Friday, January 31, 2014

The Late Great Arthur Rankin Jr.

Animator, director, and producer Arthur Rankin Jr., who co-founded  Rankin/Bass Productions with Jules Bass, died yesterday at the age of 89.

Arthur Rankin Jr. was born on 19 July 1924 in New York City. His parents were actors  Arthur Rankin and Marian Masnfield. Actor Harry Davenport (perhaps best known as Dr, Meade in Gone with the Wind) was his paternal grandfather. During World War II Mr. Rankin served in the United States Navy. Following the war he went to work for RKO Pictures' international division before taking a job as a graphic designer at the television network the American Broadcasting Company. While at ABC he served as part of the art department on the science fiction anthology programme Tales of Tomorrow. Arthur Rankin Jr. left ABC in 1952 and founded his own graphic design firm. Mr. Rankin's company did a good deal of graphic design work for the Gardner advertising agency. It was a fellow named Jules Bass who would deliver materials from the Gardner agency to Arthur Rankin Jr.'s graphics design firm. Messrs. Rankin and Bass soon became friends and eventually decided to found a company that would utilise Mr. Rankin's knowledge of television and Mr. Bass's knowledge of advertising. It was then on 14 September 1960 that Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass founded Videocraft International. By 1967 it would be renamed Rankin/Bass Productions.

Videocraft International's first production would be a television series called The New Adventures of  Pinocchio in 1960. It was produced using the stop motion technique called Animagic that would become forever associated with Rankin/Bass Productions. It was on The New Adventures of Pinocchio that Arthur Rankin Jr. gained his first experience directing. In 1961 Videocraft International produced the TV series , Tales of the Wizard of Oz using cel animation.

The year 1964 would prove to be a breakthrough year for Videocraft International. The company produced the television special Return to Oz for  NBC's General Electric Colour Fantasy Hour. Like Tales of the Wizard of Oz, it was done with cel animation. It was also in 1964 that Videocraft International produced the perennial Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was done using Rankin/Bass's Animagic stop motion technique. The special proved to be a huge hit on its debut and has been aired every year since. The past many years it has been aired at least twice every holiday season.

With the success of Ruldoph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Videocraft International produced their first feature length film. Willy McBean and his Magic Machine was directed by Arthur Rankin Jr. and used the studio's Animagic stop motion technique. Unfortunately, Willy McBean and his Magic Machine did not prove to be a huge success at the box office. It would be followed by two more feature films produced by Rankin/Bass in the Sixties: The Daydreamer in 1966 (directed by Jules Bass) and Mad Monster Party in 1967. While neither did well at the box office, Mad Monster Party would become popular on television, usually aired by TV stations around Halloween. Besides Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, Mad Monster Party  could well be the most popular work of Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass.

While Rankin/Bass saw little success in cinemas, they saw a good deal of success on television. The 1966 Saturday animated cartoon King Kong was co-produced by Toei Animation and ran for three years on ABC. While the 1967 Christmas special Cricket on the Hearth and the 1968 Thanksgiving special Mouse on the Mayflower (both directed by Arthur Rankin Jr.) would not see the success of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town would see a great deal of success. In fact, Frosty the Snowman is still aired to this day. Rankin/Bass would also see success with the syndicated The Smokey the Bear Show (which shot using Animagic).

In the Seventies Rankin/Bass produced more Saturday morning cartoons, including Jackson Five, The Osmonds, and Kid Power. Of course, by then the company's niche had become holiday specials. Rankin/Bass produced Here Comes Peter Cottontail, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, The Year Without a Santa Claus, Frosty's Winter Wonderland, Rudolph's Shiny New Year, and several others throughout the decade. Rankin/Bass also produced adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Return of the King for television.

By the Eighties the heyday of Rankin/Bass was over. The company produced the feature films The Last Unicorn and Flight of Dragons (both from 1982), as well as the television specials The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold and The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus. Rankin/Bass' last significant production would be the animated series Thundercats in 1985. After Thundercats they would only produce one more thing, the holiday special Santa Baby in 2001.

There are only a very few television producers and directors who would have the impact on popular culture that Arthur Rankin Jr. did. If all he had done was produce Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer he would have had a significant impact, but he did so much more. If one were to ask Americans of a certain age what their favourite holiday specials were as children, chances are the majority of the responses would be Rankin/Bass productions. Many of their holiday specials would run for years. Indeed, since their debut there has never been a year that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman have not aired. Beyond their holiday specials Rankin/Bass produced an array of television shows still remembered by many to this day: King Kong, Jackson Five, and Thundercats still have their fans.

Of course, while Arthur Rankin is remembered as a producer of some of the best loved holiday specials, it must also be pointed out that he was a fine director as well. Particularly when considering he was usually working within the limitations of television animation, Arthur Rankin Jr. (and Jules Bass as well) was capable of direction that was often as good as might be seen in animated feature films with much larger budgets. Both as a producer and a director Arthur Rankin Jr. left behind a legacy of work that will long be remembered.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The 50th Anniversary of Dr. Strangelove

It was fifty years ago today that Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was released. Short of  2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) it could well be Stanley Kubrick's best known film. The film was popular upon its first release and would have a lasting impact on pop culture. It is consistently ranked in lists of the greatest films of all time.

The genesis for Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb  goes back to the late Fifties when Stanley Kubrick developed an interest in thermonuclear war. He read a good deal on the subject and asked Alastair Buchan, then head of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (a British think tank then focusing on nuclear deterrence) for a list of books he could read about nuclear warfare. Among the books Mr. Buchan recommended to Stanley Kubrick was the novel Red Alert by Peter George (originally titled Two Hours to Doom and published under the pen name Peter Bryant). During World War II Mr. George had been a  Flight Lieutenant and navigator in the Royal Air Force. Stanley Kubrick saw the possibility of a film in the novel and sought the rights to it. Unfortunately, agent, Peter George's Scott Meredith, told Mr. Kubrick that the motion picture rights had already been sold in 1959 for $1000. Fortunately for Stanley Kubrick, financial backing for a film based on Red Alert proved to hard to come by, and as a result the film rights were sold from one person to another. Finally Stanley Kubrick was able to buy the film rights to Red Alert from Scott Meredith for $3500.

Stanley Kubrick then hired Peter George so the two of them could collaborate on a screenplay. Mr.Kubrick's partner in film production James B. Harris took the script to Seven Arts who approved it as the second film in Mr. Kubrick's commitment to them. While Red Alert was a very serious, even sombre novel, the film emerging from it would not remain so for long. The potential for the film to be a satire occurred to Stanley Kubrick and James B. Harris early in the development of the film. Eventually Mr. Kubrick settled upon the idea of making the film as a very black comedy. He hired Terry Southern, author of the comic novel The Magic Christian, as a co-writer. Red Alert then became Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

For the film's lead Stanley Kubrick turned to actor Peter Sellers, with whom he had worked on Lolita (1962). Not only did Mr. Kubrick want Mr. Sellers as the lead, but he wanted the actor to play four major roles in the film (the President, Dr. Strangelove, Group Captain Mandrake, and Major Kong). Peter Sellers was reticent about playing multiple roles, fearing comparisons to Alec Guinness who had played multiple roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). Stanley Kubrick eventually convinced Mr. Sellers to play the multiple roles.

That having been said, Peter Sellers would not remain in the role of Major Kong for long.  He had difficulty with the Texan accent required for the role. When Peter Sellers broke his ankle, Stanley Kubrick then looked for another actor to fill the role. He asked John Wayne who, as might be expected, declined the role. He then asked Dan Blocker, then as now best known as Hoss on the TV Western Bonanza. He also declined the role. Stanley Kubrick then approached Slim Pickens, whose performance he remembered in the film One-Eyed Jacks (1961). Fortunately Mr. Pickens accepted the role.

The other roles in the film were filled with some very experienced actors. Sterling Hayden, who had starred in Stanley Kubrick's film The Killing (1956), was cast as the paranoid Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper. George C. Scott was cast as the ultranationalistic General Buck Turgidson. British character actor Peter Bull played the Soviet Ambassador. In addition to actors with considerable experience in film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb featured an actor in his film debut. Stanley Kubrick had seen James Earl Jones in a performance of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice with George C. Scott. He cast him in the role of Lieutenant Lothar Zogg, the bombardier aboard the B-52 commanded by Major Kong.

It was while production was under way on Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb that Stanley Kubrick discovered a film adaptation of the 1962 novel Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler was in production Like Red Alert, the novel Fail-Safe was a serious examination of thermonuclear war. The film rights for Fail-Safe had been bought by producer Max Youngstein, who was then head of Entertainment Corporation of America. Mr. Youngstein wanted to make Fail-Safe in as little as six week so that it would beat Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb to theatres. Even though Fail-Safe was going to be a serious film and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb a satire, Stanley Kubrick worried that the release of another film about thermonuclear war before Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb could hurt its chances for success. Stanley Kubrick then took measures to halt production of Fail-Safe (or at the very least slow it down),

Stanley Kubrick and Columbia Pictures filed a plagiarism lawsuit against  Entertainment Corporation of America, McGraw-Hill (the publisher of Fail-Safe), Curtis Publishing (who had serialised the novel in The Saturday Evening Post), and the book's authors (Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler). In the end a settlement was reached whereby Columbia Pictures assumed the distribution of Fail-Safe and Columbia Pictures decided to release Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb first. At the time Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was set for a December 1963 release. Fail-Safe would be released later, in October 1964.

While Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb would beat Fail-Safe to theatres, it would still encounter a major problem with its original release date. The film's first press screening was scheduled for 22 November 1963. It was cancelled when news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy broke. The assassination of President Kennedy would also have an impact on the film's premiere. Originally set to premiere on 12 December 1963 in London,  Reuters reported on 28 November 1963 that the premiere of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb had been moved as Columbia Pictures and Stanley Kubrick thought  that it would be "...inappropriate to release a political comedy at the present time."  It is for this reason that Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb debuted on 29 January 1964.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy would impact Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb in one other way. Major Kong's line, "Shoot, a fella' could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff" was originally "Shoot, a fella' could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff." It was redubbed out of respect for the President, who had been assassinated in Dallas. Here it must be pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, the enormous pie fight that formed the original climax of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was not cut due to the assassination. In fact, the pie fight sequence had been cut well before 22 November 1963. Viewing the footage of the pie fight, Stanley Kubrick decided it was too farcical and not in keeping with the satirical tone of the film. He then cut the sequence and shot a new climax for Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

While Columbia Pictures had serious doubts that a comedy about thermonuclear war could be a success, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb proved to be a hit upon its release in January 1964. Not only did the film do well at the box office, but it received generally positive reviews as well. At the Oscars it was nominated for four awards: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Peter Sellers); Best Adapted Screenplay (Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, Terry Southern); Best Director (Stanley Kubrick); and Best Picture. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb performed even better when it came to the British Academy of Film and Television Arts' awards. The film won the BAFTA awards for Best British Art Direction (Black and White), Best British Film, and Best Film from Any Source, as well as the UN Award. It was also nominated for BAFTA awards for Best British Actor (Peter Sellers), Best British Screenplay, and Best Foreign Actor (Sterling Hayden).

If anything, since its debut the reputation of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb has grown. In a Sight & Sound poll conducted among directors it was ranked as the fifth greatest film of all time and was the only comedy in the top ten. It ranked #26 on  Empire's 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. It is one of the very few films that can boast a 100% "Fresh" rating on the web site Rotten Tomatoes.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was truly a ground breaking film.  Prior to the release of the film certain subjects simply were not considered fit for comedies. While there had been films made before  Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb that had satirised politicians and the military (although they might not have gone as far as it did), no film had ever used nuclear annihilation as a source of humour before. It should then not be surprising that both Columbia Pictures and the Production Code Administration expressed doubts that the public would receive Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb with welcome arms. The film's success then proved that the public would not only accept but even enjoy comedies that made light of subjects that once would have been considered off limits for humour.

The impact of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb would be felt almost immediately, with similar iconoclastic satires being released in its wake. The 1965 film The Loved One (loosely based on Evelyn Waugh's novel  The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy) satirised the once taboo subjects of the funeral industry and death itself. Richard Lester's 1967 film How I Won the War not only lampooned the war film genre, but the military and war itself. The President's Analyst (1967) took jabs at psychiatry, spies, the FBI, the CIA, conservatives, liberals, and many other topics. Like How I Won the War, M*A*S*H satirised war. Very dark comedies continued to be made well into the Seventies, with the 1976 send up of television, Network, being a prime example.

The influence of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb would go beyond its status as a black comedy dealing with taboo topics with an iconoclastic approach. The very look of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, particularly the set for the War Room, would have a lasting impact on films. This was particularly true of the science fiction genre. Dark Star (1974) , The Terminator (1984), Men in Black (1997), and other sci-fi movies borrowed , sometimes heavily, from Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

There can be perhaps no better testament to its status as a classic than the fact that many directors cite Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb as an influence on their careers. Such diverse directors as  Brad Bird,  Lawrence Kasdan, and Barry Sonnenfield all cite the film as having had an impact on their careers. It should be little wonder that it ranked #5 in the aforementioned Sight & Sound poll conducted among directors.

Of course, there can be perhaps no greater measure of the impact of  Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb than how much it has permeated pop culture since its release.  The Muppet Show featured a recurring character called Dr. Strangepork in its "Pigs in Space" segment. In Back to the Future (1985) Marty McFly plugs his guitar into a device in Doc Brown's lab labelled "CRM-114", the name of the message decoder in Dr. Strangelove. On television The Simpsons has made numerous references to Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, including a conference room that looks like the War Room in the episode "Bob's Last Gleaming" and  a parody of Major Kong's ride atop the bomb in the episode "Homer the Vigilante". Mystery Science Theatre 3000 regularly referenced  Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Quite simply a list of the references to  Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb in popular culture could easily fill a book.

Fifty years after its release Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb continues to influence directors, writers, critics, and classic film buffs. The film also continues to have an influence on popular culture. None of this should be surprising given Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb changed the course of film satires and comedies in the Sixties. Indeed, while  2001: A Space Odyssey may arguably be Stanley Kubrick's most famous film, it could well be Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb that is his most influential.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Late Great Pete Seeger

Legendary folk singer Pete Seeger died yesterday at the age of 94. He wrote or co-wrote many of the best known folk songs of the Twentieth Century, including "Turn! Turn! Turn!", "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)".  "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?". With The Weavers he would have a string of hits in the early Fifties.

Pete Seeger was born on 3 May 1919 in New York City. His father was the prominent musicologist and composer Charles Seeger (among his many claims to fame was formulating dissonant counterpoint and founding the first musicology curriculum in the U.S. at the University of California in 1913). His stepmother was Ruth Seeger, well known composer and folk music scholar. His younger brother Mike Seeger was also a folk musician and folklorist. His younger sister Peggy Seeger was a folk singer. As might be expected, as a child Pete Seeger grew up hearing a good deal of folk music. It was in 1935, when Pete Seeger attended a folk music festival, that he was introduced to the five string banjo. It would become his chosen instrument, along with the 12 string guitar.

In 1936 Pete Seeger went to Harvard. Among his classmates there was John F. Kennedy. He dropped out halfway through his sophomore year. For a time he worked in the folklore archives of the Library of Congress. He later travelled throughout the United States. In 1941 Pete Seeger founded The Almanac Singers along with Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, and Woody Guthrie. The group recorded four albums before disbanding in late 1942 or late 1943. The album Songs of the Lincoln Battalion, released in 1944, would contain material from former members of The Almanac Singers, including Pete Seeger.  During World War II he served in the United States Army. In 1943 he married  Toshi-Aline Ōta, who became a prominent documentary filmmaker and producer in her own right. She died last year.

It was in 1948 Pete Seeger formed The Weavers with  Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman. The group took their name from Gerhart Hauptmann's play Die Weber (The Weavers). After a rough start they eventually started playing regular gigs at The Village Vanguard, the jazz club in in Greenwich Village, New York City. It was there that pianist, composer, and arranger Gordon Jenkins discovered them. Signed to Decca Records, The Weavers would go to #1 on the Billboard singles chart with their cover of Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene". The success of "Goodnight Irene" would be followed by further hits, including their version of "On Top of Old Smoky" (which went to #2 on the Billboard chart), 'Kisses Sweeter than Wine" (which went to #19 on the Billboard chart), "Wimoweh" (which went to #15 on the Billboard chart and was later covered by The Tokens as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"), "Wreck of the John B", and a cover of Guy Mitchell's "The Roving Kind".

Unfortunately The Weavers' success would end with the Red Scare of the early Fifties. An FBI informant identified both Lee Hays and Pete Seeger as members of the Communist Party. As a result The Weavers were blacklisted. They were dropped from Decca Records and their songs were no longer played on radio stations. In 1955 both Lee Hays and Pete Seeger  were called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Lee Hays declined to testify before HUAC, citing the Fifth Amendment. Not only did Pete Seeger refuse to take the Fifth Amendment, but he also refused to answer any questions about his political beliefs or any of his political associations. As a result Mr. Seeger was cited for contempt of Congress. For a few years afterwards he had to keep the Federal government appraised of his whereabouts.  He was convicted of contempt of Congress in a trial in 1961 and sentenced to ten years in jail, but in 1962 an appeals court overturned the conviction.

As to The Weavers, they reunited in 1955 for a concert at Carnegie Hall. The event was recorded and a live album, The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, was released by Vanguard Records. The Weavers were then signed by Vanguard Records. It was on 1 April 1958 that Pete Seeger left The Weavers. A disagreement had arisen when The Weavers were to provide vocals for a television commercial for cigarettes. Believing tobacco to be dangerous and viewing singing for a TV commercial as selling out, Pete Seeger decided to leave the group. He fulfilled his commitment to them for one year before his departure.

Pete Seeger continued to record songs and perform concerts, although his career was seriously hampered by being blacklisted. In 1963 he had a minor hit with the song "Little Boxes". In 1965 he covered Phil Ochs' "Draft Dodger Rag". It was in 1965 that the blacklisting of Pete Seeger ended when he became the host of Rainbow Quest, a television programme devoted to folk music.

In 1967 he would have a minor hit with the song "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy". The song was widely seen as an attack on President Lyndon B. Johnson and his escalation of the war in Vietnam. The song would become even more famous due to Pete Seeger's appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, his first appearance on network broadcast television since The Weavers had appeared on The Faye Emerson Show in 1950. He decided to perform "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" for the show. Unfortunately, CBS cut the song before that particular episode of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Perhaps because of the ensuing controversy over their decision, Pete Seeger was invited to appear on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour again and appeared on its 25 February 1968 edition.

On 15 November 1969 Pete Seeger took part in the Vietnam Moratorium March on Washington, DC. During the Sixties Pete Seeger was a regular columnist in the journal Sing Out! and a contributor to the magazine Broadside. He was active in the Civil Rights movement and he encouraged Bernice Johnson to form The Freedom Singers, the folk group formed in 1962 to educate people about civil rights through music.

Pete Seeger remained active in the Seventies. He released seven albums throughout the decade. In 1972 he was inducted into the Songwriter Hall of Fame. On television he appeared on The David Frost Show, The Dick Cavett Show, Sesame Street, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and All You Need is Love.

In the Eighties he slowed his album output, only releasing two albums (Sings Traditional Christmas Carols and A Fish That's a Song) during the decade. He performed a benefit concert for  Poland's Solidarity movement in 1982. In the 1990's Pete Seeger released one album, Pete, in 1996. In the Naughts he released the albums At 89 and Tomorrow's Children. He made a rare television appearance on Late Night with David Letterman to support the album. In 2009 he performed  "Woody Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land" at President  Barack Obama's Inaugural concert in Washington, D.C with  Bruce Springsteen and his grandson Tao Rodríguez-Seeger. That same year he performed at an Earth Day celebration at Teachers College in New York City. On 2 May 2009 the Clearwater Concert was held at Madison Square Garden in honour of Mr. Seeger's 90th birthday. Mr. Seeger was among the various performers.  In 2009 he also appeared at the 52nd Monterey Jazz Festival.

In the Teens he recorded his final albums, A More Perfect Union and Pete Remembers Woody. On 21 October 2011 he took part in a solidarity march with Occupy Wall Street. In 2012 his biography Pete Seeger: His Life in His Own Words was published. That same year performed with Arlo Guthrie and Mr. Guthrie's family at a concert at Carnegie Hall. In 2013 the audio book Pete Seeger: The Storm King; Stories, Narratives, Poems was released.

There can be no doubt that Pete Seeger was one of the most influential singers, musicians, and songwriters of the 20th Century. Both as one of The Weavers and as a solo artist he was largely responsible for ushering in the folk music revival of the late Fifties and early Sixties. Artists from The Kingston Trio to Peter, Paul, & Mary to Bob Dylan then owe Mr. Seeger a debt of gratitude. Along with Woody Guthrie, as one of The Almanac Singers Pete Seeger was largely responsible for the rise of the protest song in the United States. The Weavers would continue The Almanac Singers' history of protest songs with such songs as  "If I Had a Hammer", even if the political content of the songs was not explicit.

As a songwriter Pete Seeger was responsible for writing or co-writing some of the most iconic folk songs of the 20th Century. He adapted Chapter 3 of the Book of Ecclesiastes for the song "Turn! Turn! Turn!", which would be a hit for The Byrds in 1965. With Joe Hickerson he wrote "Where Have All the Flowers Gone", which would be recorded by The Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and others. Along with Lee Hays of The Weavers he wrote "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)", later a hit for Peter, Paul, and Mary. He added lyrics to the melody "Mbube" by Solomon Linda (which Mr. Seeger thought was a traditional tune) to create the song "Wimoweh", which was later recorded by The Tokens as "The Lion Sleeps Tonight".  His songs 'Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" has been covered multiple times.

Regardless of whether one agreed with Pete Seeger's political beliefs, there can also be no doubt that he was a man who stood by his convictions. He defied HUAC, citing the First Amendment when refusing to discuss his politics or the politics of others and risked possible imprisonment in doing so. He left The Weavers when he felt that the group had become too commercial. He stood by his choice of performing  "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" even when CBS had other ideas. Not only was Pete Seeger was a man of conviction, but he was also a man who did not let his age stand in his way of his career or his activism. Last year, only months before his death, he was still performing and still taking part in his causes. With the strength of his convictions and a long career, in the end it can be said that Pete Seeger truly made a difference.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Majestic Hollywood: The Greatest Films of 1939 by Mark A. Vieira

Chances are very good that if you are a serious classic film buff you are familiar with the work of author, filmmaker, and photographer Mark A. Vieira. He is the author of several books related to the Golden Age of Hollywood, including Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy, Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code HollywoodHollywood Horror: From Gothic To Cosmic, and many others. He has appeared in various documentaries related to classic film, including Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood. I rather suspect that many classic film buffs have been looking forward to Mr. Vieira's latest book, Majestic Hollywood: The Greatest Films of 1939.

As one might expect from the title, in Majestic Hollywood: The Greatest Films of 1939 Mr. Vieira examines fifty films from 1939. That having been said, one should not expect a simple catalogue of some of the best films of the year. In the introduction Mr. Vieira explains how and why 1939 came to be one of the most phenomenal years in the history of film. The entries for the films themselves are incredible as well. Not only does Mark A. Vieira give us behind the scenes looks at the making of some of the greatest films of all time, but he also gives us the gossip of the time and reviews from the critics as well. He has clearly done a good deal of research on both the factors which led to 1939 being  banner year for movies, as well as a good deal of research on the films themselves. What makes all of this all the more delightful is that Mark A. Vieira discusses the films in the context of the time in which they are made. He does not try to judge the films from a modern day perspective.

As to the various films discussed in Majestic Hollywood: The Greatest Films of 1939, they are quite a varied lot. Of course, the films from 1939 usually counted among the greatest films of all time are all there: Gunga Din, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz, The Women, and Gone with the Wind. That having been said, Mr. Vieira discusses some more obscure films that the average person might never have heard of (Rose of Washington Square being an example). He also selected films from a variety of genres. Within the pages of Majestic Hollywood: The Greatest Films of 1939 one will find entries for horror movies (Son of Frankenstein, Tower of London), romances (Love Affair), Westerns (Jesse James and Stagecoach), and yet other genres.

Of course, given that Mark A. Vieira covers only fifty films from a year that might well have boasted over 100 truly great films, I rather suspect some people will complain that he omitted at least one or more of their favourites from the year. I must admit that I myself was a little disappointed to see Another Thin Man was not included, a film I consider to be the best in what could be the greatest series of films Hollywood ever made. While film buffs might quibble over the films omitted from Majestic Hollywood: The Greatest Films of 1939, I have to point out that it would be terribly difficult for anyone to choose only fifty films from 1939 without leaving something out. I then think Mr. Vieira did a very good job in the choices he made and I really can't complain about any of the films that were included.

Majestic Hollywood: The Greatest Films of 1939 is a coffee table book, so as might be expected there are a good deal of pictures. And with his photographer's eye Mr. Vieira chose some incredible photographs to include in the book. Here I must point out that the collection of photographs in the book not only include the expected publicity shots and movie stills one so often sees, but also a few behind the scenes shots as well. Over all the book is beautifully designed,  from its cover to the fonts used in the interior of the book. Running Press is to be congratulated for designing a book that is as enjoyable to look at as it is to read.

Anyone who has seen Mark A. Vieira's other works know that he loves classic film and it shows in Majestic Hollywood: The Greatest Films of 1939. In many respects it can be described as a love letter to a year many consider to be the greatest one for film of all time. It is certainly a must have book for any fan of classic film.