and Native Americans were more plentiful on American television in the Sixties, but only because of the large number of Westerns on the networks at the time. Even then it was rare that Hispanics and Native Americans appeared in regular roles on TV shows and it was quite common for them to be played by individuals who did not belong to either ethnic group.

Michael Dante played Hispanic characters, while Ricardo Montalbán played Native Americans. As to regulars on Westerns of the era, only The High Chaparral featured Hispanic characters as regulars (what is more they were played by Hispanics, Linda Cristal and Henry Darrow). Only Daniel Boone featured a Native American character in a regular role, although the Cherokee Mingo was played by Ed Ames, who was Ukrainian Jewish in descent. Sadly, with but few exceptions, most Hispanic and Native American characters on Westerns of the era were outright stereotypes.  While Hispanics and Native Americans at least appeared frequently as guest stars on Westerns, they almost never appeared in shows set in the modern era. Despite the fact that a Hispanic had played one of the leads on I Love Lucy (Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo), there was only one show that featured a Hispanic character as a lead in the Sixties. That was The Bill Dana Show. Sadly, the lead character of Jose Jimenez was a gross stereotype played by the decidedly non-Hispanic Bill Dana.  The only Native American character to appear as a regular on a show set in modern times was Lt. John Hawk on the short lived police drama Hawk. He was the lead character on the show and was played by Burt Reynolds, one of the few instances of a Native American played by someone of Native American descent (Mr. Reynolds is part Cherokee).

While African Americans, Asian Americans, Jews, Hispanics, and Native Americans appeared infrequently in the monochrome world of American television in the Sixties, other ethnicities were virtually invisible except for the occasional guest appearance, in which case the character might be an outright stereotype. Arabs, Indians, Pacific Islanders, and many other ethnicities were virtually unknown on American television in the Sixties.

Of course, the question is why was American television in the Sixties so, for lack of a better term, white? The answer is that it was perhaps a combination of outright racism and the fear on the parts of the networks of either offending advertisers or a large portion of the American population. In 1956 The Nat King Cole Show debuted on NBC. Not only was Nat King Cole a phenomenally popular singer of the time (as he still is), but NBC supported the show and many famous performers appeared on it for industry scale or free of charge. Unfortunately, NBC was not able to find a national sponsor for the show. In the end NBC gave the time slot of The Nat King Cole Show to The Californians (who had a national sponsor in the form of the Singer Sewing Machine Company) and offered to move The Nat King Cole Show to a 7:30, Saturday night time slot. Nat King Cole rejected to the move of the show to a new time slot and as a result it was cancelled.

Sadly, the short run of The Nat King Cole Show was not the only instance of racism on American television, nor would it end with the Fifties. In interviews Howard Morris (who played Ernest T. Bass and directed many episodes) has said that many people behind the scenes wanted African American characters to appear on The Andy Griffith Show, but found resistance to the idea from certain quarters. Another example of racism at the time in the American television industry can be seen in the unfortunate fate of what could have been Bruce Lee's first television vehicle. Producer William Dozier had developed a concept for a show called Number One Son, which would have starred Bruce Lee as Charlie Chan's oldest son having James Bond type adventures around the globe. The project came to an early demise, without even a pilot, when ABC made it clear they would not consider a show with an ethnic lead. I Spy was a historic show and the first to feature an African American man in a lead role, but even it fell afoul of racism. While NBC fully supported producer Sheldon Leonard in his casting of Bill Cosby, some affiliates in the South initially refused to air the show.

Such racism was still to be found in the television industry as late as 1968. In early 1968 Petula Clark was set to appear in her own television special, Petula, to be aired on NBC. Her guest star was singer Harry Belafonte. Miss Clark and Mr.Belafonte performed a duet on the special, "On the Path of Glory," during the taping of which Miss Clark innocently touched Mr. Belafonte's arm. A representative of the special's  sponsor, Chrysler, was present during the taping and insisted that it be re-shot for fear that the "interracial touching" might offend viewers in the South. Both Petula Clark and her husband, Claude Wolff (who was executive producer on the special) refused to reshoot the song and even went so far as to destroy every other take of it, leaving only the one in which Miss Clark touched Harry Belafonte. Petula later aired with the performance of "On the Path of Glory" intact. Contrary to the Chrysler representative's concern, there was no viewer outrage.

Strangely enough, much of the reason for the lack of ethnic diversity on American television in the Sixties may not have been a simple case of the networks fearing that they might offend white viewers, but of offending ethnic minorities as well. In 1951 CBS brought the radio show Amos 'n' Andy to television. It was significant as the first network television with an all African American cast. Unfortunately, the characters on Amos 'n' Andy were also stereotypes, which led to the show being denounced the NAACP and many other African Americans. In 1953 CBS cancelled the show, still doing well in the ratings, largely because of the controversy. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the controversy over Amos 'n' Andy African Americans would nearly disappear from everything except appearances on  variety shows. Only Eddie Anderson as Rochester on The Jack Benny Programme and Amanda Randolph as Louise on Make Room For Daddy remained. Rather than striving to create respectable roles for blacks on television shows, the American networks simply stopped featuring blacks in any roles until the early Sixties, perhaps for fear of another controversy such as that created by Amos 'n' Andy.

Fortunately, as the Sixties passed American television would become more diverse. In 1965 I Spy debuted, the first show to feature an African American actor in a lead role. In 1967 The High Chaparral debuted. While it was not the first show to feature Hispanic actors in lead roles (The Cisco Kid, with Duncan Renaldo as Pancho, Zorro with Guy Williams as the title character, and Rawhide with Robert Cabal as Jesús  pre-date it), it was the first in some time. In 1968 the ground breaking sitcom Julia debuted. It starred Diahann Carroll as nurse Julia Baker, a widow with a young son. In 1970 The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted, featuring the first Jewish character (Rhoda) since Buddy Sorrell on The Dick Van Dyke Show. The Seventies would see far more ethnic diversity than the Sixties ever had, with shows that featured blacks, Hispanics, and Asians in lead roles. While many shows would still have casts composed almost entirely of European Americans, the Seventies were an improvement over the Sixties with regards to ethnic diversity on American television.

Today American network television is much more ethnically diverse than it was in the Sixties. On Chicago Fire Eamonn Walker not only has a lead role, but he has a position of importance as Battalion Chief Wallace Boden. The sitcom Community has characters of African American, Asian American, Jewish, and Palestinian American descent. On Elementary Lucy Liu not only plays a female Watson, but one who is Asian American as well. Unfortunately, while it is much more diverse than it was in the Sixties, American television still has a good deal of improvement to make with regards to ethnic diversity. Hispanics are still under-represented on American television. While there may be others, I can only think of two show with  recurring Hispanic characters: Vegas with Aimee Garcia as Clark County Sheriff's Department office manager Yvonne Sanchez and Chciago Fire with Monica Raymund as Paramedic in Charge Gabriela Dawson and Joe Minoso as Joe Cruz. As rare as Hispanic characters are on American television at the moment, Native Americans are even rarer. I can think of only one show with a recurring, Native American character and even he does not appear that often, and again on Vegas: Gil Birmingham as tracker Don Simmons. While American network television is much more diverse than it was in the Sixties, it still has a long way to go.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Victor Mature's 100th Birthday

Darryl F. Zanuck once referred to Victor Mature as " of the most under-rated performers in Hollywood." And I think that perhaps he still is. While one hears about Victor Mature as one of the stars of the Golden Age, one does not hear much about his talent as an actor. This is sad, as he gave a number of great performances in his time. It was 100 years ago today, on 29 January 1913, that Victor Mature was born.

It is difficult to say why Victor Mature was underestimated as an actor in the Forties, but I suspect today it might be because he is strongly identified with Biblical epics, sword and sandal films, action movies, and Westerns. Indeed, to this day I rather suspect that for many Victor Mature remains Samson from the Cecil B. DeMille film Samson and Delilah (1949). Samson and Delilah was not the only Biblical epic in which Mr. Mature appeared, as he appeared in The Robe (1953) as well, playing Demetrius.  Given that they are also set in ancient times, the genre of sword and sandal movies can be considered related to that of Biblical epics, so it should come as no surprise that Victor Mature appeared in sword and sandal films. He reprised his role as Demetrius from The Robe in Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), and played Hannibal in Hannibal (1959). He also appeared in such sword and sandal movies as Androcles and the Lion (1952), The Egyptian (1954), and The Tartars (1961).  Sadly, both the genres of Biblical epics and sword and sandal movies have never been particularly cited for their great acting. It is true that both genres made ample use of Shakespearean actors, but it seems that outside of those Shakespearean actors it was a rare thing for an actor to be cited for a great performance in either genre. Despite this Victor Mature gave good performances as both Samson in Samson and Delilah and Demetrius in The Robe. This is particularly true of his performance as Demetrius, which in many respects is more impressive than that of Richard Burton as Marcellus in the same film. Demetrius was a particularly difficult role, as Victor Mature had to take him from being a defiant Greek slave to a convert to Christianity.

While actors have rarely been cited for their performances in Biblical epics and sword and sandal movies, they have been cited even less frequently for their performances in action movies.  Particularly later in his career, Victor Mature did a large number of action films. Indeed, his big break came with the caveman fantasy One Million B.C. (1940).  Later in his career he appeared in such action films as The Glory Brigade (1953), Zarak (1956), Safari (1956),  No Time to Die (1958), The Bandit of Zhobe (1959), and Timbuktu (1959). He also appeared in Westerns, including the John Ford classic My Darling Clementine (1946). Victor Mature also appeared in such Westerns as Fury at Furnace Creek (1948), Chief Crazy Horse (1955), The Last Frontier (1955), and Escort West (1958). Mr. Mature gave fairly solid performances in both the action movies and Westerns in which he appeared.

In fact, arguably the best performance of his entire career was in a Western, My Darling Clementine, in which he played Doc Holliday. While My Darling Clementine departs a good deal from the actual, historical events surrounding the gunfight at the O. K. Corral, Victor Mature's portrayal of Doc Holliday is very true to the historical figure. Mr. Mature's Holliday is learned, cultivated, and refined (especially when compared to the other residents of Tombstone), but at the same time he is both domineering and self loathing. Victor Mature brought all of these qualities in Doc Holliday to the fore in My Darling Clementine, to the point that he is by far the most fascinating character in the movie. Indeed, Doc Holliday may have been the most complex character Mr. Mature ever played.

While Victor Mature's performances in Biblical epics, sword and sandal movies, action films, and Westerns, beyond My Darling Clementine, have rarely been recognised, in all probability all but classic film buffs realise he made many musicals in his career. In fact, he appeared in eight different musicals throughout his career. What is more, he appeared opposite such leading ladies as Rita Hayworth, Lucille Ball, Betty Grable,  and Betty Hutton. Some of Victor Mature's musicals remain well known to this day, including My Gal Sal (1942), Footlight Serenade (1942), and Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). While Victor Mature's roles in musicals were not as demanding or challenging as those in some of his other films, they were pleasant enough. He was always convincing and always delivered fairly solid performances in the musicals in which he appeared.

Curiously, while the public at large tends to identify Victor Mature with Biblical epics such as Samson and Delilah and The Robe, he should perhaps be better identified with film noir. He appeared in several films noir over the years, at least as many (if not more) than other genres. Given that actors are often noticed for their performances in films noir, it then remains odd that Victor Mature has never quite been given his due as an actor. Not only did Victor Mature appear in several films noir, but he gave impressive performances in many of them. A perfect example of this can be seen in the Henry Hathaway classic Kiss of Death (1947). Victor Mature gives a bravura performance as Nick, a former bank robber trying to go straight while not running afoul of his former associates. It could well be the best performance Victor Mature ever gave, short of playing Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine. Cry of the City (1947) saw Victor Mature on the opposite side of the law, playing the police lieutenant who pursues the criminal Martin Rome (Richard Conte). Victor Mature is impressive as Lt. Candella, playing him as sincere and good hearted, but at the same time dedicated to his job. Victor Mature also delivered a solid performance in I Wake Up Screaming (1941) as an innocent man accused of murder. Over the years Mr. Mature appeared in such films noir as The Shanghai Gesture (1941), Gambling House (1950), The Las Vegas Story (1952), and Violent Saturday (1955). Looking at the films noir that Victor Mature made, it is surprising that even today he is consistently underrated as an actor, particularly given he gave great performances in most of them.

Following The Tartars Victor Mature went into retirement, although he would come out of retirement for some of his best work. In After the Fox (1966) Mr. Mature played a once big star who makes a living from  the reputation of his past work. In Head (1968) he appeared as "the Big Victor," a giant who menaces The Monkees. The latter role was not particularly demanding (although Mr. Mature did well in it), but both showed that he had a self-deprecatory sense of humour. Indeed, he convinced that he didn't understand the script for Head, but he thought it was hilarious.

Indeed, Victor Mature never took himself seriously as an actor. In 1968 he said of his acting career, "Actually, I am a golfer. That is my real occupation. I never was an actor. Ask anybody, particularly the critics." Despite Mr. Mature's dismissal of his acting career, he was not only an actor, but a very good one. While critics may have dismissed him more often than not, looking back at his career it can be seen that he gave many great performances over the years. Sadly, many of those performances were in genres that many do not take that seriously or, at least, underestimate the quality of the acting in them. Indeed, Victor Mature did not just give great performances in the films noir in which he appeared, but also Westerns (My Darling Clementine), Biblical epics (The Robe), and comedies (After the Fox). Contrary to what critics at the time or Mr. Mature might have thought, he was a great actor.