Saturday, May 11, 2013

Godspeed Car Customiser Dean Jeffries

Dean Jeffries, the car designer and customiser who created such iconic vehicles as the Monkeemobile from The Monkees and Black Beauty on The Green Hornet, died 5 May 2013 at the age of 80.

Dean Jeffries was born Edward Dean Jeffries on 25 February 1933 in Osage, Iowa. It wasn't long after his birth that Mr. Jeffries' family moved to Compton, California. It was there and in neighbouring Lyndwood California that Dean Jeffries grew up. As a child he was interesting in painting and even wanted to attended the Art Centre in Pasadena, California, but his family could not afford the tuition. His father was a mechanic by trade and taught him much about the craft.

During the Korean War, Dean Jeffries served in the United States Army in Germany. It was while in Germany that he developed an interest in car customisation. He learned the art of pinstriping from an older German gentleman who painted stripes on custom furniture and pianos. Once he had completed his stint in the Army, Dean Jeffries returned to California where he went into the car customisation business.

Mr. Jeffries rented space in soon to be legendary car customiser George Barris's shop in Compton, California. It was there that he worked alongside fellow pinstriper Kenny Howard, who would become better known as "Von Dutch." It was during this period, in 1955, that Dean Jeffries painted “130” and “Little Bastard” on a Porsche 550 Spyder for James Dean. Sadly, it was the car in which Mr. Dean would die in a crash less than a month later.

Dean Jeffries first real success would come with the 1964 Grand National Roadster Show competition in which his customised, futuristic looking race car called Mantaray appeared. The producers of Bikini Beach (1964) were looking for several cars to be featured in the drag racing sequences and as a result Mantaray was featured in the film. It was the beginning of Dean Jeffries' work with Hollywood. He also designed the cars that appeared in the film The Great Race (1965). It was in mid to late 1965 that 20th Century Fox contracted car designer Dean Jeffries to create the Batmobile for the series Batman. Unfortunately ABC decided they wanted the show to debut in late December 1965 or early January 1966 rather than September 1966 as previously planned. As a result Dean Jeffries was unable to complete his Batmobile and the job went to George Barris (who simply customised the 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car that he had bought.

While Dean Jeffries did not get to design the Batmobile for the 1966 series, he would get to design other iconic vehicles. It was Dean Jeffries who designed the Monkeemobile (a modified Pontiac GTO) for The Monkees and Black Beauty (a modified Chrysler Imperial) for The Green Hornet. Mr. Jeffries would go onto design the Moon Buggy in Diamonds are Forever (1971),  the cars in Death Race 2000 (1975), the Land Master in Damnation Alley (1977),  cars in The Blues Brothers (1980), the trolley in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), and the Paperboy 2000 in Get a Life (1990).

Eventually Mr. Jeffries would not only design cars for Hollywood, but he also became a stunt driver. Over he years he performed stunts in such films as What's Up, Doc? (1972), Damnation Alley (1977), The Blues Brothers (1980), Romancing the Stone (1984), Fletch (1985), The Rookie (1990), The Fugitive (1993), and Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995).

If Dean Jeffries was one of the best known car customisers of his era, it was with good reason. He combined  artistic talent with a knowledge of mechanics, making him able to not only design and paint cars, but to actually build them as well. Indeed, only George Barris would design cars as iconic as those created by Dean Jeffries. The Monkeemobile and Black Beauty remain two of the best known vehicles to ever emerge from television shows, as well known as the Batmobile of the 1960's Batman. Dean Jeffries' lesser known vehicles, whether the cars in Death Race 2000 or the Land Master in Damnation Alley, were equally impressive. Dean Jeffries was among the greatest in his field, a talent rarely matched and never really surpassed.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Actress Jeanne Cooper Passes On

Actress Jeanne Cooper, who was a frequent guest star on Sixties and Seventies television, died 8 May 2013 at the age of 84.

Jeanne Cooper was born on 25 October 1928 in Taft, California.  Miss Cooper studied acting first at the Pasadena Playhouse and later at the College of the Pacific in Stockton, California. She made her film debut in a supporting role The Redhead from Wyoming in 1953. During the Fifties she went onto appear in such films as The Man from the Alamo (1953), Shadows of Tombstone (1953), The Houston Story (1956), Calling Homicide (1956), 5 Steps to Danger (1957), Rock All Night (1957), Plunder Road (1957), and Unwed Mother (1958).  She made her television debut in an episode of The Adventures of Kit Carson in 1953. In the Fifties she appeared on such shows as Mr. District Attorney,  I Led 3 Lives, Highway PatrolFront Row CentreCrossroads, Playhouse 90The Ford Television TheatreThe WebThe Millionaire, Zane Grey Theatre, Jefferson DrumMike HammerThe Further Adventures of Ellery Queen, State TrooperTales of Wells Fargo, G.E. True Theatre, The Twilight Zone, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and Thriller.

In the Sixties Jeanne Cooper appeared in such films as House of Women (1962), 13 West Street (1962), The Intruder (1962), Black Zoo (1963), The Glory Guys (1965), Tony Rome (1967), The Boston Strangler (1968), and There Was a Crooked Man (1970). She was a regular on the television show Bracken's World. She guest starred on such shows as CheyenneHave Gun - Will TravelRawhideHawaiian EyeThe Untouchables, GunsmokeThe Virginian77 Sunset Strip, Dr. KildareWagon TrainThe Man from U.N.C.L.E., Perry Mason, Ben CaseyThe Big ValleyDaniel BooneLaredo, and Death Valley Days.

Starting in 1973 Jeanne Cooper was part of the cast of the daytime soap opera The Young and the Restless. She remained with the show for forty years. From the Seventies to the Naughts she appeared on such shows as Nanny and the ProfessorMen at LawHawaii Five-OCannonMannixLongstreetIronsideHawkinsEmergency, L.A. Law, and Touched by an Angel. From the Seventies into the Naughts she appeared in such films as Kansas City Bomber (1972), The All-American Boy (1973), Lethal Justice (1991), Frozen Assets (1992), Carpool Guy (2005), Donna on Demand (2009), and Dead Air (2009).

Jeanne Cooper was the mother of actor Corbin Bernsen. She appeared with him in two episodes of L.A.Law, playing the mother of his character on the show.

Jeanne Cooper was extremely prolific for much of her career. She appeared frequently on television in the Sixties and, at the same time, she managed to appear in several films. She could quite accurately be described as a character actress given the number of different parts she played throughout her career. In a 1957 episode of Tales of Wells Fargo and a 1960 episode of Bronco she played Old West outlaw Belle Starr.  In her Emmy nominated guest appearance on Ben Casey Miss Cooper played a woman who refused to let the title doctor treat her daughters because of her religious beliefs. She played a saloon owner on Laredo and a store owner on The Big Valley. She even got to play a Bondian villain, Mother Fear, who was training little boys to be assassins on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. What is more, she was convincing in all of these roles. With tons of guest appearances and forty years worth of The Young and The Restless to her credit there can be no doubt about Jeanne Cooper's work ethic, and there is no doubt about her talent either.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Late Great Bryan Forbes

Director, screenwriter, author, and actor Bryan Forbes died yesterday at the age of 86 after a long illness. He wrote such films as The League of Gentlemen (1960) and Only Two Can Play (1962), and directed such films as Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), King Rat (1965), The Stepford Wives (1975), and The Slipper and the Rose: The Story of Cinderella (1976). He also wrote several novels, including The Twisted PlaygroundThe Endless Game, and Partly Cloudy.

Bryan Forbes was born John Clarke on 22 July 1926 in  in Stratford, London. He grew up in Forest Gate, West Ham, Essex. During World War II he was evacuated first to Lincolnshire and then to Porthleven, Cornwall where he stayed with the Rev Canon Gotto, a cultured man with an extensive library. It was while he was still in school that he made his acting debut with the school dramatic society. Having developed a taste for acting, he wrote letters to several famous actors. Only Lionel Gamlin, then with the BBC, replied. He made young John Clarke the question master of  the BBC quiz programme Junior Brains Trust. The actor John Clark having already registered with Equity, it was Lionel Gamlin who advised that he adopt the stage name of "Bryan Forbes."

At age 17 Bryan Forbes won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He would stay at RADA for only three terms, leaving as soon as he won the role of Richard in Eugene O'Neil's Ah, Wilderness! at Rugby. He went onto appear in Envy My Simplicity at Brighton, Emlyn Williams’s The Corn Is Green at Worthing, and Terence Rattigan's Flare Path. He was not with Flare Path for long before he was drafted into the service. He served in the Intelligence Corps and then the Combined Services Entertainment Unit.  He made his film debut in  the short "Smith Our Friend" in 1946.

Bryan Forbes was demobilised in 1948 and returned to acting. He had a leading role in The Gathering Storm (a rewritten version of Envy My Simplicity) at the St Martin’s Theatre. Not long afterwards he made his feature film debut, in a small part in The Small Back Room (1949).  In the late Forties and Fifties Mr. Forbes appeared in such films as All Over the Town (1949), Dear Mr. Prohack (1949), The Wooden Horse (1950), The World in His Arms (1952), Appointment in London (1953), Sea Devils (1953), The Million Pound Note (1954), The Colditz Story (1955), Now and Forever (1956), Quatermass 2 (1957), I Was Monty's Double (1958), The Angry Silence (1960), and The League of Gentlemen (1960).

It was in the Fifties that Bryan Forbes also began his career as a screenwriter, writing additional dialogue for The Black Knight (1954). His first screenplay to be filmed was The Cockleshell Heroes in 1955. For the rest of the decade he wrote or co-wrote screenplays for the films The Black Tent (1956), The Baby and the Battleship (1956), House of Secrets (1956), I Was Monty's Double (1958), The Captain's Table (1959), Danger Within (1959), SOS Pacific (1959), The Angry Silence (1960), The League of Gentlemen (1960), and Man in the Moon (1960).  His first book was published in 1950, the collection of short stories, Truth Lies Sleeping. It was in 1959 that Bryan Forbes formed Beaver Films with  Richard Attenborough.

In the Sixties came Bryan Forbes' directorial debut, the film Whistle Down the Wind  (1961), starring Hayley Mills, Bernard Lee, and Alan Bates. During the decade he directed The L-Shaped Room (1962), Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), King Rat (1965), The Wrong Box (1966), The Whisperers (1967), Deadfall (1968), and The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969). After Henry Hathaway left the 1964 adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, Bryan Forbes took his place for a week before the job went to Ken Hughes. Producer Cubby Broccoli offered Bryan Forbes the job of directing Dr. No (1962), but Mr. Forbes turned the offer down. In addition to the films he directed, Mr. Forbes also wrote or co-wrote the films Only Two Can Play (1962), Station Six-Sahara (1962), Of Human Bondage (1964), The High Bright Sun (1964), and The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970). With his time occupied by screenwriting and directing, Bryan Forbes' acting came to a halt.  During the Sixties he only starred in The Guns of Navarone (1961), although he had cameos in A Shot in the Dark (1964) and Of Human Bondage (1964), and provided a voice on the radio in King Rat.

In the Seventies Bryan Forbes directed the films The Raging Moon (1971), The Stepford Wives (1975), The Slipper and the Rose: The Story of Cinderella (1976, notable as the final feature film of Margaret Lockwood), and International Velvet (1978). He also directed the segment "An Englishman's Home" in the portmanteau film Sunday Lovers (1980) and the episode "Jessie" of the TV programme Play for Today. Besides films he directed, he also wrote the film Hopscotch (1980) and the episode "The Way Out" of the show Colditz. He appeared in uncredited roles as a herald in The Slipper and the Rose: The Story of Cinderella  and an awards presenter in International Velvet. He also published the books The Distant Laughter; Ned's girl: the authorised biography of Dame Edith Evans; Notes for LifeFamiliar Strangers; QuicksandStranger; and That Despicable Race: History of the British Acting Tradition.

Bryan Forbes' direcitng career came to an end in the Eighties. He directed the films Better Late Than Never (1983) and The Naked Face (1984),  as well as the television movie The Endless Game (based on this novel of the same name) and an episode of Phililp Marlowe, Private Eye.  He would go onto co-write the screenplay for Chaplin (1992). He also wrote several more books, including The Endless Game, A Divided Life, The Twisted Playground, A Spy at Twilight, The Rewrite Man, The Twisted Ground, Partly Cloudy, and The Soldier's Story.

In 1955 Bryan Forbes married actress Nanette Newman, who survives him. The couple had two daughters, Emma Forbes and Sarah Standing. who also survive.

Bryan Forbes was a true multi-talent. What is more Mr. Forbes was not simply able to act, write books, write screenplays, and direct films, but  he actually excelled at all of them. Indeed, I sometimes think that because Mr. Forbes' career as a screenwriter and director was so impressive people tend to forget he was a fine actor. While he always played supporting roles, Mr. Forbes still managed to make the parts he played memorable. Among his best work as an actor was in the heist film The League of Gentlmen (which he also wrote), in which he played Captain Martin Porthill, a dishonourably discharged serviceman making a living as a piano player and the "boy toy" of an older woman. Bryan Forbes' skill as an actor was such that he need not be on the screen very long to make an impression. In his cameo in A Shot in the Dark (in which he was billed as "Turk Thrust") Mr. Forbes delivers one of his best performance, as a guitar playing guard at a nudist camp. Mr. Forbes also gave impressive performances in such films as Quatermass 2, The Angry Silence, and The Guns of Navaronne.

Of course, as good as Bryan Forbes was an actor, he was arguably even better as a writer. Indeed, he arguably wrote some of the best screenplays of the Sixties. Mr. Forbes' screenplays were always characterised by strong characters and intelligent dialogue. What is more is he was extremely versatile as a screenwriter. His first screenplay to reach the big screen, The Cockleshell Heroes, was a war drama. The League of Gentlemen was a serio-comedic caper film. The L-Shaped Room was a kitchen sink drama.  Only Two Can Play (1962) was a comedy. In his career as a screenwriter and director Bryan Forbes wrote a number of films in different genres, and he did all of them well.

Bryan Forbes displayed the same versatility he had as a screenwriter when it came to writing books. He worked in both non-fiction and fiction. He wrote a biography of his friend Dame Edith Evans, Ned's Girl, as well as a book on acting itself, That Despicable Race. He also wrote novels set in the world of show business (The Distant Laughter and The Rewrite Man), spy thrillers (The Endless GameA Spy At Twilight, and Quicksand), and even humour novels (Partly Cloudy). His autobiography took up two volumes, Notes for a Life and A Divided Life.

Of course, it is probably as a director that Bryan Forbes will be best remembered. Mr. Forbes arguably directed some of the greatest films of the Sixties, including Whistle Down the WindThe L-Shaped RoomSeance on a Wet AfternoonKing Rat, and The Wrong Box. While many directors concentrate in only one or two genres, it must be pointed that the films Bryan Forbes directed in the Sixties were a duke's mixture of genres. Seance on a Wet Afternoon was both a serious drama and a crime thriller. King Rat was a war drama. The Wrong Box was an off the wall comedy set in Victorian England. The Whisperers was psychological horror. He would continue to dabble in different genres throughout his career as a director, including science fiction (The Stepford Wives) and a musical (The Slipper and the Rose: The Story of Cinderella).

While Bryan Forbes' peak as a director was arguably in the Sixties, I do not think it would be wise to dismiss his later career as so many do. Although he directed fewer films after the Sixties, they were often no less impressive than his earlier work. While The Stepford Wives is often counted as a masterpiece, I must also point out that The Slipper and the Rose: The Story of Cinderella is one of the best of the latter day musicals, with a sterling cast and great songs by the Sherman Brothers. The Raging Moon is a well done romance between two handicapped individuals, eschewing over-sentimentality for genuine emotion. Bryan Forbes may have made fewer films after the Sixties, but they often hold up quite well to those he made in the Sixties

Most people can generally hope to excel in only one field, and that is if they are truly talented. Bryan Forbes actually excelled in four different field (actor, screenwriter, author, and director). What is more, he saw success in all of these fields as well. In the end, Bryan Forbes should probably be considered a modern day renaissance man, a rarity then as they are now. Another like him might never be seen again.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Bob Clampett's 100th Birthday

It is a sad fact of life that many of the men who made the classic animated theatrical shorts during the Golden Age of Hollywood are largely unknown to the average person today. They have probably heard of Chuck Jones, the best known of Warner Brothers' animators, as well as William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, although they may associate their names more with television cartoons than the theatrical shorts they made at MGM. Among the names of animators of classic theatrical cartoons that the average person today might recognise is Bob Clampett. Even if they do not recognise him as the creator of Porky Pig and Tweety, they might well recognise him as the creator of Beany and Cecil. It was 100 years ago today that Bob Clampett was born.

Bob Clampett was born in San Diego, California on 8 May 1913, although he spent most of his childhood in Hollywood. He was artistically inclined even as a child, displaying talent by the time he was five years old. As a child he was fascinated by comic strips and began drawing his favourite characters, such as Happy Hooligan, Jiggs and Maggie,  and so on.  He was also fascinated by films, eagerly going to see such greats as Lon Chaney, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Buater Keaton, and Harold Lloyd at the local cinema. He was only twelve years old when he had his first comic strip published in The Los Angeles Times. It was also when he was only twelve years old that he began making his own short films in his garage. He also had an interest in puppetry while young, creating his own hand puppets. It was in his childhood that he created a nondescript dinosaur that could be considered the prototype for Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent.

The comic strips by Bob Clampett published in The Los Angeles Times would draw attention. King Features offered him a contract for $75 a week. Given he was still in high school, he worked in their Los Angeles art department every Saturday. King Features also paid his tuition at the Otis Art Institute. Bob Clampett left high school just short of graduating in 1931. It was not long before leaving high school that Mr. Clampett would do his first job connected to an animation studio. Bob Clampett's aunt Charlotte Clark thought that a doll based on the cartoon character Mickey Mouse would sell very well. She then asked her nephew to go to the Alex Theatre in Glendale, California to watch Mickey Mouse cartoons and create sketches of the character. Mrs. Clark then created a pattern based on Bob Clampett's sketches. Charlotte Clark's Mickey Mouse dolls proved popular enough that she went to work creating dolls for Disney. Bob Clampett was then responsible for designing the first Mickey Mouse doll. For a time Mr. Clampett worked with his aunt at the Doll House, where the various Disney character dolls were created.

It would also be in 1931 that Bob Clampett would begin his career as an animator. Having seen one of Mr. Clampett's 16mm films, producer Leon Schlesinger offered him a job at Harman-Ising Studios. Mr. Clampett's first job as an animator was animating secondary characters in the very first Merrie Melodie, "Play Your Mandolin! (1931). As a young animator at the studio, he worked primarily for Friz Freleng, who had already been in the animated industry for four years. Bob Clampett continued to work at Harman-Ising Studios until Leon Schlesinger broke ties with Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising to form his own Leon Schlesinger Productions in 1933. Bob Clampett was then employed by Leon Schlesinger Productions.

Although it would evolve into the most famous studio in the field of animated shorts, Leon Schlesinger Productions got off to a rocky start. Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising had taken their popular character Bosko with them, and Bosko's replacement Buddy was not particularly popular. Observing the popularity of Hal Roach's "Our Gang" shorts, Leon Schlesinger suggested to director Friz Freleng do an animated take on the series. The end result was the short "I Haven't Got a Hat", for which Bob Clampett contributed a minor character in the form of a short, stuttering pig named Porky. While the other characters in "I Haven't Got a Hat" fell by the wayside, Porky proved to be Leon Schlesinger Productions' first hit character.

By 1936 Bob Clampett would be promoted to director, with his first animated short in that position being "Porky's Badtime Story" (1937).  For the most part Mr. Clampett had total creative control over his shorts. That having been said, on average he had only four weeks to complete his shorts and $3000 to spend on them. Regardless, Bob Clampett's shorts proved very popular. When Tex Avery abruptly left Leon Schlesinger Productions in 1941, Bob Clampett took over his position as head of Mr. Avery's animation unit. It was in 1942 that Bob Clampett created Tweety, introduced in the short "A Tale of Two Kitties". Bob Clampett remained with the animation unit after Leon Schlesinger sold it to Warner Brothers in 1944. It was in 1946 that Bob Clampett left Warner Bros. Cartoons.

For a time after he left Warner Bros. Cartoons, Mr. Clampett worked for Columbia's animation department (then called "Screen Gems", the same name they would later use for their television division). as a gag writer and screenwriter. It was only two years after he left Warner Brothers that he received an offer from Republic Pictures to head their new new animation division. He was promised total creative control. Unfortunately, Bob Clampett was only able to finish one cartoon, "It's a Grand Old Nag," before Republic decided that they did not want to make cartoons.

While Bob Clampett's experience with Republic was a bit of a setback, it would not be long before he would go onto one of his greatest claims to fame. In 1949 he created the television puppet show Time for Beany. The series centred on a boy named Beany (who wore a beanie), his friend Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent, and his uncle Captain Horatio Huffenpuff. Together Beany and Captain Huffenpuff travelled about the ship Leakin' Lena to strange places, accompanied by Cecil, and at times ran afoul of the villain Dishonest John (who even had a handle bar moustache and cape so everyone knew he was the villain). Time for Beany first aired locally on KTLA in Los Angeles before being transmitted nationally by the short lived Paramount Television Network.

While on the surface Time for Beany might appear to be a children's show, in truth it was a sophisticated show that combined lampoons of current events and pop culture with topical references,Shakespearean asides, puns, and slapstick comedy. Among its fans numbered Albert Einstein, both Groucho and Harpo Marx, and a young Frank Zappa. In 1950, 1951, and 1953 Time for Beany won the Emmy for Best Children's Programme. Debuting on 28 February 1949, it ran until 15 July 1955.

Bob Clampett  also did other work in television. He created the television puppet series Thunderbolt the Wondercolt that ran in 1952, as well as the puppet shows Willy the Wolf  and Buffalo Billy (both in 1954). None of them saw the success of Time for Beany, so it would come as no surprise when after a few  years Time for Beany was revived in animated form as Beany and CecilMatty's Funday Funnies originally showed 1950-59 Famous Studios theatrical animated shorts starring such characters as Caspar the Friendly Ghost and Little Audrey. This ended when on 6 January 1962 the show became Matty's Funnies with Beany and Cecil, airing Bob Clampett's cartoons based on his old puppet show. It was only three months before the show's title was shortened to simply Beany and Cecil. The show continued to run in prime time at 7:00 Eastern/6:00 Central on Saturday night until 29 December 1962 and then continued to run at other times of day until 30 June 1962. Starting in 1963 Beany and Cecil would be rerun first on Saturday morning and then on Sunday morning until 1967.

Beany and Cecil lacked the political satire and references to current events that Time for Beany had, but it was still very much a show that could appeal to adults. The animated series retained the lampoons of pop culture, puns, and slapstick comedy. Indeed, in one of the best known Beany and Cecil episodes, "Beanyland," Bob Clampett parodied Disneyland, making ABC very nervous in the process. Throughout its run Beany and Cecil spoofed such things as beatniks, Davy Crockett (yet another swipe at Disney), the Rat Pack,  physical fitness, rock 'n' roll, and even television itself.

Bob Clampett would spend his later years speaking at animation conventions and college campuses, discussing his time at Warner Brothers and Beany and Cecil. He died of a heart attack on 2 May 1984 at age of 70. He had been touring the country promoting the release of Beany and Cecil on VHS.

There can be no doubt that Bob Clampett was one of the greatest animators of all time. It was Tex Avery who introduced the manic approach filled with sight gags, sarcastic wit, and pop culture references for which Warner Brothers would become known. Working within this approach Bob Clampett went even further. Influenced by artist Salvador Dali, Bob Clampett made animated shorts that can only be described as surreal. The laws of physics had no place in the majority of Mr. Clampett's cartoons, and his characters were fluid beyond belief. Among his earliest successes in surrealism was "Porky in Wackyland" (1938), in which Porky visits Wackyland where, according to its  sign, "It Can Happen Here!" In Wackyland logic has no place and Porky sees such sights as a creature that plays "The William Tell Overture" through his nose, a criminal imprisoned by no more than a set of bars floating in mid-air, a duck singing "Mammy," and other strange sights.  Bob Clampett's tendency towards surrealism would remain a part of his style as long as he worked at Warner Brothers, and can be seen in such cartoons as "Nutty News" (1942),  "The Great Piggy Bank Robbery" (1945), and "The Big Snooze" (1946). If Tex Avery and the other animators at Warner Brothers ignored the logic and laws of physics of the real world, Bob Clampett smashed them entirely.

Not only were Bob Clampett's cartoons characterised by surrealism, but even before the puppet show Time for Beany his work was characterised by references to American pop culture and parody thereof. This can be seen as early as 1940, with the short "Africa Squeaks", essentially a parody of the film Stanley and Livingstone (1939). Even when Mr. Clampett was not parodying a specific film or radio show, he would often include some pop culture reference in his animated shorts. "A Tale of Two Kitties" not only features a pair of cats who are clearly based on Abbot and Costello (Babbit and Catstello), but takes a direct swipe at the Hays Office (which oddly enough remained uncensored at the time).  Of course, if anything Bob Clampett's tendency to reference and parody American pop culture would become even more pronounced with Time for Beany.

Bob Clampett would have a lasting impact on animation and American entertainment media in general. While Tex Avery started the move away from the Disneyesque animation of the early shorts at Leon Schlesinger with his high energy, non-stop gags and action, Bob Clampett completed the move away from Disneyesque animation with surrealism and a complete disregard for the law of physics or real life logic. Between Messrs. Avery and Clampett, they arguably created what we know as the Warner Brothers Cartoon. The awareness of American pop culture Bob Clampett showed in his Warner Brothers cartoons and later in Time for Beany and Beany and Cecil was arguably ahead of its time. While today such pop culture references are common place, this was not the case in the Forties and Fifties. In that respect Bob Clampett can be seen as the harbinger of everything from the Sixties comedy The Monkees to the modern day sitcom Community. Bob Clampett was a one of a kind talent whose work remains immediately recognisable and whose influence can still be felt today.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Late Great Ray Harryhausen

Special effects wizard and stop-motion model animator Ray Harryhausen died today at the age of 92. He created some of film's most iconic images in such films as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts.

Ray Harryhausen was born on 29 June 1920 in Los Angeles, California. His parents regularly took him to the cinema and he was only five years old when they took him to see The Lost World (1925). Based on the novel of the same name by Arthur Conan Doyle, the film made an impression on young Mr. Harryhausen, who was fascinated by its dinosaurs. It was the first time he was exposed to the work of pioneer stop motion animator Willis H. O'Brien. In 1933, at thirteen years of age, he went to see King Kong, featuring even more revolutionary stop motion animation from Willis H. O'Brien. If anything, King Kong made an even bigger impression on Ray Harryhusen. He asked his parents numerous questions about the film and when they could not answer them, he did his own research. It was not long before he was making his own marionettes based on the creatures in King Kong, including a a tyrannosaurus rex, a stegosaurus, an apatosaurus, a pterodactyl, and, first of all them, Kong himself. Eventually he learned about stop motion animation, and it was not long before he started making his own stop motion animation films with a borrowed 16mm camera.

While he was still in high school Ray Harryhausen took night classes in art and anatomy at Los Angeles City College. He also took night classes in art direction, editing, and photography at the University of Southern California. It was during this period that Ray Harryhausen made friends with another teenager with a love of fantasy, Forrest Ackerman, who would go onto publish the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. It was Mr. Ackerman who encouraged Ray Harryhausen to join the Los Angeles Science Fiction League. It was in the Los Angeles Science Fiction League that he met Ray Bradbury, who not only became Mr. Harryhausen's lifelong friend, but also one of the most legendary writers of the 20th Century.

At only age 18 he embarked on a project called Evolution of the World, which would trace the development of animals from the days of the dinosaurs to the emergence of mammals. He abandoned the project when he saw Disney's Fantasia with its "Rite of Spring" sequence, which depicted the beginning of the Earth (including the rise and demise of the dinosaurs). It was while he was working on Evolution of the World that he met Willis O'Brien. He called Mr. O'Brien at MGM and was able to visit the legendary stop motion animator.

While Ray Harryhausen abandoned Evolution of the World, its footage did come in use. He was able to use the footage to get a job with producer and director George Pal working on Mr. Pal's series of stop motion shorts known as "Puppetoons," which were distributed by Paramount. He was paid $16 a week. He worked with George Pal from 1940 to 1942. With the onset of World War II, he enlisted in the United States Army. He was assigned to the Signal Corps and then became part of the Special Services Division. He worked on the "Why We Fight" series of documentary films overseen by Colonel Frank Capra.  While Mr. Harryhausen was in the service, Major Ted Geisel (better known to the world as Dr. Seuss) also asked Mr. Harryhausen to make a sculpture of Private Snafu that would serve as a guide for animators when making the "Snafu" series of instructional animated shorts.

After World War II he made a series of stop motion animated shorts based on nursery rhymes under the heading Mother Goose Stories. To make a living he did work for industrial films and television commercials.  It was not long after he had completed Mother Goose Stories that he was contacted by Willis H. O'Brien to help with the stop motion animation on Merian C. Cooper's new feature film, Mighty Joe Young (1949). In the end Mr. Harryhausen would do around 90% of the stop motion animation on the film, including the famous sequence in which Joe engages in a tug of war with eight men.

It was in late 1951 that Ray Harryhausen was given the chance to animate his first feature film. Initially titled The Monster From Under the Sea, it was released under the title The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Significantly, it was based on a short story by Mr. Harryhausen's close friend, Ray Bradbury. Although it would not have a name yet, it was the first film on which Ray Harryhausen used the stop motion animation technique that would eventually be called "Dynamation." The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms would prove enormously successful, not only leading to the 1952 re-release of King Kong, but also allegedly leading Japanese producer Tomoyuki Tanaka to go ahead with the film Gojira (released in an edited form in the United States as Godzilla).

Among the many who saw The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms was young Columbia Pictures producer Charles H. Schneer. Mr. Schneer had an idea for a film about a giant octopus on the loose in San Francisco, California and decided that Ray Harryhausen could handle the special effects on the picture. He got in contact with Mr. Harryhausen through a mutual friend. Although initially reluctant to make another monster movie, Mr. Harryhausen eventually agreed to work on Charles H. Schneer's film, which would be titled It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955).

Following It Came from Beneath the Sea Ray Harryhausen worked on Irwin Allen's documentary The Animal World, animating dinosaurs and working with Willis H. O'Brien for one last time. After The Animal World Ray Harryhausen returned to Charles H. Schneer. Messrs. Harryhausen and Schneer made two more films, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), before they made one of their most famous films. It was Ray Harryhausen who struck upon the idea of basing a film on the "Sinbad" tales in One Thousand and One Nights. Ray Harryhausen's outline for the film was titled Sinbad the Sailor; in the end it was titled The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was Ray Harryhausen's first feature film shot in colour. It would also be the first film on which the term "Dynamation" was used, the term having been coined by Charles H. Schneer for use in promoting the film. The film featured some of Mr. Harryhausen's best known sequences, including a fight with a Cyclops and a skeleton fight on a spiral staircase. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad would prove to be one of Ray Harryhausen's most successful films, inspiring imitators well into the Sixties.

Ray Harryhausen would then work on a loose adaptation of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels entitled The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1959) and an adaptation of Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island (1960). Mr. Harryhausen's next film could well be his most famous, Jason and the Argonauts (1963). As early as the Fifties Ray Harryhausen had toyed with the idea of a film based on Greek mythology. It was while he was working on The Mysterious Island that he began to develop Jason and the Argonauts. Jason and the Argonauts would feature some of Mr. Harryhausen's most famous creations: the giant man of bronze Talos, the seven headed hydra, and, perhaps his most famous sequence of all time, Jason's fight with the Children of the Hydra (skeletal warriors).  Amazingly enough, Jason and the Argonauts failed at the box office, although it has since gone on to become regarded as Ray Harryhausen's best film.

Sadly, Ray Harryhausen's next film, an adaptation of H. G. Wells' First Men in the Moon (1964), would also fail at the box office. Ray Harryhausen's next project would not be with Charles M. Schneer. Instead he was hired by Hammer Films to provide the stop motion animation for One Million Years B.C. (1966). The film proved successful and launched Raquel Welch as a star.

Ray Harryhausen's next film actually had its origins with Willis O'Brien. Willis O'Brien had conceived a scenario (originally entitled Valley of the Mists and later The Valley Where Time Stood Still), in which cowboys find an allosaurus in the Grand Canyon. Pre-production on the film had actually begun in 1941, but it was later abandoned. Willis O'Brien's scenario would finally be realised as Valley of the Gwangi, in which not only an allosaurus appears, but also a pteranodon, an ornithomimus, and a styracosaurus. While Valley of the Gwangi was not successful in its initial release, it would go onto become a cult film and would have an influence on movies ranging from Jurassic Park (1993) to Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong (2005).

With the failure of Valley of the Gwangi at the box office, Ray Harryhausen and Charles M. Schneer decided to return to the sources of one of their most successful films, Sinbad and One Thousand and One Nights. Ray Harryhausen created an outline that would eventually become two films: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). A highlight of  The Golden Voyage of Sinbad was the sword battle with a six armed statue of the Hindu goddess Kali. The Golden Voyage of Sinbad did very well at the box office, so that Columbia decided to go ahead with Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger even while The Golden Voyage of Sinbad was still in its initial release. Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger would also perform well at the box office, despite lacklustre reviews.

Sadly, Ray Harryhausen's next feature film would also be his last, Clash of the Titans (1981). The film featured one of his best sequences, that of  Perseus and the gorgon Medusa.  Clash of the Titans did relatively well at the box office. With its success another film based on mythology, Force of the Trojans (centred on Aeneas) was pitched to MGM in 1984, but never emerged. Ray Harryhausen then retired. Since then he has taken part in the British television documentary Working with Dinosaurs (2000) and also completed the last of his fairy tale shorts "The Story of 'The Tortoise & the Hare (2002)".  He maintained lifelong friendships with Ray Bradbury, Forrest Ackerman, and Charles H. Schneer.

Quite simply, Ray Harryhausen was the greatest stop motion animator of all time. He strove for realism in his stop motion animations and in doing so revolutionised the field. Dynmation, his technique of stop motion animation, allowed for stop motion animated models to be placed directly in the action so that they appeared to be interacting with the actors on the screen. This made Mr. Harryhausen's stop motion animation look far more realistic than anything that had come before it. What makes Ray Harryhausen all the more remarkable is that his stop motion animation still holds up today. In an age of nearly photo-realistic computer-generated imagery, Ray Harryhausen's films still look better than most of what is released today.

Of course, while Ray Harryhausen was most often credited for "visual effects" or "animation" on his films, his participation in them went much further. More often than not it was Mr. Harryhausen who conceived the stories in his films, making an outline before any special effects work began. He also took part in choosing the locations for his films and even had a hand in their art direction. Arguably, Ray Harryhausen had more impact on the films he made than even the writers and directors. Quite simply, he was not simply a stop motion animator, he was an auteur.

Throughout the years Ray Harryhausen's work would touch many lives, not the least of which was my own. The first film I can remember watching all the way through was Jason and the Argonauts when I was about four years old. The film had me transfixed. I particularly marvelled at Jason's battle with the skeletal Children of the Hydra. At that time Mr. Harryhausen's films were still shown frequently on local television stations, so I had a chance to see all of them, from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to Clash of the Titans. They fuelled in me an interest not only in mythology and folklore, but also in fantasy, an interest that would later expand to include horror and science fiction. Eventually I would write my own fantasies. Alongside the Sixties TV series Batman (which would lead me to comic books and then writing my own comic books), then, Ray Harryhausen may largely be responsible for my writing career. It is for that reason that today has been a particularly sad one for me, and this had been one of the most difficult eulogies I have had to write.

Of course, I am far from the only person whose life was touched by Ray Harryhausen. Millions of others have been touched by his work. Film makers from Stephen Spielberg to Peter Jackson have been influenced by him. A lucky few have even been touched by the man himself. Perhaps because he had begun as a fan himself, Ray Harryhausen was always warm and friendly towards his fans. He was often a guest at conventions, where he was always congenial. I have never heard or read anything from anyone who described Ray Harryhausen as anything less than one of the kindest, most amiable gentlemen one could. Ray Harryhausen was then not only an innovative special effects wizard, master stop motion animator, and a cinematic genius, he was one of those rarest of men--a truly great gentleman.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The 100th Anniversary of Stewart Granger's Birth

During the Golden Age of Film it was often the case that Hollywood did not make the best use of English leading men.  Although there were exceptions, it was often the case that English actors would find themselves consistently cast in "stiff upper lip" roles, regardless of what they had played in their native Britain. A notable exception to this rule was Stewart Granger. Mr. Granger first made his name in Gainsborough melodramas in his native Britain. Even after his career shifted towards Hollywood, he continued to appear in "man of action" roles rather than the standard "stiff upper lip" roles often given to English actors. Stewart Granger was born James Lablache Stewart 100 years ago today in West London.

In some respects it should come as no surprise that Stewart Granger would spend much of his career playing action heroes. His father was a military man, Major James Stewart, who had been awarded an OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for his service to the United Kingdom. It should also come as no surprise that he would take up acting. His great great grandfather on his mother's side was notable opera singer Luigi Lablache. Mr. Granger attended Epsom College in Surrey with the goal of getting a medical degree, but abandoned the idea when he took up acting. He then attended the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London. While he would continue to use his given name in his private life, he took the stage name "Stewart Granger" to avoid confusion with the American actor James (often called "Jimmy") Stewart.

Stewart Granger was a part of Hull Repertory Theatre for a time before going to Birmingham Repertory Theatre. He made his film debut in an uncredited role in A Southern Maid in 1933. The next few years he appeared in small roles in such films as Over the Garden Wall (1934), I Spy (1934), Give Her a Ring (1936), and Under Secret Orders (1937). In 1938 he appeared on the West End in the role of Captain Hamilton in The Sun Never Sets at the Drury Lane Theatre. This would be followed by a role opposite Vivien Leigh in Serena Blandish. Mr. Granger made enough of an impact in these roles that he received a screen test and as a result appeared in his first major (although still only supporting) role in So This is London in 1938. He went on to appear in 1940 in Convoy.

Mr. Granger's career would be interrupted very briefly by World War II. In 1940 he enlisted in the Gordon Highlanders, a British infantry regiment. He transferred to the Black Watch. Unfortunately, he suffered from stomach ulcers and would be invalided out of the military in 1942. Mr. Granger resumed his film career with Secret Mission in 1942, but it would be his second film after returning from the military that would make his career. Stewart Granger was cast in the Gainsborough melodrama The Man in Grey alongside Margaret Lockwood, Phyllis Calvert, and James Mason. The Man in Grey proved to be a hit. It not only established Stewart Granger's career, but it lead Gainsborough to produce even more period dramas. Quite simply, the era of the Gainsborough melodrama had begun.

Over the next several years Stewart Granger appeared in both historical romances and action films for both Gainsborough and Rank, including Fanny by Gaslight (1943), Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944), Caravan (1946), Blanche Fury (1947), and Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948). A notable role set in modern times was Waterloo Road (1945), in which Stewart Granger played the villain, a womaniser who had evaded the draft during World War II. Another notable role for Mr. Granger during this period was the 1945 film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra in which he played Apollodorus.

Despite his success in his native Britain, Stewart Granger was largely dissatisfied with the sort of roles he was receiving from the Rank Organisation. When Mr. Granger had his chance to star in his first Hollywood film, then, he took it. Stewart Granger played Allan Quatermain in the 1950 adaptation of King Solomon's Mines. Mr. Granger's performance as the legendary hero Allan Quatermain led MGM to cast him in an entire series of swashbucklers and action films. He appeared in such classic swashbucklers and historical dramas as The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), Scaramouche (1952), Young Bess (1953), Beau Brummell (1954), and Moonfleet (1955). Here it must be pointed out that Stewart Granger was unique among the major leading men in Hollywood swashbucklers in that he actually was British--Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Tyrone Power Jr. were all Americans, while Errol Flynn was Australian! In the period during which he was starring in swashbucklers Mr. Granger would also receive another honour. In Scaramouche he participated in what is the longest, continuous sword duel on film. What makes this remarkable is that it is entirely Stewart Granger during the sword fight--no stunt doubles were used.

Not only did Stewart Granger become one of the foremost stars of swashbucklers in the Fifties, but he also accomplished something few British actors have done convincingly--he starred in a Western. In Gun Glory (1957), he played Tom Early, the "fastest gun alive (as advertisements for the film described him). Gun Glory would not be the last Western in which Stewart Granger starred. He appeared in the John Wayne film North to Alaska (1960) and then as "Old Surehand" in three films based on German novelist Karl May's Westerns:  Frontier Hellcat (1964), Rampage at Apache Wells (1965), and Flaming Frontier (1965).

Stewart Granger's career went into decline in the late Fifties, and the Sixties would see him making films in Europe as opposed to Hollywood. The Karl May adaptations were made in Germany. He also starred in the Italian swashbuckler Swordsman of Siena (1962), the Italian crime film Killer's Carnival (1966), the Italian spy film Requiem for a Secret Agent (1966). In the late Sixties his career shifted towards television, where he would once more find himself starring in a Western. He starred as Col. Alan MacKenzie, owner of the Shiloh Ranch, in The Men from Shiloh (the title of The Virginian in its final season) from 1970 to 1971. He later played Sherlock Holmes in a television adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1972 and guest starred on such shows as Murder She WroteThe Love Boat, and Hotel. He continued to occasionally appear in films, including Wild Geese (1978), Hell Hunters (1985), and Fine Gold (1989--his final appearance on film).

Stewart Granger died on 16 August 1993 at the age of 80. The cause was prostate and bones cancer.

Strangely enough given his success, Stewart Granger never thought of himself as a great actor. In a 1970 interview he said, "Stewart Granger was quite a successful film star, but I don't think he was an actor's actor." In fact, only he was only pleased with one film he made, Waterloo Road. While Stewart Granger did not think much of himself as an actor, it is rather safe to say that he has many fans who would disagree with him. It is not simply a case that he was convincing in the many Gainsborough melodramas and Hollywood swashbucklers he made, but that he was impressive in other films he made as well. Although he was an Englishman, Stewart Granger was quite good in Gun Glory, as well as the Karl May Westerns. I do not think he could have been any better had he been born in the American West. And while Stewart Granger usually played the hero, he could be quite effect as a villain. Mr. Granger was right to be proud of his performance in Waterloo Road, but he could also be proud of his performances in Footsteps in the Fog (in which he played a serial wife killer), and The Wild Geese (in which he played an unscrupulous banker apparently plotting the overthrow of an African nation). While Stewart Granger may not have thought of himself as a versatile actor, then, it would seem he truly was.