Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: The Year in Review

Today is the last day of 2014. As far as years go, I cannot say it was overly remarkable, either with regards popular culture. It was neither an overly good year or an overly bad year, but like most years a mixture of both.

As for myself, I have to say that over all it was a good year. This blog, A Shroud of Thoughts, celebrated its 10th anniversary on 4 June. It still boggles my mind that I have been writing it this long! It certainly doesn't seem like it. I also have to point out that 2014 is on track to become the year with the third most posts in the history of the blog  Only 2010 and 2008 have seen more posts. With regards to myself I also got to be a guest on the radio show Hollywood Time Machine with Alicia Mayer. I got to talk about the 50th anniversary of various TV shows. That was very special to me as 1964 could be my favourite year in American television. It was a lot of fun and I could talk to both Alicia Mayer and Will McKinley (her esteemed co-host) all day about classic film and television. Of course, if someone had told me several years ago I would have been on the same show as Dateline host and Hollywood royal Josh Mankiewicz, I would have asked, "Whom did I kill or who killed me?". Anyhow, Hollywood Time Machine with Alicia Mayer is a marvellous show and you should check it out!

As far as classic film and television goes, sadly the big news this year was the deaths of many great stars. Perhaps the biggest star in film and television , at least in my opinion, to die was the legendary James Garner. He was a master of both media, having played two iconic characters on television (Bret Maverick on Maverick and James Rockford on The Rockford Files), as well as appearing in numerous classic films (my favourites being his Sixties sex comedies, such as Boy's Night Out and The Thrill of It All). Of course, James Garner was not the only major film star to die in 2014. Sadly, we also saw the passing of the truly legendary Lauren Bacall. James Garner was also not the only star to die who mastered both TV and film. Sadly, Robin Williams took his own life this year. Mr. Williams came to fame on TV's Mork & Mindy and then had a very successful film career. The year also saw the deaths of film star Maximillian Schell; director Gabriel Axel; actor, director, and screenwriter Harold Ramis; legendary classic movie star Mickey Rooney; centenarian Carla Laemmle; star of film, stage, and TV Ruby Dee; legendary character actor  Eli Wallach; the great actress  Elaine Stritch; legendary film star  Lord Richard Attenborough; comedian and director, the great British actress Billie Whitelaw; and Luise Rainer (the first actor to ever win two consecutive Oscars).

Many classic television actors also died this year. Comic Sid Caesar was a true pioneer of the medium, his Your Show of Shows paving the way for such sketch comedy shows as Rowan & Martin's Laugh In and Saturday Night Live. Although he might not be particularly well known in the United States, Rik Mayall was a British television legend. He may be best known for The Young Ones, but he also appeared in Filthy Rich & Catflap, The New Statesman, and Bottom. Russell Johnson left his mark as the Professor on Gilligan's Island, as well as playing the heavy in many episodes of Westerns. Lorenzo Semple Jr. developed the classic television show Batman and went onto work in film. Many classic television stars died in 2014, including   Efrem Zimbalist Jr. of Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip,  Ann B. Davis of The Bob Cummings Show and The Brady Bunch, beautiful character actress  Arlene Martel, legendary NBC announcer Don Pardo,   Richard Kiel (who played Voltaire on The Wild Wild West before appearing as Jaws in the James Bond films), Theodore J. Flicker (director of the film The President's Analyst and co-creator of Barney Miller), legendary comic actress Polly Bergen, Canadian character actor  Gerhard Parkes, the beautiful TV star Mary Ann Mobley, and Jeremy Lloyd (the co-creator of Are You Being Served?).

Music also saw the passing of some giants in 2014. In fact, three members of three of my favourite bands of all time died. Paul Revere was the leader and founder of Paul Revere & The Raiders, and perhaps the one constant in the band. Paul Revere & The Raiders would have a huge impact on power pop, garage rock, and punk. As one of The Ramones, Tommy Ramone would have lasting impact on everything from punk rock to power pop. Ian McLagan was the keyboardist for Small Faces, the greatest Mod band this side of The Who. He was one of the greatest keyboardists in the history of rock music. Possibly the biggest name in music to die was Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers. It is perhaps impossible to gauge the impact that The Everly Brothers had on rock music. They were a huge influence on the British bands of the Sixties, so that it is possible the British Invasion might not have happened without them. Because of this they also had a huge impact on the subgenre known as power pop; in fact, it would not exist without them. They would also have an impact on such diverse subgenres as folk rock and country rock. Other music celebrities who died in 2014 were legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, Bob Casale of Devo, legendary songwriter Gerry Goffin, guitarist Johnny Winter, and drummer Jack Bruce.

Of course, two deaths that had a huge impact on me owed their celebrity not to film, TV, or music, but to other things. What is more, both were linked to the legendary Mitford Sisters (in fact, one of them is a Mitford sister). Dr. Maya Angelou was one of the greatest poets of the 20th Century, an author, and an activist for Civil Rights. Her accomplishments were so numerous that they can not be listed briefly. She was also the best friend of author and activist Jessica Mitford. Jessica Mitford's last surviving sister also died this year. Deborah Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire was the last of the legendary (some might say notorious) Mitford Sisters. She was arguably the most beautiful of them all, but her lasting fame is not due to her beauty or her familial relations. Deborah Cavendish was pivotal in restoring and saving Chatsworth House and reviving the economies of Bakewell and Chesterfield as well. She also wrote numerous histories on Chatsworth, as well as her own life and family.

With regards to the films released in 2014, I have to regard the year as a bit of a bust. It was another year of sequels and remakes. Only a few films interested me this year. One of the few original, popular movies that interested me was Guardians of the Galaxy, which proved to a bit of a surprise hit. As far as other films, I would like to see The Imitation Game, Big Eyes, and  The Grand Budapest Hotel. Curiously, all three films are set in the past....

Television fared much better than film, with many very good new shows debuting. The current cycle in television seems to be shows based on comic books, and these shows actually number among the best of the year. Gotham, The Flash, and Constantine (my favourite) are all based DC comic books, and all are very well done. As to other shows, 2014 saw the debut of some quality dramas on television, including Black Sails, Turn: Washington's Spies, and  Outlander, among others. Sitcoms did not fare as well, with A to Z being the only standout comedy this year. Of course, the big news this year in American television may have been that Jay Leno finally stepping down from The Tonight Show. Jimmy Fallon took over 7 February. That having been said, I still keep expecting NBC to give the show back to Leno....

As far as British television goes, due to living here in the Colonies I really didn't get to see anything new from across the Pond. That having been said, from what I have read Line of Duty, Castles in the Sky, and Happy Valley are worth checking out. I would also like to see BBC One's most recent adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's Jamacia Inn, but from what  haveI heard I'll either need subtitles or I'll have to turn up the volume on the TV set. BBC One received numerous complaints about the sound quality on the series! Of course, for many of us the big news was the first series featuring a new Doctor on Doctor Who. I thought Peter Capaldi was great as the Twelfth Doctor. In fact, he is my favourite Doctor since the revival. I am also glad that Jenna Coleman is remaining as The Doctor's companion for 2015. Clara Oswald is my favourite companion since the revival and one of my favourite companions of all time.

I am not going to even bother with a look back at music this year. The sad fact is that 2014 continued to be dominated by artists whose primary fan base seems to be under the age of twelve: One Direction, Ariana Grande,  Iggy Azalea, and the like. The year did see releases by Bruce Springsteen, The Fray, 311, Plain White T's, Johnny Cash,  and Weezer. Of course, for me and many others the big news this year was actually old news. This year marked the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' arrival in the United States, as well as the 50th anniversary of their first number one single in the United States, their first appearance on American television, the release of A Hard Day's Night... Somehow I don't think many of today's artists will even be remembered in fifty years, let alone have their anniversaries observed!

Over all, 2014 was not a bad year, even if I don't think it can be said to have been a good year either. Like most years it was a bit of a mix of good and bad. Here is hoping for a much better and brighter 2015!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Late Great Luise Rainer

Luise Rainer, the legendary actress who was the first actor to win consecutive Oscars, died today at the age of 104. The cause was pneumonia.

Luise Rainer was born in Düsseldorf, Germany on 12 January 1910. She grew up in Hamburg, Germany and Vienna, Austria. Her father was a businessman, while her mother was a pianist. As a child she was a bit of tomboy, becoming a champion runner at school. She took an interest in show business at age 6 when she saw a man on the tightrope at a circus. She became an actress at age 16 without her parents' consent when she travelled to Düsseldorf for an audition with the Dumont Theatre. She studied under the legendary Max Reinhardt and by age 18 she was an established actress. She appeared in such stage productions as Men in White, Saint Joan, Measure for Measure, and Six Characters in Search of an Author.

It was in 1930 that she made her film debut in the Austrian film Ja, der Himmel über Wien. In 1932 she appeared in the German films Sehnsucht 202 (its screenplay was co-written by Emeric Pressburger) and Madame hat Besuch. In 1933 she appeared in the film Heut' kommt's drauf an. She was appearing in Pirandello's play Six Characters in Search of an Author when MGM talent scout Phil Berg saw her. She was given a three year contract with MGM. Thereafter she moved to California. Luise Rainer's first Hollywood film was Escapade in 1935, a remake of  the Austrian film Maskerade (1934). Miss Rainer's next two films would earn her Academy Awards. She played Anna Held in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The following year she played O-Lan in The Good Earth (1937), for which she also won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Luise Rainer then became the first actor to win two consecutive Academy Awards.

Unfortunately the two Oscars would not secure happiness for Luise Rainer in her career. She wanted to do more serious roles, but was she felt that she was constantly denied such by MGM. She made the films The Emperor's Candlesticks (1937), Big City (1937), The Toy Wife (1938), The Great Waltz (1938), and Dramatic School (1938) before walking out on MGM. She was unhappy with not getting serious roles and felt that Hollywood itself was superficial and shallow. Afterwards she went back to Europe where she studied medicine and helped Spanish Civil War refugees orphaned by the conflict. 

Luise Rainer did return to the stage. On 1 May 1939 Miss Rainer played Françoise in Behold the Bride at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. She also played Françoise in Behold the Bride at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London on 23 May 1939. In the United States she appeared in George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan in 1940. In 1942 she played Miss Thing in  J. M. Barrie's A Kiss for Cinderella. Luise Rainer would appear in one feature film during the Forties. She appeared in the Paramount film Hostages in 1943. It would be her last feature film appearance for over ten years.  During World War II she also entertained Allied troops in Africa and Italy, as well as appeared as war bond rallies in the United States.

Over the next few decades Luise Rainer appeared sporadically on television and in film. On television she appeared on such TV shows as BBC Sunday-Night Theatre, Faith Baldwin Romance Theatre, Schlitz Playhouse, Lux Video Theatre, Suspense, Combat, and The Love Boat. She appeared in the 1949 BBC Production By Candlelight and Channel 4's By Herself  episode "A Dancer". She appeared in two more feature films: Der erste Kuß (1954) and The Gambler (1997).

Luise Rainer appeared at both the 1998 and 2003 Academy Awards ceremonies for tributes to past Oscar winners. Upon her 100th birthday in 2010 she attended a British Film Institute tribute to her at the National Film Theatre. That same year she presented a showing of The Good Earth at the TCM Film Festival. 

While she made only a few films, Luise Rainer has always been loved by classic films buffs. Much of this is because she was incredibly talented. It would be very difficult to argue her back to back Oscar wins were not well deserved. While she had very little screen time in The Great Ziegfeld, her performance as Anna Held was both emotional and incredible. In The Good Earth she played a role about as far as from Anna Held as one can possibly get--the somewhat stoic, humble, and assuming peasant O-Lan. Again she gave a powerful performance. Miss Rainer's other films would not be of the same quality as The Great Ziegfeld or The Great Earth, but her performances were impressive even when the films sometimes were not. She was convincing as Frou-Frou, a French coquette, in The Toy Wife and gave a solid performance as Poldi Vogelhuber in The Last Waltz. Her guest appearance on Combat was also impressive. In "Finest Hour" she played a French Countess who must entertain German troops, all the while hiding an injured Lieutenant Hanley (Rick Jason). Luise Rainer was a truly great actress. One can only wonder what her career might have been like had she been given the more serious roles she wanted from MGM.

Of course, another reason that Luise Rainer is so admired by classic film fans is her courage. It would take a remarkable person to walk out on a successful film career at the height of the Golden Age of Hollywood. It is safe to say most stars probably would have (and many did) simply done whatever the studios wanted of them and demanded nothing more. But Miss Rainer wanted more out of her career than the parts she was being given and when she did not get them turned her back on Hollywood. It would be very difficult for anyone to argue she did not do the right thing. Ultimately she would have a marriage that lasted forty-four years (to publisher Robert Knittel), a daughter,  two granddaughters, and two great-grandchildren.

Ultimately Luise Rainer was an incredible woman. She aided refugees of the Spanish Civil War and entertained the troops during World War II. Those who had the honour to meet her always described her as both intelligent, charming, and gracious. In the end Miss Rainer was not simply a movie star, she was the epitome of a true lady.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Joe Cocker Passes On

Rock and blues singer Joe Cocker died on 22 December 2014 at the age of 70. The cause was lung cancer.

Joe Cocker was born John Cocker on 20 May 1944 in Crookes, Sheffield, South Yorkshire. Accounts vary as to how he received his nickname of "Joe". He took an interest in music while still a child, being particularly influenced by skiffle singer Lonnie Donegan and R&B singer Ray Charles. It was when Mr. Cocker was only 12, that his brother Victor let him sing in his skiffle group on stage at one of their gigs. It was the first time he ever sung in public. In 1960 Joe Cocker and three friends formed his first band, The Cavaliers. Joe Cocker left school to  become an apprentice gasfitter. It was not long afterwards that The Cavaliers broke up. Using the stage name Vance Arnold, Joe Cocker would be part of the band Vance Arnold and the Avengers starting in 1961. They played local gigs around Sheffield and in 1963 supported The Rolling Stones  at Sheffield City Hall.

In 1963 Joe Cocker signed a recording contract with Decca as a solo artist under the name Vance Arnold. Fittingly enough for a singer whose best known song would be the cover of a Beatles tune, his first single was a cover of The Beatles' "I'll Cry Instead". Unfortunately the single did not sell well at all, and Decca terminated his contract in 1964. After his contract with Decca ended Mr. Cocker formed a new band, Joe Cocker's Big Blues.  Joe Cocker's Big Blues did not last long, and after their break up he took a year long break from music.

It was in 1966 that Joe Cocker and Chris Stainton to form the Grease Band. The Grease Band primarily played local gigs around Sheffield. Eventually they came to the attention of  Denny Cordell, who had produced such acts Georgie Fame, The Moody Blues, and Procol Harum. In the end Joe Cocker  recorded the single "Marjorine" as a solo artist. Denny Cordell also got Mr. Cocker a residency at the Marquee Club, where such bands as The Who, The Rolling Stones, and The Yardbirds had performed. The single "Marjorine" saw some success, going to #48 on the UK singles chart.

Joe Cocker followed "Marjorine" with his cover of The Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends". The single proved to be a huge hit in the United Kingdom, going all the way to #1 there. In the United States it peaked at #68 on the Billboard Hot 100. He also released the album With a Little Help from My  Friends, which went to #29 on the UK albums chart and #35 on the US albums chart. In the wake of his cover of "With a Little Help from My Friends" Joe Cocker would see further hit singles.  "Delta Lady" went to #10 on the UK singles chart. He would do even better on the Billboard Hot 100. His cover of "The Letter" went to #7 on the Billboard chart. His single "Cry Me a River" went to #11. Until 1975 Joe Cocker regularly hit the Billboard Hot 100, with four more singles hitting the top forty. His version of "You Are So Beautiful" went to #5 in 1975. His albums also did well, with Joe Cocker! going to #11 on the Billboard albums chart and  I Can Stand a Little Rain doing the same.

During his first American tour in 1969 Joe Cocker performed at many of the major music festivals, including the Newport Rock Festival and the Denver Pop Festival. His most legendary performance was perhaps at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969. Immediately afterwards he returned to England where he performed at the Isle of Wight Festival. He also appeared on shows ranging from The Joey Bishop Show to This is Tom Jones.

Joe Cocker's career declined slightly in the late Seventies and early Eighties, with his highest ranking album in the United States being 1976's Stingray. Most of his singles either failed to chart or did not peak very high in the Billboard Hot 100. It was in 1982 that his duet with Jennifer Warnes, "Up Where We Belong", became an international hit. It peaked at #7 in the UK, #1 in the U.S., #6 in Australia, and made the top twenty in some European countries. His albums sales improved towards the end of the decade, and by the Nineties he was regularly having hit singles again. The album track  "You Can Leave Your Hat On" from 1984's Civilised Man would not chart, but became a hit on FM radio and has become one of his the songs with which he is most identified. In 1989 "When the Night Comes" went to #11 on the Billboard Hot 100. "Unchain My Heart" went to #17 in the UK in 1992. "The Simple Things" peaked at #17 in the UK in 1994.

Joe Cocker continued to record into the Naughts and the Teens, releasing five more albums, the last of which was Fire It Up in 2012. His single, "Fire It Up", peaked at #64 in the UK that same year.

Joe Cocker was utterly unique with a voice that was unlike anyone else's in rock or blues. What is more, it was a powerful voice. Joe Cocker put so much emotion into his performances that he sang as if his heart was being torn from his body. His performances were raw and filled with energy, as can be seen in his performance at Woodstock in the film of the same name. In fact, many of his cover songs were often better than the originals. It is perhaps unfortunate that "Up Where We Belong" may be his best known song outside of his cover of "With a Little Help from My Friends", as it is atypical of his performances. People would be better off listening to his version of "Unchain My Heart" or, better yet, "You Can Leave Your Hat On." That having been said, "Up Where We Belong" did restore Joe Cocker's career. And it is a career worth remembering. Few vocalists in rock or blues has as powerful a voice as Joe Cocker did. Few ever will.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Godspeed Billie Whitelaw

Billie Whitelaw, who served as playwright Samuel Beckett's muse and appeared in films from Make Mine Mink (1960) to Hot Fuzz (2007), died on 21 December 2014 at the age of 82.

Billie Whitelaw was born on 6 June 1932 in Coventry, Warwickshire. As a little girl Miss Whitelaw stuttered, so her mother sent her to a local theatre in the hope of improving her speech. Miss Whitelaw took to acting and began appearing on radio shows. As a young girl she even played a boy on BBC Radio's Children’s Hour in the Fifties. She also appeared on the stages of various regional theatres.

She made her television debut in 1952, appearing as Martha in a BBC mini-series adaptation of The Secret Garden. Billie Whitelaw appeared frequently on British television in the Fifties. She had the recurring role of PC George Dixon's daughter Mary on Dixon of Dock Green. She also played the lead role in the TV show Time Out for Peggy. She also had recurring roles on The Pattern of Marriage, Tales of Soho, and My Pal Bob. She also guest starred on Rheingold Theatre, Terminus, The Adventures of Robin Hood, BBC Sunday-Night Theatre, ITV Play of the Week, and Armchair Mystery Theatre. She made her film debut in a small role in The Fake in 1953. In the Fifties she appeared in such films as Companions in Crime (1954), Room in the House (1955), Miracle in Soho (1957), Small Hotel (1957), Carve Her Name with Pride (1958), Gideon's Day (1958), Breakout (1959), Bobbikins (1959), The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), Hell Is a City (1960), and Make Mine Mink (1960).  Her first real success on stage on the West End came in 1959 with the play Progress in the Park.

It was in 1963 that she met playwright Samuel Beckett. It was the beginning of a long collaboration between the two. Billie Whitelaw's first appearance in a Samuel Beckett play was in his one-act production Play at the Old Vic in 1964. In 1973 she appeared in Mr. Beckett's Not I. She later appeared in his plays Footfalls, Happy Days, and Rockaby. In 1964 she joined Lord Laurence Olivier's National Theatre Company and remained with them until 1966. With the National Theatre Company she played Maggie Hobson in Hobson’s Choice,  as well as roles in The Dutch Courtesan and Trelawny of the Wells.

In the Sixties Miss Whitelaw appeared in such films as Payroll (1961), No Love for Johnnie (1961), Mr. Topaze (1961), The Devil's Agent (1962), The Comedy Man (1964), Charlie Bubbles (1967), Twisted Nerve (1968), The Adding Machine (1969), Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), and Leo the Last (1970). She continued to appear frequently on television, including such programmes as Kraft Mystery Theatre, Espionage, First Night, Thirty-Minute Theatre, Knock on Any Door, Love Story, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jackanory, and Wicked Women. She appeared in the TV movie The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In the Seventies Billie Whitelaw appeared in the films Gumshoe (1971), Eagle in a Cage (1972), Frenzy (1972), Not I (1973), Night Watch (1973), The Omen (1976), and Leopard in the Snow (1978). She provided voices for the animated film The Water Babies (1978). She guest starred on such TV series as The Sextet, Wessex Tales, Space 1999, and Supernatural (not to be confused with the later American show of the same name). She played Josephine in the mini-series Napoleon and Love and Madame DeFarge in the Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities.

In the Eighties Billie Whitelaw had recurring roles on the series Private Schulz and Imaginary Friends. She guest starred on  BBC2 Playhouse and appeared in the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentations Camille and The Secret Garden. She appeared in the TV movies Jamaica Inn, The Fifteen Streets, Lorna Doone, and The Krays. She appeared in the films An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1982), Slayground (1983), The Chain (1984), Murder Elite (1985), Tangiers (1985), Shadey (1985), Maurice (1987), Joyriders (1988), and The Dressmaker (1988).

In the Nineties she was a regular on the TV shows Firm Friends, Born to Run, and A Dinner of Herbs. She appeared in the mini-series Merlin (not to be confused with the later British TV series) and guest starred on The Canterbury Tales. She appeared in the TV movie The Last of the Blonde Bombshells. She appeared in the films Deadly Advice (1994), Jane Eyre (1996), The Lost Son (1999), and Quills (2000). In the Naughts she guest starred on Judge John Deed. Her last appearance was in the film Hot Fuzz in 2007.

Billie Whitelaw was one of the most remarkable actresses of the late 20th Century. She was capable of playing nearly anything. Throughout her career she played such characters as Bianca in Othello,      Joséphine de Beauharnais, and Madame DeFarge. On two separate occasions she played characters from The Secret Garden: the maidservant Martha in a Fifties adaptation of the novel and the head of servants Mrs. Medlock in an Eighties adaptation. In films she played a vast array of characters, including the sultry young housekeeper Lily in Make Mine Mink, Albert Finney's take-charge wife Lottie in Charlie Bubbles, Marie Antoinette in Start the Revolution without Me, and demoniac nanny Mrs. Baylock in The Omen. Ultimately Billie Whitelaw was a chameleon, capable of transforming herself to suit any role she chose to play. While many might remember her as Samuel Beckett's muse, her career included so many more great performances.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Late Great Jeremy Lloyd

Jeremy Lloyd, the actor and writer who created Are You Being Served? and 'Allo Allo with David Croft, died on 22 December 2014 at the age of 84. He was being treated for pneumonia.

Jeremy Lloyd was born on 22 July 1930 in Danbury, Essex. He spent much of his childhood living with his grandmother in Manchester. When he was about 13 years old his father placed him in a home for the elderly. As an adult Mr. Lloyd supported his grandmother through nearly any job he could find. He dug roads. He sold paint. And he worked at the department store Simpsons in Piccadilly. The experience would provide the inspiration for Are You Being Served?.

Eventually Jeremy Lloyd took up writing. His first writing credit was for continuity for an episode of the TV show Six-Five Special in 1958. He also wrote episodes of New Look and Spectacular. In addition to writing Jeremy Lloyd also took up acting. He made his film debut in School for Scoundrels and that same year appeared in Man in the Moon.

The Sixties saw Jeremy Lloyd's writing career take off. He provided the idea for the 1961 Adam Faith film What a Whopper. He was a regular writer on the TV shows The Dickie Henderson Show, Mum's Boys, and Rowan & Martin's Laugh In. He also continued his acting career. He appeared in such films as Seven Keys (1961), Very Important Person (1961), Operation Snatch (1962), Crooks Anonymous (1962), We Joined the Navy (1962), Death Drums Along the River (1962), A Hard Day's Night (1964), Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 hours 11 minutes (1965), Help! (1965), A Study in Terror (1965), The Sandwich Man (1966), The Assassination Bureau (1969), and The Magic Christian (1969). He was a regular performer on the TV show Rowan & Martin's Laugh In. He also appeared on such shows as The Rag Trade, ITV Play of the Week, Callan, and The Avengers.

Upon his return to England Jeremy Lloyd decided to create a situation comedy based on his experiences at the Simpsons department store. He sent the script for the programme's first episode, titled Are You Being Served?, to ITV. It was not long afterwards that he encountered David Croft, best known for creating Dad's Army and with whom he had worked earlier. David Croft was fascinated by Jeremy Lloyd's idea for a sitcom set in a department store and convinced him to get the script back from ITV.  Together they sold Are You Being Served? to the BBC. The BBC made a pilot and, being unimpressed by it, had no plans to make a series. Fortunately the BBC finally aired the pilot on the anthology series Comedy Playhouse where it proved popular with audiences. In the end Are You Being Served? would run for thirteen years and proved to be a hit not only in the United Kingdom, but in the Untied States, Canada, and Australia as well. The show would be adapted as the Australian series Are You Being Served, Australia and adapted as the failed American pilot Beanes of Boston.

In addition to Are You Being Served? Jeremy Lloyd also wrote the screenplays for the films Vampira (1974), The Bawdy Adventures of Tom Jones (1976), and the feature film based on the sitcom Are You Being Served? (1976). He also wrote created the TV shows Whodunit? and co-created the shows Come Back Mrs. Noah and Oh Happy Band with David Croft. He also continued acting. he had a regular role on the TV show It's Awfully Bad for Your Eyes, Darling and appeared on the shows Shirley's World, Dear Mother...Love Albert, Funny You Should Say That, and Whodunit?. He appeared in the films Lady Chatterly Versus Fanny Hill (1971), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and The Bawdy Adventures of Tom Jones (1976).

In the Eighties Jeremy Lloyd continued to work on Are You Being Served?. He co-created 'Allo Allo with David Croft. He also wrote an episode of Seacombe and Music. In the Nineties Mr. Lloyd created the Are You Being Served? spinoff Grace & Favour with David Croft. He also wrote the TV movie Which Way to the War and an episode of Omnibus. As an actor he made cameos on both 'Allo 'Allo and Grace & Favour. His last work as an actor was in the feature film Benjamin Britten: Peace and Conflict, released last year.

Jeremy Lloyd's immortality was long ago secured by the success of Are You Being Served?. The show proved to be one of the most popular Britcoms of all time. Are You Being Served? proved to be a hit in the United States, Singapore, and most of the Commonwealth. One would be hard pressed to find another British comedy that saw the success of Are You Being Served?.

As to why Are You Being Served? was a success, it was largely due to Jeremy Lloyd's talent as a comedy writer. He had a gift for creating wildly eccentric, yet loveable characters. Jeremy Lloyd's characters seemed real regardless of how exaggerated or strange they might be. Not only did Mr. Lloyd have a gift for creating memorable characters, but he also had a knack for farcical situations and double entendres. Only geniuses at comedy such as Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft could figure out new ways of working Mrs. Slocombe's pussy into episodes of Are You Being Served? (and, for those of you who haven't seen the show, it's not what you think....). Jeremy Lloyd was one of the truly great comedy writers of all time, and one who has left his mark on television throughout the Anglosphere.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Director Joseph Sargent Passes On

Joseph Sargent, who directed several hours worth of television shows (including Gunsmoke and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) as well as such films as Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), died at the age of 89 on 22 December 2014. The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Joseph Sargent was born  Giuseppe Danielle Sorgente in Jersey City, New Jersey on 22 July 1925. During World War II Mr. Sargent served in the United States Army. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Following the war he studied acting at the Actors Studio in New York City. He moved to California to pursue his acting career in the early Fifties.

As an actor Joseph Sargent made his film debut in an uncredited role in Her First Romance in 1951. In the Fifties he also appeared in small roles in such films as From Here to Eternity (1953), Kathy O' (1958), Al Capone (1959), and Pay or Die (1960).  He made his television debut in an episode of I'm the Law in 1953. Throughout the Fifties Mr. Sargent guest starred on such shows as I Led 3 Lives, Death Valley Days, The Lone Ranger, State Trooper, Tales of Wells Fargo, Peter Gunn, and Gunsmoke. He made his debut as director with the film Street Fighter in 1959.

Joseph Sargent's acting career continued into the Sixties. He made appearances on such shows as Hong Kong, The Detectives, and  The Twilight Zone. He appeared in the film Tobruk (1967). It was in the Sixties that Mr. Sargent shifted from acting to directing. He directed several episodes of the shows Lassie, Mr. Novak, Gunsmoke, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. He also directed episodes of Bonanza, Daniel Boone, The Fugitive, Star Trek, The F.B.I., and The Invaders. He also directed such television movies as The Sunshine Patriot and Tribes. In the late Sixties Joseph Sargent started concentrating on feature films. He directed the feature films The Hell with Heroes (1968) and Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970).

The Seventies saw Joseph Sargent concentrating on feature films. Joseph Sargent was set to direct the film Buck and the Preacher (1972), but was fired when star Sir Sidney Poitier became unhappy with the film's point of view. Mr. Poitier then directed the film (the first feature he ever directed). Mr. Sargent's career was hardly hurt by the experience, as he would go on to direct some of the biggest films of his career in the Seventies: The Man (1972) and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). He also directed the films White Lightning (1973), MacArthur (1977), Goldengirl (1979), and Coast to Coast (1980). Joseph Sargent still worked in television in the Seventies, although primarily directed TV movies. Among the TV movies he directed were The Man Who Died Twice, Sunshine, Friendly Persuasion, and The Night That Panicked America. He also directed episodes of Kojak and Longstreet.

In the Eighties Joseph Sargent concentrated primarily on television movies. He directed such TV movies as Freedom, Memorial Day, Choices of the Heart, and Day One. He won an Emmy for his direction of the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentations Love is Never Silent and Caroline?. He also directed the mini-series Space. He directed the feature films Nightmares (1983) and Jaws: The Revenge (1987).  He also returned to acting, with a bit part in the TV movie Ivory Hunters (which he directed) and The Love She Sought (which he also directed).

In the Nineties Joseph Sargent continued to concentrate on television. He directed the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentations Miss Rose White and Skylark. He also directed such TV movies as Never Forget, Abraham, World War II: When Lions Roared, My Antonia, Miss Evers' Boys, and Crime and Punishment. He also directed the mini-series The Streets of Laredo.

Joseph Sargent continued to work into the Naughts. He directed the TV movies Bojangles, Salem Witch Trials, Out of the Ashes, Something the Lord Made, Warm Springs, and Sybil. His last work was the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation Sweet Nothing in My Ear. He was 83 years old when he stopped directing.

As a film director Joseph Sargent's work was arguably a mixed bag. He directed two films that can be considered outright classics. Colossus: The Forbin Project is one of the great science fiction movies of the late Sixties, while The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is one of the best action movies of the Seventies. Unfortunately much of Mr. Sargent's film work (Goldengirl, Jaws: The Revenge, et. al.) did not quite measure up to those two films. That having been said, Joseph Sargent excelled in the medium of television. The episodes of Gunsmoke and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. often had a cinematic feel about them, looking much more like feature films than episodes of TV shows. He also did excellent work in the field of television movies, directing some of the classics of the form. Sunshine, Caroline?, Skylark, My Antonia, and Crime and Punishment number among the best television movies ever made.

Quite simply, when provided with a good script, Joseph Sargent could do excellent work. He was particularly good about capturing the look and feel of a particular milieu. With The Taking of Pelham One Two Three he captured the look and feel of New York City perfectly. With My Antonia he created a convincing portrait of 19th Century Nebraska. With Crime and Punishment he convincingly recreated 19th Century Russia. When given a quality script, Joseph Sargent was quite capable of creating films that captured specific times and places quite well. And it was on television that he did this best work. He was truly one of the greats of the medium.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas 2014

If you are a long time reader of this blog, then you will know that every Christmas Day I post classic holiday pin ups. This years is no different, so here they are:

From the number of presents it would seem Santa thought
Shirley Jones was a very good girl!
It seems Shirley Knight prefers delivering presents to
getting them!
Vera Ellen has a unique way of filling out her
Christmas cards!
Mitzi Gaynor really cleaned up on presents!
Meanwhile Anne Jeffries is someone's present!
Of course, it wouldn't be Christmas without Ann Miller!

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Trimming the Tree In 1940s Films

Today most people in the United States put up their Christmas trees in early December, a time corresponding with what Christians would call "Advent". Some even put their trees up as early as the day after Thanksgiving or even earlier (although some of their neighbours might look at them oddly). That having been said, there was a time when the traditional time for putting up one's Christmas tree was Christmas Eve or, at least, the afternoon of the day before Christmas. Indeed, this is reflected in many of the classic holiday films of the 1940s.

While many of the classic Yuletide movies of the Forties have trees being trimmed on Christmas Eve, there are a few in which the event takes place a slightly earlier date. It would seem the late Forties was a time of transition, when many still put their Christmas trees up on Christmas Eve, but some were beginning to put them up earlier.

An example of a film in which the Christmas tree is trimmed on Christmas Eve proper is the 1944 classic Christmas in Connecticut. In the film cooking writer Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) is coerced by her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) in hosting a returning war hero, Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), for Christmas dinner. Among the things that Miss Lane and Mr. Jones do on Christmas Eve is set up and trim the Christmas tree.

The classic It's a Wonderful Life was released a few years after Christmas in Connecticut in 1946, but the Baileys still trimmed their Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. In fact, that Christmas Eve is also George Bailey's "crucial night", part of what might be the most famous climax in any Yuletide movie ever made.

The Bishop's Wife, released only a year after It's a Wonderful Life in 1947, shows that the time people set up their Christmas trees was beginning to change in the United States. At least several days before Christmas Eve, or perhaps more, Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley) buys a tiny Christmas tree. When the bishop's wife of the title, Julia (Loretta Young), and the angel Dudley visit the Professor, he already has the Christmas tree set up and decorated in his home. While the Professor already has his Christmas tree set up well before Christmas Eve, however, Bishop Brougham and his wife Julia don't have their tree set up and trimmed until Christmas Eve (well, actually, it is Dudley who does the trimming...). From The Bishop's Wife it would seem that some people were already setting up their trees before Christmas Eve, while others were still doing it on the traditional date.

It is in a film released the same year as The Bishop's Wife that a Christmas tree is shown being trimmed before Christmas Eve. In It Happened on Fifth Avenue it would appear that the Christmas tree is set up and trimmed a few days before Christmas Eve, or at least a day before the traditional date. Like the Professor in The Bishop's Wife, then, this shows that people were trimming their trees at least a little bit before Christmas Eve.

While It Happened on 5th Avenue has the Christmas tree erected not long before Christmas Eve, it seems possible that in Holiday Affair (1949) the Christmas tree was set up and trimmed as much as two weeks before Christmas Eve. At the very least the Christmas tree is in place and decorated several days before Christmas Eve. This perhaps shows that towards the end of the decade many Americans were trimming their trees well before Christmas Eve, at times much more in keeping with modern custom.

It is difficult to say what precipitated the change in when Americans set up their Christmas tree, although if the movies are any indication it would seem to have begun in the late Forties at least. Of course, if the movies are also any indication, the practice of trimming the tree on Christmas Eve appears to have persisted into the Fifties and Sixties. In The Apartment (1960) on Christmas Eve, Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) tells Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) that he has to get home and trim the tree. Regardless, the transition appears to have been complete by the Eighties. In National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989), Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) buys a tree and sets it up a few weeks before Christmas (probably late November/early December).

Regardless of why the date most Americans trim their Christmas trees changed, the change was certainly reflected in American movies. What is more, it would seem that the Forties was the decade in which the change began to take place. After all, the tree is trimmed on Christmas Eve in Christmas in Connecticut in 1944, but by 1949 the tree is trimmed many days earlier in Holiday Affair.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"Christmas Comes But Once a Year" (1936)

During the Golden Age of Animation there several theatrical shorts with Christmas themes were made. Among the most remarkable was one made by Fleischer Studios in 1936, "Christmas Comes But Once a Year".

"Christmas Comes But Once a Year" was part of Fleischer Studios' Colour Classics series. The Colour Classics were so named because they were shot in colour at a time when many animated shorts were still shot in black and white. That having been said, the colour processes used for the Colour Classics would vary over time. The first cartoon in the series, "Poor Cinderella", was shot in the two-colour Cinecolor process. Following "Poor Cinderella" the Colour Classics from 1934 and 1935 were shot in two-strip Technicolor, as Disney  had an exclusive contract with Technicolor for their three-strip process. It was in 1936 that Disney's contract with Technicolor expired and the remaining films in the Colour Classics series (including "Christmas Comes But Once a Year") were shot in three-strip Technicolor. The Colour Classics series ended in 1941.

"Christmas Comes But Once a Year" centred upon an orphanage on Christmas Day. While the orphans are initially happy that Christmas Day has arrived, they are soon disappointed when their presents all turn out to be defective. Fortunately for the orphans Professor Grampy happens to be passing by the orphanage, and takes note of their sadness. As might be expected, Grampy comes up with his own solution.  By the time of "Christmas Comes But Once a Year" Grampy was already an established character in Fleischer Studios cartoons. A spry older man, Grampy was an eccentric inventor with a knack for Rube Goldberg devices. He first appeared in "Betty Boop and Grampy" in 1935 and spent the majority of his career appearing in Betty Boop cartoons. Although he started out as a supporting character in Betty's cartoons, there were a few times when his role was actually bigger than that of Betty. Regardless, "Christmas Comes But Once a Year" marks the only animated short in which Grampy appeared without Betty Boop.

"Christmas Comes But Once a Year" was shot using Max Fleischer's patented stereo-optical process. The stereo-optical process involved the construction of three-dimensional, live-action sets over which the cartoon characters were animated. This gave the cartoons shot using the process a look of depth lacking in cartoons shot using standard methods.

"Christmas Comes But Once a Year" was produced by Max Fleischer and directed by Dave Fleischer. It was released on 4 December 1936. "Christmas Comes But Once a Year" was later remade by Fleischer Studios' successor Famous Studios as "True Boo", a cartoon starring Casper the Friendly Ghost. In "True Boo" Casper makes presents for a little boy in essentially the same way Grampy did for the orphans in "Christmas Comes But Once a Year".

Like the other Colour Classics, "Christmas Comes But Once a Year" would pass through various hands over the years. The Colour Classics were originally produced by Fleischer Studios and distributed by Paramount Pictures. In 1955 Paramount sold the Colour Classics and all of the other Fleischer cartoons, except for the "Superman" and "Popeye" series, to television distributor U.M. & M. TV Corporation. U.M. & M. TV Corporation was bought out by National Telefilm Associates (better known by its initials NTA) in 1956. Since that time many of the Colour Classics, including "Christmas Comes But Once a Year", have entered the public domain.

For those who would like to watch "Christmas Comes But Once a Year", here it is:

Monday, December 22, 2014

Santa Claus on Film

A classic illustration of Santa
Claus by Haddon Sundblom

For well over a century Santa Claus has been an integral part of Christmas imagery in the United States. His image appears on Christmas cards, on Christmas decorations, and numerous other holiday related merchandise. Not surprisingly, Santa Claus has also appeared as a character in several motion pictures over the years. Even those films in which Santa Claus plays a central role as a character are so numerous that it would take a book to list them all.

Not only has Santa Claus appeared frequently on film, but he appeared so early in film history that it difficult to say what the first movie in which he appeared was. What must have surely been one of the earliest films featuring Santa Claus was film pioneer George Albert Smith's short "Santa Claus" from 1898. "Santa Claus" was very basic in its premise, portraying Santa Claus's visit to a house to deliver presents. That having been said, it was also very innovative. It included a sequence created using a double exposure process invented by George Albert Smith himself. Other shorts from the late 1890s were also very simple in their premise. American Mutoscope's 1897 short "Santa Claus Filling Stockings" is pretty much exactly that. Both R. W. Paul's 1898 short "Santa Claus and the Children" and Edison's 1900 short "Santa Claus's Visit" also portrayed Santa delivering presents.

Edison's 1905 short "The Night Before Christmas" was much more sophisticated than the films of the 1890s. The short shows Santa preparing for Christmas by feeding his reindeer, working on toys in his workshop, checking his list, making his midnight ride, and ultimately delivering presents (complete with Santa going down the chimney). Interspersed were scenes of a family preparing for bed on Christmas Eve. To achieve all of this the short utilised a combination of live action and animation. Edward S. Porter's " A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus" from 1907 was also much more sophisticated than the films of the 1890s. The short involved a boy proving to a poor little girl that Santa Claus exists by capturing the jolly old elf and taking him to her house!

One of the more interesting films from the Silent Era was made by explorer Frank E. Kleinschmidt, who actually filmed it on location in the wilds of Northern Alaska. In "Santa Claus" (1925) two children sneak out of their house to see what Santa does on the other days of the year besides Christmas. The short features Santa's workshop, Santa's reindeer (real reindeer, not ordinary deer standing in for such), Santa visiting Eskimos, and so on. Although shot on a low budget, its production values were very high and the cinematography extraordinary.

Disney's "Santa's Workshop"
Surprisingly Santa Claus himself was not the subject of too many movies in the 1930's, although he did put in a few appearances in various animated shorts. Among the best known of these is perhaps Disney's  Silly Symphony "Santa Workshop" from 1932. The cartoon essentially features Santa and his elves preparing for Christmas Eve (Santa checking his list, the elves making toys, et. al.), all set to a merry song. Disney also loosely adapted the classic poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" as an animated short in 1933. Warner Bros. also made animated shorts featuring Santa Claus. In "The Shanty Where Santy Lives", Santa Claus takes an impoverished boy to the North Pole. The 1934  Universal Pictures animated short "Toyland Premiere" featured Oswald the Lucky Rabbit holding a reception for Santa Claus, complete with appearances from Frankenstein's Creature, Tarzan, Lupe Velez, Shirley Temple, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, and Laurel and Hardy.

Santa Claus did appear in one significant live action film in the Thirties. Jolly Old St. Nick puts in a brief appearance in Hal Roach's 1934 adaptation of Victor Herbert's operetta Babes in Toyland (now known as Parade of the Wooden Soldiers)
Even given the boom in Christmas that occurred in the latter part of the decade, the Forties were much like the Thirties in that Santa Claus did not appear that often in film. And like the Thirties, most of his appearances were in animated cartoons. Perhaps the most significant of these was "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", directed by Max Fleisher for Jam Handy. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was not only historic as the first film adaptation of Robert L. May's creation, but it was also the final film ever directed by Max Fleischer. Released in 1948, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" pre-dated the song of the same name by a year, although the song would be added to the animated short's opening credits upon its re-release in 1951. Because of this "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is much more faithful to Robert L. May's original story than Johnny Marks's song or the later Rankin/Bass special. As anyone who knows the original story of Rudolph, Santa plays a significant role in the cartoon.

Santa Claus would also appear in Famous Studios' very first "Little Audrey" cartoon. In "Santa's Surprise" (1947), Audrey and four other children stow away on Santa's sleigh and go with him to the North Pole.  Santa Claus puts in a small appearance in the Warner Bros. short "Bedtime for Snifles", in which Sniffles attempts to stay awake to see Santa.

Of course, the period from about 1941 to 1951 could be considered the Golden Age of Christmas Movies given the number of classics released during that time. It was during this period that many, perhaps most, of the biggest Christmas movies of all time were released:  Holiday Inn (1942), The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942), Christmas in Connecticut (1944), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947),  Holiday Affair (1949), A Christmas Carol (AKA Scrooge, 1951), and The Lemon Drop (1951) were among the many holiday films released during the period. Surprisingly given the boom in Christmas movies that occurred in the Forties, particularly the late Forties, Santa Claus was not a major character in the vast majority of the films. A notable exception was one of the biggest holiday movies of all time, perhaps surpassed only by It's a Wonderful Life in popularity: Miracle on 34th Street (1947).

Miracle on 34th Street centres on Kris Kringle (played by Edmund Gwenn), an elderly man hired by Macy's as that department store's Santa. To Kris Kringle, however, he isn't simply playing Santa Claus; Kris is convinced that he is Santa Claus. Miracle on 34th Street leaves the question of whether Kris is simply a delusional old man or the one and only, genuine Santa Claus open, but given the strength of Edmund Gwenn's performance I rather suspect that even the most sceptical viewers will be convinced he is the real thing. Miracle on 34th Street received great notices from critics at the time. It also picked up three Academy Awards, including Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Edmund Gwenn); Best Writing, Original Story; and  Best Writing, Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture, which it inexplicably lost to Gentlemen's Agreement.

Miracle on 34th Street has been remade four times. The first time was as an episode of The Twentieth Century Fox Hour in 1955, with Thomas Mitchell playing the role of Kris Kringle. The second time was in a 60 minute television special that aired on NBC in 1959 with Ed Wynn playing the role of Kris Kringle. The third time was as a television movie in 1973 with Sebastian Cabot in the role of Kris. Another theatrical version was released in 1994 with Lord Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle. Sadly, while Lord Attenborough was wonderful in the role of Santa, as was Mara Wilson as the role of the sceptical little girl, any magic from the original was lost in the 1994 remake, largely due to a poor script and charmless leads (Elizabeth Perkins and Dylan McDermott). Even after all the remakes, the original Miracle on 34th Street remains the preferred version of many, perhaps most, people.

Like the Forties, Santa Claus as a character in films would be largely absent in the Fifties. Santa Claus does put in an appearance in  the Warner Bros. 1952 animated short "Gift Wrapped" in which he brings Tweety to Granny as a Christmas present. Quite naturally Sylvester J. Pussycat has other plans for Granny's new gift. A more significant appearance of Santa Claus on film, and one that is much more bizarre, is in René Cardona's 1959 low budget feature Santa Claus. In the film the Devil plots to turn the world's children against Santa Claus (played by José Elías Moreno). Today Santa Claus (1959) is not highly regarded, except perhaps as a camp classic (it even aired on an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000).  Amazingly enough, it won the Golden Gate Award for Best International Family Film at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1959! Santa Claus also appeared in the obscure,  hour long fantasy film The Miracle of the White Reindeer (1960), about which there seems to be little information. Santa was played by Hal Smith, best known as Otis the Drunk on The Andy Griffith Show.

Of course, the Sixties would see the advent of Rankin/Bass's television specials, many of which would feature Santa Claus (most notably the classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer). Unfortunately, the decade would not be so kind to the Jolly Old Elf with regards to theatrical feature films. In fact, Santa Claus's best known appearance in a feature film from the Sixties is in a movie often counted among the worst ever made. In Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) Martians decide to capture Santa Claus so that their children can have fun just as children on Earth do. The film was made on a shoestring budget (the Martians' guns appear to be modified Whammo Air Blasters) and mostly shot in an old aircraft hangar in Long Island. While Santa Claus Conquers the Martians rightfully deserves its bad reputation, it does have one big claim to history (and it's not simply Pia Zadora's film debut).  Reportedly Santa Claus Conquers the Martians marks the first time that Mrs. Claus ever appeared in a feature film.

Santa Claus played a major role in the 1966 feature film The Christmas That Almost Wasn't, which was based on Paul Tripp's book of the same name. The Christmas That Almost Wasn't has the bizarre premise of Santa Claus being behind on his rent and about to be kicked out of his own home. Santa (played by Alberto Rabagliati) goes to attorney Sam Whipple (played by Paul Tripp) for help. For many years The Christmas That Almost Wasn't was a bit of a holiday tradition on HBO.

The Seventies would not be much kinder to Santa Claus with regards to feature films. In Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972) Santa (played by Jay Clark) tries to free his sleigh from the sand of a Florida beach. Interspersed, for no other apparent reason than to fill out the running time, is an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale "Thumbelina". As might be expected Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny is counted among the worst films ever made.

Fortunately Santa Claus would fare a little better in the Eighties, although the feature films in which he appeared were still far from classics. Santa Claus (1985), better known as Santa Claus: The Movie, cost an estimated $50 million to make. As might be expected with such a budget, Santa Claus: The Movie featured some incredible special effects, as well as very elaborate sets. David Huddleston also made for an appealing Santa Claus. Unfortunately that was the only things in which the film appeared to excel. Reviews of the film were largely negative (in his book Have Yourself a Movie Little Christmas Alonso Duralde counts it as one of the worst Christmas movies ever) and audiences were largely indifferent to the film. In fact, it lost money at the box office. Made for $50 million, it only made $23,717,291 in the United States.

Santa Claus's other significant feature film appearance in the Eighties would not be much better, and some might consider it worse. In Ernest Saves Christmas (1988) Ernest P. Worrell (played by Jim Varney) must find a replacement for Santa Claus, who has grown too old to continue in the role. Like most of the "Ernest" films, Ernest Saves Christmas was not a hit with critics.

Since the Eighties Santa Claus has fared somewhat better in feature films. While the Nineties would give us the rather dismal remake of Miracle on 34th Street, it would also give us the critically acclaimed stop motion film The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), perhaps the only film that can be enjoyed as both as a Halloween movie and a Yuletide movie. The Nineties would also see the release of The Santa Clause (1994), which was generally well received by critics and did well at the box office. It would be followed by two sequels,  The Santa Clause 2 (2002) and The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (2006).

The Naughts saw the release of yet more films in which Santa Claus played a significant role: the comedy Elf (2003), the computer animated Polar Express (2004), and the comedy Fred Claus (2007). It also saw a horror/comedy movie in which Santa Claus was actually the villain. In the 2005 film Santa' Slay Santa Claus (played by professional wrestler Bill Goldberg) is demon/human hybrid who was sentenced to deliver presents to children for 1000 years. When the 1000 years were up, Santa simply went back to his old ways of slaughtering people.... Except for The Polar Express, it would seem the Naughts were not particularly kind to Santa in feature films...

So far the Teens have seen little in the way of movies featuring Santa Claus as a major character. Given the central role Santa Claus plays in the American celebration of Christmas, it would seem likely that at some point yet more films featuring Old St. Nick will be made eventually. Over the years Santa Claus has appeared in films with shoestring budgets, as well as big budget blockbusters. He has appeared in movies counted among the worst ever made and movies considered among the greatest of all time. Whether Santa's next appearance on film is the modern equivalent of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians or Miracle on 34th Street, one thing is certain. Santa Claus won't be off the big screen for long.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Little Drummer Boy: The Rankin/Bass Special

Today when people under the age of 30 think of classic Rankin/Bass Yuletide specials, it is most likely to be the 1964 classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or the 1969 cel animated  Frosty the Snowman. Those over 30 might think of other Rankin/Bass holiday specials as well, including Santa Claus is Coming to Town and The Year Without a Santa Claus. Among the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials that might come to the minds of those over 30 is one that is largely forgotten today. While only those of a certain age might remember The Little Drummer Boy, in its day it was one of Rankin/Bass's most popular holiday specials. In fact, for a time it might have been second only to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in popularity.

Like Rudoph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy utilised stop-motion animation. And like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, it was based on a popular song ("The Little Drummer Boy"). The song originated in 1941 as "The Carol of the Drum", written by Katherine Davis. Initially "The Carol of the Drum" met with little success. It was even recorded by The Trapp Family Singers in 1955 to little notice. In 1957 "The Carol of the Drum" was recorded by the Jack Halloran Singers for their album Christmas Is A-Comin'. Christmas Is A-Comin' was released on Dot Records.

It was Henry Onorati, a producer at Dot Records, who brought "The Carol of the Drum" to the attention of Harry Simeone.  Harry Simeone took Jack Halloran's arrangement and made further changes to it. He also retitled the song "The Little Drummer Boy". It was recorded by the Harry Simeone Chorale and appeared on their 1958 album Sing We Now of Christmas, released on 20th Century Fox Records. The single by the Henry Simeone Chorale, "The Little Drummer Boy", proved to be an enormous success. It went to #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1958. In the Sixties alone it would be covered by such artists as the Ray Conniff Singers, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Johnny Cash, The Supremes, and Joan Baez.

It was perhaps natural given the success of "The Little Drummer Boy" that Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass would produce a special based on the song. The special The Little Drummer Boy was written by Romeo Muller, who had previously written Rankin/Bass's specials Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Cricket on the Hearth, and Mouse on the Mayflower. It was directed by Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr., and Takeya Nakamura. The Little Drummer Boy had a fairly big name cast, with Greer Garson serving as the narrator, Jose Ferrer as the villain Ben Haramad, and Paul Frees providing the voices of all three Magi. Child actor Teddy Eccles provided the voice of the lead character--Aaron, the little drummer boy. The Little Drummer Boy was sponsored by the American Gas Association and debuted on NBC on 19 December 1968.

While The Little Drummer Boy proved to be popular, it was very different from the vast majority of the Rankin/Bass specials. For one thing, it dealt not with Santa Claus or a secular celebration of Christmas, but instead with the birth of Jesus himself. For another thing, it was a drama. Indeed, in some respects it deals with some rather grim subject matter for a holiday special. After Aaron's father and mother are killed by marauders and their farm burned to the ground, Aaron hates all people. His only sources of joy are the animals who survived the attack (a camel, a lamb, and a donkey) and the drum that his father gave him. The drum has the rather magical effect of making Aaron's animals dance whenever he plays it. Needless to say, events lead Aaron to Bethlehem and his encounter with the baby Jesus.

The Little Drummer Boy proved highly successful. For much of the Seventies it was not unusual for its annual airing to rank in the top ten of the Nielsen ratings for the week. Indeed, often it ranked in the top five. The Little Drummer Boy proved so successful that Rankin/Bass produced a sequel, The Little Drummer Boy Book II, that debuted in 1976 on NBC. The Little Drummer Boy Book II takes place immediately following the events of The Little Drummer Boy, and involved Aaron helping Melchior of the Three Wise Men. The Little Drummer Boy Book II was nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Children's Special, but did not prove to be nearly as popular as the original.

The Little Drummer Boy aired annually on NBC from 1968 to 1984. It was then picked up by CBS, who aired it from 1985 to 1988.  ABC then picked up The Little Drummer Boy. ABC ceased airing The Little Drummer Boy in 2006 and since that time it has aired on the cable channel ABC Family. Over the years The Little Drummer Boy has been heavily edited from its original form. Commercial time has increased dramatically since 1968, so that The Little Drummer Boy (like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and other Rankin/Bass specials) airs today with a number of cuts. While I cannot be certain, it may have also been edited for content at some point. While my memory may be playing tricks on me, I seem to recall a scene which shows a silhouette of one of the marauders raising a knife to kill Aaron's mother that occurred immediately after Aaron's mother ushers him out of the house but before the house is shown to be burning.  Unfortunately, this brief scene appears in none of the versions available online, so I cannot be certain if it is my imagination or not.

As mentioned earlier, The Little Drummer Boy stands out from the other Rankin/Bass specials in that it is a drama and it also deals with a blatantly religious theme (namely, the birth of Jesus). Fortunately The Little Drummer Boy is done in such a way that it can be appreciated even by non-Christians such as myself. At its heart it is a story of a boy hardened by tragedy whose faith in humanity is restored by the kindness of others. Beyond its well-written script The Little Drummer Boy also boasts some of Rankin/Bass's best work. The sets are elaborate and exquisitely designed, while the stop motion animation displays occasional bursts of brilliance. What might be the best thing about the special is its music. In addition to "The Little Drummer Boy" itself, The Little Drummer Boy features the songs "The Goose Hangs High”, “Why Can’t the Animals Smile?",  and “One Star in the Night, all” by Maury Laws and Jules Bass. The songs number among the best featured in any Rankin/Bass special short of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Despite being extremely popular from the late Sixties into the Eighties, The Little Drummer Boy has largely been forgotten today. This is in many ways a shame, as it is actually one of the best of the specials ever produced by Rankin/Bass. It really deserves more than to be aired by ABC Family during odd times of the day. The Little Drummer Boy should be returned to a broadcast network, where many could see one of Rankin/Bass's more remarkable achievements and one of their more unique specials.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

My Picks on TCM for the Day Before Christmas & Christmas Eve

If you are like most classic film fans, then you will want to spend much of the day before Christmas and Christmas Eve watching classic movies. Of course, the problem is that there are only so many hours a day and very few of us can afford to spend a whole day watching movies. To make thing easier for you, then, I decided to share my recommendations of the films to watch that are airing on Turner Classic Movies on 24 December 2014. Set your DVRs!

The Great Rupert (1950) at 9:30 AM EST/8:30 PMCST: The Great Rupert is an odd little film and one that has been largely forgotten at that. The film centres around the Rupert of the title, a performing squirrel. The Great Rupert benefits from fine performances from Jimmy Durante, Terry Moore, and Tom Drake, as well as the incredible stop motion animation of George Pal. Reportedly, the stop motion animation was so convincing upon the film's release that many people thought Rupert was a real squirrel! While the film is certainly a bit goofy, it is also a whole lot of fun.

It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947) at 12:15 PM EST/11:15 AM CST:  This is one of my favourite holiday films of all time. It Happened On 5th Avenue centres on a hobo, Aloyisius T. McKeever (played by Victor Moore), who  has a unique way of surviving winter. He simply moves into the vacated mansion of the 2nd richest man in the world, Michael J. O'Connor (played by Charles Ruggles), and leaves shortly before Mr. O'Connor returns in the spring. Needless to say, Mr. McKeever's usual winter stay at Mr. O'Connor's mansion is soon complicated inthe course of this film. While It Happened on 5th Avenue takes a while to get started, once it gets going the laughs are nearly non-stop. It benefits both from a good script, as well as an excellent cast that not only includes Messrs. Moore and Ruggles, but also Don DeFore, Gale Storm, and a young Alan Hale Jr.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940) at 4:00 PM EST/3:00 PM CST:  I really don't have much to say about this film, with which I assume most classic film buffs are familiar. It is one of the best known Yuletide films of all time, and with good reason. It is one of Ernst Lubitsch's very best films, with an excellent script by Samson Raphaelson and an uncredited Ben Hecht. The film also benefits from fine performances from Jimmy Stewart and Frank Morgan.

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941) at 8:00 PM EST/7:00 PM CST: Like The Shop Around the Corner, The Man Who Came to Dinner is one of the best known holiday films of all time. This is for good reason. Based on Moss Hart and George Kaufman's play of the same name and with a script by Julius and Philip Epstein, it is one of the funniest movies ever made. While Bette Davis received top billing, it is Monty Woolley who is the true star of the film, playing curmudgeonly radio celebrity Sheridan Whiteside. The rest of the cast shines as well, including Miss Davis, Richard Travis, Ann Sheridan, Billie Burke, and Mary Wickes as the poor nurse charged with caring for Mr. Whiteside.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) at 10:00 EST/9:00 CST: Christmas in Connecticut is my second favourite Yuletide movie of all time after The Apartment (1960). I think it is one of the most underrated comedies of all time, complete with Maltese Falcon references and one line that I am surprised made it past the MPAA Production Code Administration. It also features Barbara Stanwyck at her absolute sexiest. I don't think she has ever been more desirable in any other film, not even The Lady Eve (1941) or Ball of Fire (1941). Christmas in Connecticut has one of the best casts of any Yuletide film as well, including Dennis Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet, S.Z. Sakall, and Una O'Connor. If you can only watch one holiday film this year and you don't have access to The Apartment, then this is the one to watch!

Merry Christmas, Glad Yule, and Happy Viewing, everyone!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Our Drunken Elf

What may be our favourite Yuletide decoration is an stuffed elf we call the "Drunken Elf". When we first bought him I commented that with that smile on his face he looked drunk. We then got him a little bottle to place with him so it looked like he had been on a bender. He has been a part of our Yuletide celebrations for years now. Of course, he has switched brands over the years. For a few years he had a Crown Royal bottle. After that he switched to Smirnoff Vodka. The past few years he had had a Jim Beam bottle.

In fact, we have had him so long that we are not sure when or where we bought him. I am pretty sure it was in the late Nineties or early Naughts. I am also certain we had to buy him at either Dollar General or WalMart. He was manufactured by Sterling Inc., a company based in Kansas City, Missouri that makes artificial Christmas trees and other Christmas decorations. I'm not sure that they still make elves like him. It would be a shame if they did not, as he is so much cuter and so much more fun than that creepy Elf on the Shelf. Anyhow, I hope that the Drunken Elf continues to be a part of our family Yuletides for many years to come.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas Cards

The first Christmas card
One of the traditions most associated with Christmas in the 20th and 21st Centuries is the sending of Christmas cards. The tradition is so much a part of the holidays that it seems as if it had to firmly entrenched for centuries. In truth, as far as Yuletide traditions go, Christmas cards are a relatively recent development, only going back a little over 160 years.

What is more, the giving of greeting cards at other holidays pre-dates Christmas cards by centuries. It was as early as 1400 that New Years greeting cards were being made from woodcuts in Germany. It was also in the 15th Century that lovers began exchanging Valentine cards (or more simply, "Valentines"). The oldest known Valentine was written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans and sent to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London after he was captured at the Battle of Agincourt. By the late 18th Century printers in Great Britain had already started producing the first commercial Valentines.

It would not be until 1843 that the first commercially produced Christmas card would be introduced. It was on 1 May 1843 Sir Heny Cole commissioned that first Christmas card. It was artist John Callcott Horsley who provided its illustrations. Seen today that first card might not seem very Christmasy. It simply showed an extended family raising their glass in a toast. Apparently the subject matter proved a bit controversial given it involved drinking. The card was sold for 1 shilling each, which would have been a bit pricey in the mid-19th Century. About 1000 copies of that first Christmas card were sold. Regardless, the idea of Christmas cards would soon catch on.

As to what made that first Christmas card possible, it was a number of factors. Advances in printing had reduced the price to print not only books and newspapers, but items such as cards as well. The introduction of the Uniform Penny Post across the United Kingdom in 1840 also made it much cheaper to post letters and cards. These two factors, as well as yet others, not only made that first commercially produced Christmas card possible, but pretty much all commercially produced greeting cards to follow.

It was 1873 that the printing firm of Prang and Mayer began printing Christmas cards in the United Kingdom. Prang and Mayer introduced the Christmas card the following year, 1874, to the United States. While Christmas cards had existed in the United States since the 1840's, they tended to be rather pricey. It was Prang and Mather that first produced them so that they were affordable for most Americans.

Vintage 1950's Hallmark card
Regardless, greeting cards would prove as popular in the United States as they had the United Kingdom. Quite naturally, new firms were founded to cater to the demand for greeting cards. American Greetings was founded in 1906 in Brooklyn, Ohio by Polish immigrant  Jacob Sapirstein. The giant of the greeting card industry, Hallmark Cards, was founded in 1910 in Kansas City by Joyce Hall. Hallmark Cards would also make another contribution to the holiday beyond their Christmas cards. In 1917 Joyce Hall and his brother Rollie invented modern day wrapping paper.

The subject matter of Christmas cards has changed over the years. The early British cards of the Victorian Era eschewed religious scenes (such as the Nativity or the Three Magi) or wintry scenes in favour of such things as animals, children, flowers, and fairies. As Christmas cards evolved religious themes such as the Nativity started appearing. It was late in the 19th Century that wintry scenes, such as snowy landscapes, finally became popular. Father Christmas in the United Kingdom and Santa Claus in the United States became increasingly popular as the years went by.

While the tradition of sending Christmas cards is a relatively recent addition to the holiday, it is one that has become firmly a part of it. While the various styles and even subject matter of cards have changed over the years, at no point has sending Christmas cards gone out of fashion. Even today, in the age of the World Wide Web and mobile phones, the Christmas card remains popular.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

My Five Least Favourite Christmas Songs

Most holiday songs that are played frequently each year tend to be good. After all, it takes more than references to Christmas, Santa Claus, and snow to make a song listenable. It's with good reason that songs like "White Christmas", "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", and "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" are considered classics. Unfortunately, not every Yuletide song played during the holidays can be "White Christmas. There are many that, despite their frequent airplay, some people just cannot stand. These are the top five Yuletide songs that will have me switching the channel or at least turning down the volume on my TV or radio every single time.

1. "Last Christmas" by Wham: I have never been a fan of Wham or George Michael. To me their songs are the musical equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard. Taking that into account, I think even for a Wham song, "Last Christmas" is horribly bad. It's not the subject matter that makes me dislike the song. There are plenty of Christmas songs about people jilted by their lovers that I love (among them "Merry Christmas Will Do" by Material Issue). The problem for me with "Last Christmas" is twofold. First, to me the lyrics are just poorly written. The last line in the chorus just grates on my ears. Second, the music isn't very good either. In fact, it is so dreary that it would have a soporific effect on me if I wasn't so busy cringing so much at the lyrics. How this song has been covered so many times (most recently by Ariana Grande) and gets so much airplay I will never know. I will say this, at least the cover versions aren't quite as bad.

2. "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" by Elmo 'n' Patsy: Unlike many people I actually like Yuletide novelty songs. I love "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" by The Chipmunks and "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" by Gayla Peevey. That having been said, I have hated "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" from the very beginning. Elmo's vocals are annoying. The music is annoying. The lyrics are even annoying  Worse yet, as novelty songs go, it isn't even funny. What good is a novelty song that isn't funny. Sadly, this is one of the most played songs around this time of year.

3. "Do They Know It's Christmas" by Band Aid: I hate putting this song on the list, as it was recorded with good intentions and the proceeds for the song went to a good cause. If I'm being honest, however, I have to say I cannot stand the song. "Do They Know It's Christmas" simply grates on my ears. Beyond the fact that I don't like the sound of the song, I have to point out that in some respects the lyrics to "Do They Know It's Christmas" are offensive. It treats Africa as if it was one vast wasteland and treats the continent as if it was one country, ignoring both the diverse terrain and the diverse cultures there. Even the title and chorus of the song, "Do They Know It's Christmas" is potentially offensive. A good portion of Africa's population is Christian, so they naturally know when Christmas is, even when it might not be a happy one for some of them. What is more, in some faiths in Africa (such as Coptic Christians), Christmas is celebrated not on 25 December, but 7 January. The song was recently remade by a new lineup of singers called "Band Aid 30" to help fight Ebola in parts of Africa. Unfortunately, its lyrics are no less offensive and patronising.

4. "The Holiday Season" by Andy Williams: I love Andy Williams. He is one of my favourite singers of all time. In fact, if I was going to make a list of my all time favourite crooners, he would probably make the top ten. Unfortunately, on his otherwise excellent album The Andy Williams Christmas Album there is possibly the worst song he ever recorded, "The Holiday Season". Oh, the music to "The Holiday Season" is listenable enough, but the lyrics are absolutely atrocious. There's the reference to Santa Claus, "He'll be coming down the chimney, down". Why repeat the word "down"? And then there are the nonsense lyrics that have nothing to do with the holiday, "With the whoop-de-do and hickory dock". The song even makes a grave error with regards to a holiday tradition in its lyrics, "And don't forget to hang up your sock." One does not hang up socks at the Yuletide; one hangs up stockings! The song was written by Kay Thompson, who is most famous for the "Eloise" books. Fortunately, she was a much better author than a songwriter!

5. "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth"  by Spike Jones & His City Slickers: Perhaps I should not be a Grammar Nazi and point out that it should be "All I Want for Christmas Are My Two Front Teeth", especially as the grammatical error is the least thing that annoys me about this song. Quite simply, the song is very repetitive. The words "two front teeth" are repeated about twelve times or more throughout the song. Worse yet, even when it is sung by an adult (as Spike Jones's original version was--George Rock handled the lead vocal), it is sung in an annoying, high pitched, childlike voice. The effect can be even worse when sung by an actual child. Even as a child, when my tastes had not quite developed to the point that they are now, I hated this song.