Wednesday, November 13, 2013

45 Years Ago Today Yellow Submarine Had Its New York City Premiere

It was 45 years ago today, on 13 November 1968, that the animated feature film Yellow Submarine, had its American premiere in New York City. While The Beatles' involvement in the film was minimal (they didn't even provide the voices for their characters in the film), it has come to be counted by many as one of their films. At the time it was a historic film. Not only was it the first animated feature film to utilise a rock soundtrack, but it was also one of the earliest to make use of pop art and psychedelia. Since it's premiere in London on 17 July 1968 it has since become regarded as a classic. In fact, Time magazine included it in their list of "The 25 All-Time Best Animated Films". The film boasts an impressive a 96% percent rating on the web site Rotten Tomatoes.

In honour of the anniversary of the Stateside premiere of Yellow Submarine, I have two treats for you. The first is the film's original trailer. The second is a mini-documentary on the film.

Yellow Submarine - The Trailer from Motherlode Media on Vimeo.

The Beatles Mini Documentaries - Yellow Submarine from Ryan Wells on Vimeo.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What the Media Isn't Telling You About Google+ and YouTube

Last week Google overhauled YouTube's comments. Much of this involved giving YouTube channel owners new tools for moderation. If they choose, channel owners can now look over comments before they are posted and delete them and even block the commenter if necessary. Unfortunately, Google also integrated YouTube's comments with Google+. As a result if one wants to comment on YouTube videos he or she now must have a Google+ account. Several media outlets have reported the outrage of YouTube users at having to get Google+ accounts. Some individuals in the media have even used the controversy as an opportunity to launch, in my humble opinion, unwarranted attacks on Google+ (a perfect example of this a story from the Huffington Post, "YouTube Founder Says What We're All Thinking About Google+"--never mind the majority of people I know don't think the same thing about Google+ that YouTube's co-founder does). While the media has covered the outrage of YouTube users over this situation, they have entirely ignored something else. Quite simply, we Google+ users are angry over the whole situation as well.

Of course, I think most of us can agree that something had to be done about YouTube's comments. The site had long ago become a haven for trolls, a place where one could find racist, sexist, homophobic, and other hateful comments even on innocent cat videos. The situation has always been so bad that most people I know (myself included) simply disable comments on their videos. I can perfectly understand why Google wanted to change YouTube's comments to rein in the many trolls.

Unfortunately, from the standpoint of many Google+ users, in integrating comments for YouTube with Google+, Google has only made the situation worse. Quite simply, the change in YouTube comments has done very little to stop the trolls there and, worse yet, some of the trolls have simply migrated to Google+. While I have been fortunate in not having YouTube trolls comment on any of my posts, I have heard reports from others on  Google+ users of having to deal with them. Some have been lucky in only having one or two trolls comment on their posts. Others have had to deal with several. If Google thought that integrating YouTube's comments with Google+ was going to stop the trolls, it would seem they were wrong. Now they are simply plaguing two sites!

The other reason that Google+ users are angry is that now any comments we make to a YouTube video that has been posted publicly on G+ will automatically be shared to YouTube as well. While comments on publicly posted videos on Google+ are public anyway (literally anyone can read them), there are still some Google+ users who feel that in those comments automatically being posted to YouTube their privacy is being invaded. For many (perhaps most) of those who are angry, however, the issue is not about privacy. It is more about the fact that Google+ and YouTube are entirely different platforms where comments play completely different roles. Googe+ is a community or, perhaps more accurately, several different communities. Comments on videos often lead to discussions between various Google+ users. And often those conversations are less about the video than they are about ourselves or other things. While I do not comment on YouTube, if I did my comment would solely be about the video and would be directed solely to the person who posted the video. I would not expect it to lead to any sort of meaningful conversation. I then rather suspect that the comments we make on videos on G+ and the conversations that ensue probably will not make sense to anyone who reads them on YouTube. They will be entirely out of context.

While Google+ users are angry over YouTube trolls migrating to Google+ and over our comments on Google+ being posted to YouTube, many of us are also not happy about people being required to get Google+ accounts just to comment on YouTube. While I love Google+ and I want people to join Google+, I want them to join it because they want to, not  as a condition for making comments on a completely different site. Beyond that, I have to say that I think requiring people to get a Google+ account just to comment on videos on YouTube is simply not fair. It reminds me of those various sites that require one to have a Facebook account to log in or to make comments. I have never liked that either (particularly as I trust Facebook very little). To me one should not have to have an account with any social media site, whether it is Google+, Twitter, Facebook, or what have you, simply to comment on posts on another site entirely.

Sadly, Google's integration of YouTube's comments with Google+ has also led to widespread accusations that it was simply a ploy to get more people to join Google+. I honestly do not believe this. Quite simply, Google does not have to force people to join Google+. It is currently the second largest social media site and as a Google+ user I can attest that it is very active. On any given day my Google+ stream is generally busier than my Facebook news feed and it is almost as busy as my Twitter feed. While it is possible that this was part of a strategy on the part of Google to get more people to join Google+, I very seriously doubt it, as they really do not have to force people to get Google+ accounts. I suspect is more likely the case that Google knew it had to develop some means to deal with YouTube trolls and chose to use Google+ as the means to do so rather than developing better tools on YouTube itself for doing so.

Regardless of Google's motive for integrating YouTube's comments with Google+, it has had an impact on both sites. Many of us on Google+ have ceased sharing YouTube videos on there. When I want to share a particular song on Google+, I now use Vimeo, DailyMotion, or one of the other video sharing sites. Many of us no longer comment on YouTube videos that are shared publicly on Google+ because we don't want our comments posted to YouTube. In integrating YouTube's comments with Google+, then, they have hurt the amount of discussion that goes on at the site. I seriously doubt this is what Google intended.

It is my hope that Google will reverse their decision to integrate YouTube's comments with Google+. It is quite possible that they will. The media has reported the anger of many YouTube users over Google's decision and I know that on Google+ many G+ users are angry as well. And we G+ users have made our displeasure known to Google. In fact, I dare say that it is the most controversial thing that Google has done in years. I would then say that it would probably be very beneficial for them to undo the integration and develop another, better means for dealing with YouTube trolls.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sheldon Leonard: What a Character!

When most people think of Sheldon Leonard as an actor, it is his role as Nick the bartender in It's a Wonderful Life (1946) that probably comes to mind. If his role as Nick doesn't immediately spring to mind, then they will most likely think of one of the many heavies he played in movies over the years. And while Mr. Leonard did play an inordinately large number of heavies over the years, it was not the sum total of his career. While most people know that he was one of the greatest producers of television shows in the history of the medium, not many know that he actually played a wider array of roles in film, on radio, and on television than the heavies for which he was so well known. Indeed, Mr. Leonard even provided the voices for characters in Warner Brothers cartoons!

Sheldon Leonard was born Sheldon Leonard Bershad on 22 February 1907 in New York City. He attended Stuyvesant High School in New York City.  He went to Syracuse University on an athletic scholarship. Mr. Leonard was not only a good athlete, but a good scholar as well. He was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honour society. According to Turner Classic Movies he made his film debut in The Overland Stage in 1927, which would have been even before he graduated from Syracuse University in 1929. Following his graduation from Syracuse University he went to work on Wall Street. Unfortunately, he started working on Wall Street in late October of 1929, the very time that the Stock Market crashed. As might be expected, his career on Wall Street was a short one. It was then that Mr. Leonard decided to become a professional actor.

The year 1934 would prove to be a significant one in Sheldon Leonard's career. It was that year that he made his debut on Broadway in the comedy Hotel Alimony. It was that same year that he would also have his first significant role in a film. In the comedy short "My Mummy's Arms" (starring Shemp Howard before he became one of The Three Stooges) Sheldon Leonard played Abdullah, an Egyptian guide who curiously has a Brooklyn accent! He appeared in another ethnic role in another comedy short, "Gem of the Ocean" that same year, as well as a bit part as the "Third Department of Justice Representative" in the gangster movie The People's Enemy. Sheldon Leonard would spend much of the rest of the Thirties on Broadway, where he appeared in such productions as The Night Remembers, Fly Away Home, Having Wonderful Time, Siege, and Kiss the Boys Good-bye.

It was in 1939 that Sheldon Leonard returned to film, and it would be in a role that would largely determine the course of the rest of his career. In Another Thin Man Mr. Leonard played Phil Church, an ex-convict and an all around dodgy character. It was a role Sheldon Leonard played very well, so it should perhaps not be surprising that he played a similar in his very next film--gangster Pretty Willie Williams in Tall, Dark, & Handsome (1941). Over the years Sheldon Leonard would play many similar gangsters in such films as Lucky Jordan (1942), The Gangster (1947), and, perhaps most famously, Guys and Dolls (1955). Mr. Leonard was so identified with gangsters and similar roles that he often parodied them in comedies, including the horror comedy Zombies on Broadway (1945),  the Bowery Boys film Jinx Money (1948), and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951).

While he may be well known for playing gangsters, Sheldon Leonard played many other heavies besides gangsters. In fact, one of his better known roles is from To Have and Have Not, in which he played Captain Renard's assistant Lt. Coyo. He even appeared in Westerns, including Blackie in Frontier Gal (1945) and Chief Ogane in The Iroquois Trail from 1950 (despite the fact that he had no Native American blood whatsoever).  In Violence (1947) he played part of a neo-Fascist organisation. He even appeared as a heavy in a pirate movie, playing one of Captain Kidd's crew in Captain Kidd (1945).

Of course, Sheldon Leonard played many roles beyond heavies. Indeed, his most famous film role of all time was not a heavy. In the primary timeline (the one in which George Bailey was born) of  It's a Wonderful Life Nick is good hearted, caring, and loyal to both Mr. Martini and George. He also played police officers on more than one occasion. His best known role as a police officer may be in the cult film Decoy (1946), in which he played Sgt. Joe Portugal. He also played  Detective Joe Marruci in Street of Chance (1942),  Detective Sgt. Mike Frontelli in Open Secret (1948) and Detective Pacciano in Take One False Step (1949).

While Sheldon Leonard is well known for playing heavies in feature films, it is not as well known that he provided voices for characters in Warner Brothers' animated shorts. He provided the voice for Dodsworth in the shorts "Kiddin' the Kitten" and "A Peck of Trouble". Dodsworth is unlike any role Mr. Leonard played in feature films. He is an overweight, tuxedo cat who is always trying to get others to do his work for him. His voice could best be described as Sheldon Leonard doing a W. C. Fields impersonation, or vice versa. He also provided the voice of Kid Banty, the boxing rooster, in the Foghorn Leghorn short "Sock-a-Doodle-Do". His work on Warner Brothers theatrical shorts would not be the last time that Sheldon Leonard did voice work for cartoons. He was also the voice of King Linus on the Sixties, Saturday morning television cartoon Linus the Linus Hearted.

Sheldon Leonard also did a good deal of work on radio. He may be best known as the Tout on The Jack Benny Programme, who was always giving Jack Benny dubious advice about betting at the racetrack. Mr. Leonard also played various roles on The Adventures of Maisie, starring Ann Southern (most frequently that of Maisie's boyfriend). He was also a regular on such varied radio shows as The Lineup (a CBS police drama), The Martin and Lewis Show, Johnny Fletcher (an NBC police comedy on which Mr. Leonard played Johnny's partner Sam), The Judy Canova Show (on which he played Judy's boyfriend Joe Crunchmiller), and The Damon Runyan Theatre (where he most often played, you guessed it, gangsters). He also appeared on such radio shows as The Adventures of the Saint, Burns and Allen, Old Gold Comedy Theatre, Richard Diamond Private Detective, and Screen Director's Playhouse.

As a successful character actor on both film and in radio, Sheldon Leonard naturally moved into television. He made his television debut on Your Jeweller's Showcase before going onto a memorable guest shot on I Love Lucy as Harry Martin, the fast talking, door to door salesman for the Handy-Dandy” vacuum cleaner. As one might expect, he reprised his role as the Racetrack Trout on several episodes of The Jack Benny Programme. He also had a recurring role as agent Phil Brokaw on Make Room for Daddy (more on his connection to that show in a little bit). He was a regular on the show The Duke. As an actor on television Sheldon Leonard's output would slow with the Sixties, although he found time to guest star on such shows as I Spy, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., My World and Welcone to It, and Sanford and Son. He was the lead on the short lived sitcom Big Eddie in the Seventies. In the Eighties he guest starred on The Cosby Show, Matlock, Murder She Wrote, and Cheers. His last appearance on a television show was in an episode of Dream On in 1992.

Of course, when it came to television Sheldon Leonard's best known role may have been as a producer rather than an actor. Indeed, he could justifiably be considered one of the greatest television producers of all time. Not only was he fairly prolific, but he also produced some of the most successful, best loved shows of all time. Sheldon Leonard became a television producer by way of Make Room for Daddy, also known as The Danny Thomas Show. Mr. Leonard had broken into television directing with episodes of G.E. Theatre and Your Jeweller's Showcase. With the first season of Make Room for Daddy he was one of the show's regular directors. By the third season he was promoted to the role of producer for the show. It was the beginning of a successful new career for Mr. Leonard.

Indeed, Sheldon Leonard would produce some of the most legendary shows in the history of television. He served as executive producer on The Andy Griffith Show and even played a pivotal role in its creation. When Carl Reiner's pilot Head of the Family failed, Carl Reiner’s agent, Harry Kalcheim took it to Sheldon Leonard, who took on the project and recast it. Ultimately Head of the Family became The Dick Van Dyke Show. Over the years Sheldon Leonard would produce such shows as The Bill Dana Show, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.I Spy, Accidental Family, Good Morning World, My World and Welcome to It, and Shirley's World.

Here it must be pointed out that Sheldon Leonard was not simply a successful television producer, but he was also one who was willing to take chances. It was Sheldon Leonard who cast Bill Cosby as Alexander Scott on I Spy, making him the first African American lead on an American drama series. While NBC supported Sheldon Leonard in the casting of Bill Cosby, some of the network's affiliates baulked at airing a show featuring a black man in the lead. Mr. Leonard stuck to his guns and I Spy not only went on to be a hit, but it established Bill Cosby as a star. Sheldon Leonard would also take a risk with the short lived, now largely forgotten sitcom Accidental Family. One of the two leads was Lois Nettleton as divorceé Sue Kramer. It was the first American sitcom to feature a divorced woman as one of the central characters, and hence the first American sitcoms to deal with the issue of divorce.

The last show Sheldon Leonard produced was The Don Rickles Show in 1972. He made his last appearance as an actor in a guest appearance on Dream On in 1992. He also served as executive producer on the I Spy reunion film I Spy Returns in 1994. He died at age 89 on 22 February 1907.

Sheldon Leonard was much more than Nick in It's a Wonderful Life. He was also much more than a heavy in several feature films. He was even much more than one of the most successful television producers of all time. Sheldon Leonard was one of those rare individuals with talent in multiple fields: acting, directing, and producing. As an actor his career spanned several different media, including stage, film, television, radio, and even animated cartoons. And while he is best known for the heavies he played, Mr. Leonard could play much more. He could be a kindly bartender. He could be a dodgy racetrack tout. He could be a slick vacuum cleaner salesman. He could even be an incredibly lazy cat. In fact, the only thing I would possibly change about Sheldon Leonard's career is that I wished he had appeared in more comedy films. He had a real flair for the genre, whether it was playing the parodies of the heavies he played so often in Jinx Money and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man or the race track tout on The Jack Benny Programme or Phil Brokaw on Make Room for Daddy. Among many other things, Sheldon Leonard could be a very funny man.

Of course, Sheldon Leonard is also remembered as a legendary television producer. There can be no doubt that he produced some of the best loved, most successful shows of all time. More than fifty years after they have debuted, The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show are still aired around the world. What is more, Mr. Leonard not only had an eye for what could be successful, he also had an eye for quality. Both The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show received sterling reviews when they debuted and now they are counted as two of the greatest shows of all time. And, as pointed out above, he was also a producer who was willing to take chances. He cast an African American actor in a lead role on I Spy at a time when the casts of some shows were entirely white. He produced the first sitcom to feature a divorced women as one of the leads and as a result the first sitcom to deal with divorce. It should be little wonder, then, that Sheldon Leonard should be one of the most successful television producers of all time.

In the end, it is perhaps fitting that Sheldon Leonard's best known role is that of Nick in It's a Wonderful Life. A talented actor in multiple media who would become a successful producer of television shows, it can truly be said he had a wonderful life.