Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Centennial of Kevin McCarthy's Birth

It was 100 years ago today that actor Kevin McCarthy was born. Classic film buffs might well remember him best as Dr. Miles J. Bennell in the sci-fi horror classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Classic television fans might remember him best from his many guest appearances through the years on such shows as The Twilight Zone, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Wild Wild West, and The Golden Girls. He appeared several times on Broadway, in such productions as Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Advise and Consent, Cactus Flower, and Happy Birthday, Wanda June. Indeed, Mr. McCarthy had an incredibly long career. He made his debut on Broadway in Abe Lincoln in Illinois in 1939. His final credit was in the feature film The Ghastly Love of Johnny X in 2012. Although he slowed down his pace in later years, Kevin McCarthy never quite stopped working.

There should be little wonder that Kevin McCarthy's career lasted so long and that he appeared in so many films, so many plays, and on so many television shows. He had the looks of a leading man and could easily have made a career of playing standard, lead roles. Along with his rugged good looks, however, Kevin McCarthy had the sort of talent to play any role he put his mind to. Over the years he played everything from heroes to villains, generals to medical doctors. What is more he did all of them well. Following is a pictorial tribute to a legendary character actor whose versatility insured he was always busy, but never typecast.

Kevin McCarthy as Biff Lohman in Death of a Salesman (1951)

Dana Wynter and Kevin McCarthy from Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Henry Fonda, Lee Tracy, and Kevin McCarthy from The Best Man
Kevin McCarthy in a screen cap from A Big Hand for the Little Lady
A press photo from the TV show The Survivors featuring Kevin McCarthy and Lana Turner

Kevin McCarthy from the movie Piranha
Kevin McCarthy and the Cast of 80's soap Flamingo Road
Kevin McCarthy with William Schalert, Katheleen Quinlan, & Patricia Barry from Twilight Zone: The Movie

Kevin McCarthy with Hope Lange from the film Just Cause
Kevin McCarthy in a scene from Looney Tunes: Back in Action
Kevin McCarthy in his final role as The Grand Inquisitor in The Ghastly Love of Johnny X

For more information on the life and career of Kevin McCarthy you might want to read my eulogy for him on the occasion of his death here.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The 120th Birthday of Jack Benny

It was 120 years ago today that legendary comedian Jack Benny was born. Of course, if Jack was still alive today he would  insist that he was only 39.  It was one of the many quirks of a persona Mr. Benny created for his comedy routines and one that would become immortalised on his radio and television show. Not only was this persona perpetually 39, but he was incredibly cheap (he continued driving a 1923 Maxwell because he refused to buy a new car), petty, and vain. He continued trying to play the violin even though he was horrible at it. Of course, in reality Jack Benny was nothing like his comic persona. Not only was Mr. Benny one of the kindest, most generous, and selfless people in show business, but in reality he was very good on the violin.

Jack Benny was born  Benjamin Kubelsky on 14 February 1894 in Chicago. It would be his parents who would largely be responsible for his career in entertainment. In the hope that he would become a great classical violinist, they enrolled him in violin lessons when he was only six years old. He proved extremely proficient on the violin, enough that by the time he was 17 he was playing the instrument on vaudeville. His vaudeville career would be interrupted by World War I, during which time he served in the United States Navy. He resumed his career after the war and also adopted a new stage name, after having gone through a number of others: Jack Benny.

Jack Benny proved very successful in vaudeville. In fact, it is a little known fact that he had a brief film career before the debut of his radio show. In 1929 MGM head of production Irving Thalberg saw Jack Benny at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, California at the behest of Jack's agent Sam Lyons. Mr. Benny then made his film debut in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. Unfortunately his early film career would not prove to be a success and MGM eventually released him from his contract.

While the movies did not turn Jack Benny into a star, radio did. On 29 March 1932 Jack Benny made a guest appearance on the radio show The Ed Sullivan Show (related only to the later TV show of the same name in that it shared the same host). Jack's guest appearance was so successful that NBC's Commercial Programme Department held an audition for Jack with the advertising agency N. W. Ayer and its client Canada Dry. Both N. W. Ayer and Canada Dry liked Jack so much that on 2 May 1932 The Canada Dry Programme made its debut. It was the first incarnation of what would later be called The Jack Benny Programme.

The Jack Benny Programme would change sponsors and even networks over the years. Despite this it proved phenomenally successful. In fact, including its run on television, The Jack Benny Programme ran for a total of 33 years, from the debut of the radio show on 2 May 1932 to the end of the television show on 16 April 1965. It was on the radio show that Jack Benny perfected his comic persona of a self-centred, vain, petty skinflint who played the violin very poorly. Over the years The Jack Benny Programme developed one of the best ensembles of any radio or television show. Indeed, so central was the character of Jack's valet and chauffeur Rochester (played by Eddie Anderson) to the show that it is perhaps best to regard him as Jack's partner and equal rather than a supporting character. As a comedy team Jack Benny and Rochester were not unlike P. G. Wodehouse's Wooster and Jeeves, in which the valet is the true master of the house. There was little doubt that Rochester was brighter than Jack. It was to Rochester that Jack turned when he had to know how to spell words like "superfluous" and to Rochester that he would turn when he needed someone to get him out of trouble. Like every other character on the show Rochester belittled and mocked Jack, but at the same time it was clear that the two men cared deeply for each other. Together they made one of the best comedy teams of the 20th Century.

While there can be little doubt that Jack Benny and Eddie Anderson were the stars of the show, The Jack Benny Programme had a cast of regular and recurring characters that could make producers of other shows envious. Jack Benny's real life wife Mary Livingstone played his whip smart, wisecracking not-quite-a-girlfriend who always got the better of him. Dennis Day was the singer on the show, good natured but not terribly bright. Don Wilson was the announcer on the show, and often the target of Jack's jokes. Legendary voice artist Mel Blanc played multiple roles on the show. He is perhaps best remembered on The Jack Benny Programme as Jack's long suffering violin instructor Professor Pierre LeBlanc, but he also played uck the Plumber, the voice of Jack's parrot Polly, and assorted other characters. Other characters on the show included Sheldon Leonard as a racetrack tout, Bea Benaderet as the switchboard operator Gertrude, Joseph Kearns as Ed (the apparently immortal guard of Jack's bank vault), and Frank Nelson in various roles as clerks, doormen, and so on (he was known for answering, "Yeeee-essss?"). A running joke on The Jack Benny Programme was Jack's feud with fellow radio star Fred Allen. Despite the barbs the two of them exchanged on their respective programmes, Jack Benny and Fred Allen were actually close friends.

The Jack Benny Programme would continue to be successful after it made its transition to television. It debuted as a series of specials on 2 January 1949. It was on  28 October 1950 that it made its debut as a regularly scheduled programme. The radio version continued to air alongside its counterpart on television until 1955. As to the television version of The Jack Benny Programme, it differed very little from the radio version, with the cast and the format of the show transferred the new medium largely intact. It proved highly successful, running until 1965.

The Jack Benny Programme was still doing well in the ratings when it left the air, Jack Benny having tired of the weekly grind of a television series. Afterwards Jack Benny would make a series of specials for NBC, as well as appearing on various other television shows.

Of course, while Jack Benny's film career had an inauspicious start, the success of his radio show would eventually lead to some success in films. Along with  Eleanor Powell and Robert Taylor, he was one of the stars of the highly successful Broadway Melody of 1936 (1936). Perhaps Jack's best known movie role would be that of actor Josef Tura in the Ernst Lubitsch classic To Be or Not To Be (1942). Jack Benny gave a bravura performance as Tura, the high strung, vain actor who finds himself in an impossible situation. Jack's co-star on the film was the legendary Carole Lombard, with whom he had no difficulty keeping up. To Be or Not To Be is now regarded as one of Ernst Lubitsch's best films, if not his very best. There can be little doubt much of it is due to his inspired casting of Jack Benny in the lead role.

Ironically, what may now be Jack Benny's second most famous film was one that he turned into a running joke on his radio show, constantly claiming that it had been a dud. While The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945) did not do particularly well at the box office, it was hardy the bomb that Jack always made it out to be. What is more, it could well be his second best film after To Be Or Not To Be. The Horn Blows at Midnight was one of those charming fantasy comedies that simply aren't made any more, in which Jack plays the trumpet player Athanael,who dreams he is an angel who is sadly given the job of blowing the trumpet that will signal Earth's destruction. Worse yet, his mission is complicated by two fallen angels who do not particularly want him to finish his assigned job. Jack does a marvellous job of playing Athanael, ably assisted by a supporting cast included such actors as Reginald Gardiner and Guy Kibbee. Despite Jack's constant jokes about The Horn Blows at Midnight, it is now a very well respected film. Indeed, it boasts a rating of 89% at Rotten Tomatoes, an extremely high rating for any film.

Jack Benny would make other notable films besides To Be Or Not To Be and The Horn Blows at Midnight. George Washington Slept Here (1942), based on the hit Broadway play of the same name, cast Jack opposite the Oomph Girl herself, Ann Sheridan. Charley's Aunt (1941) saw him play opposite Kay Francis. Of course, given the success of The Jack Benny Programme it should be no surprise that some of his films would draw inspiration from it. In fact, the Western Buck Benny Rides Again (1940)  not only featured major characters from The Jack Benny Programme, but also adapted many of its skits. Love Thy Neighbour could very nearly be considered an adaptation of both The Jack Benny Programme and The Fred Allen Show, with Jack, Fred, and Eddie Anderson playing their radio personas.

Sadly, The Horn Blows at Midnight would be Jack Benny's last starring role in a feature film. Jack Benny would make several cameos in films over the years, including the Bob Hope film The Great Lover (1949), Gypsy (1962), It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1964), and A Guide for the Married Man (1967). Jack Benny, Eddie Anderson, Don Wilson, Mary Livingstone, and Mel Blanc would play mouse caricatures of themselves in the 1959 Warner Brothers animated short "The Mouse That Jack Built", which was more or less a cartoon parody of The Jack Benny Programme. The cartoon ended with an appearance of the live action Jack Benny.

Despite Jack Benny's comic persona as a self-centred cheapskate, in reality he was a very generous man who cared deeply about his friends and others. Reportedly he once donated $1 million to a retirement home for actors. In 1957 he donated a  Stradivarius violin to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Throughout his life he would play the violin at charity events. During World War II he toured extensively on behalf of the USO. Before he died Jack Benny donated radio and television show scripts, copies of episodes of both his radio show and television show, personal and professional papers, and other memorabilia to the UCLA Library. And while his eye may have wandered from time to time, Jack Benny was apparently very much in love with his wife Mary Livngstone. His will specified that she should be delivered a single, long-stemmed rose every day for the rest of her life.

It must also be pointed out that Jack Benny was also known to take a stand against racial segregation on more than one occasion. When a hotel in St. Joseph, Missouri refused Eddie Anderson a room, Jack Benny told them, "If he doesn't stay, neither then do I." The hotel quickly relented. When a hotel in New York asked for Eddie Anderson to leave because racist guests were complaining about his presence there, Jack Benny and his entire cast and crew checked out of the hotel and found lodgings elsewhere. Of course, it must be considered that Jack Benny and Eddie Anderson weren't simply a comedy team on radio, on television, and on film, but very close friends in real life. Indeed, Eddie Anderson openly wept at Jack Benny's funeral.

It was on 26 December 1974 Jack Benny died from pancreatic cancer. His last appearance on television was on The Dean Martin Celebrity Roast for Lucille Ball. It aired on 7 February 1975, a few weeks after his death. Jack Benny would leave behind a legacy that only a very few other comedians could match. The Jack Benny Programme was pivotal in the development of the situation comedies of radio and television, evolving from the sketch and variety format familiar from vaudeville into the sitcom format we recognise today. What is more, it is one of the few radio sitcoms that successfully made the transition from radio to television, running for fifteen years on the new medium

Jack Benny would also have a lasting impact on future generations of comedians. The influence of Jack Benny can be seen in comics and actors as diverse as Johnny Carson, Phil Hartman, Eugene Levy, Kelsey Grammar, and Jerry Seinfeld.

Of course, Jack Benny's greatest legacy may well be the works he left behind. His radio show is still widely available, on CDs, in digital form, and through streaming media on the internet. His television show is also widely available, with possibly the entire run available on DVD and many episodes available through streaming media. While many classic radio and television stars have long been forgotten, Jack Benny remains recognisable even to people who were born long after his death. One hundred and twenty years after his birth, Jack Benny is still regarded as one of the greatest comics of all time.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Beatles Cartoon Guest Post at The Black Maria

My fellow Beatles fans might want to check out my guest post on the website The Black Maria today on The Beatles cartoon that ran on ABC from 25 September 1965 to 9 September 1969. Click here to read it!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Birth of Beatlemania in America Part Two

 It was in 1963 that Beatlemania swept the United Kingdom. The Beatles' single "She Loves You" sold so phenomenally well that it would remain the best selling record ever in the United Kingdom for literally years. Their concerts not only sold out, but they were often scenes of mass hysteria amongst young Beatles fans. Their appearance on the television programme Sunday Night At The London Palladium drew fifteen million viewers, a phenomenal amount for a British TV show. While Beatlemania dominated Great Britain, however, The Beatles could not seem to find success in the United States. When released in America their singles largely went unnoticed. That having been said, in late 1963 there were signs that Beatlemania could overtake the United States as well. By that time The Beatles were not only set to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, but they were also booked for two shows at Carnegie Hall. In the end, however, it would be neither of these events that would spark Beatlemania in the United States. Instead Beatlemania would emerge from a source well beyond the control of The Beatles, their manager Brian Epstein or even Ed Sullivan.

Much of The Beatles' failure in the American market in 1963 can be placed at the feet of EMI's American subsidiary, Capitol Records. Capitol had refused to release The Beatles singles "Please Please Me" and "She Loves You".  As a result those singles were released on smaller labels (Vee-Jay and Swan respectively), Without the promotion they would have received from a major label, they promptly failed. It was on 17 October 1963 that The Beatles recorded what would be their next single (and their follow up to the phenomenally successful "She Loves You"), "I Want to Hold Your Hand". Brian Epstein and The Beatles' producer George Martin convinced Capitol to release "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in the United States, perhaps using The Beatles' scheduled appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show as leverage to do so. At any rate, Capitol scheduled the American release of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" for mid-January to take advantage of The Beatles' appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on 9 February 1964.

"I Want to Hold Your Hand" was released in the United Kingdom on 29 November 1963. It proved quite successful, entering the British charts within a week of its release. A week later it deposed The Beatles' "She Loves You" as the no. 1 record. Despite its phenomenal success in Britain, Capitol would have probably kept its mid-January release date in the United States if not for an unexpected chain of events.

It was on 10 December 1963 that The CBS Evening News finally ran their story on The Beatles' performance at the Winter Garden Theatre in Bournemouth, England from 16 November 1963 (it had been scheduled to air 22 November 1963 but was pre-empted by coverage of John F. Kennedy's assassination). Among the people who watched that newscast was a 15 year old girl named Marsha Albert. The following day Miss Albert wrote Carroll James, a DJ at WWDC, and asked if he would play one of The Beatles' records.  Mr. James then had a copy of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" imported from Great Britain. He asked Marsha Albert to introduce the record when it was first played on WWDC

The response to "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was overwhelming, so much so that WWDC put the record into heavy rotation. Soon radio stations in Chicago and St. Louis were also playing the song. Initially Capitol Records threatened legal action against WWDC for playing "I Want to Hold Your Hand" well before its planned release date, but in the end they decided to give into the obvious demand for the song. Capitol Records then moved the release date in the United States of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" up to 26 December 1963.

Here it must be pointed out that "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was not the first Beatles song to be played on American radio. While it is perhaps impossible to determine what exactly the first Beatles song played in America was or who played it, it is known that Beatles' songs had been played on American radio before WWDC played "I Want to Hold Your Hand". DJ Dick Biondi had played "Please Please Me" on Chicago station WLS as early as February 1963. In June 1963 he moved to KRLA in Los Angeles. That same month he was able to get "From Me to You" added to KRLA's playlist. The song proved popular enough to enter KRLA's singles chart (their "Tune-Dex", as they called it) on 14 July. It peaked at #32 on KRLA's chart on 11 August.

It was not long after "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was released that The Beatles received exposure on NBC, the rival network to CBS (home of The Ed Sullivan Show). Former Tonight Show host Jack Paar had seen The Beatles at the Royal Command Variety on 4 November 1963. He later bought footage of The Beatles performing at the show from the BBC, who had covered the event. It was then on 3 February 1963 that a clip of The Beatles performing "She Loves You" appeared on The Jack Paar Show. While Jack Paar was quiet during the clip, it was rather clear that his purpose for airing it was not to promote The Beatles, but rather simply to make jokes at the expense of The Beatles and their fans.

Regardless, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" proved phenomenally successful in the United States. The song entered the Billboard Hot 100 at #45 on 18 January 1964. The next week it jumped all the way to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The following week, the week of 1 February 1964, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" hit #1 on the chart. At the time it was the fastest rising record in the history of Capitol Records.  At long last Beatlemania had arrived on American shores.

It was while "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was burning up the charts in January that The Beatles would be booked into the Washington Coliseum for 11 February 1964. Many believe that Brian Epstein himself booked The Beatles there in order to help defray costs. After all, Ed Sullivan was paying The Beatles only $10,000 for their three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. According to Sid Bernstein, however, Brian Epstein asked him to book a venue in the United States so it could serve as a dry run for The Beatles' shows at Carnegie Hall on 12 February 1963. Regardless, by late January The Beatles had one more venue to play besides The Ed Sullivan Show and Carnegie Hall. What is more, it would be their first concert in the United States.

It was on 7 February 1964 that The Beatles took Pan-Am Flight 101 from London to New York City. Upon their arrival at the newly renamed John F. Kennedy Airport they witnessed Beatlemania on American shores for the first time. They were greeted by around 5000 fans and some 200 reporters, photographers and cameramen from newspapers, TV, and radio news outlets. It was not long after The Beatles had disembarked from the plane that they held their first press conference on American soil. Following the press conference The Beatles left JFK Airport for the Plaza Hotel, where they stayed in the hotel's Presidential Suite. A mob of fans had already gathered at the hotel before The Beatles had even arrived. That night Brian Matthew, presenter for BBC Radio's Saturday Club, conducted a radio interview with the band that would be broadcast in Britain on Saturday Club the night of 8 February 1964.

The following day, 8 February 1964, would be a busy one for The Beatles. It would be complicated by the fact that George Harrison had come down with the flu. When John, Paul, and Ringo went to Central Park for a photo shoot with the press, then, George was not with them. George would also be absent for The Beatles' rehearsals for The Ed Sullivan Show. The band's road manager Neil Aspinall stood in for George, as did The Ed Sullivan Show's production assistant Vince Calandra for a few minutes. On and off throughout the day The Beatles gave interviews to various radio stations and other members of the press.

Of course, it would be 9 February 1964 that The Beatles made their historic, first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. What is often forgotten is that The Beatles were not the only guests on the show that night, even if they were the headliners. Other guests on that nights show included Davy Jones and Georgia Brown from the cast of Oliver!, singer Tessie O'Shea, impressionist Frank Gorshin, the comedy team of Mitzi McCall & Charlie Brill, magician Fred Kapps and the acrobatic troupe Wells & the Four Fays. What is particularly interesting about the other guests on the 9 February 1964 edition is that two of them would go onto be at the centre of two other phenomena of the Sixties. Davy Jones would go onto become one of The Monkees, who were not only the stars of their own sitcom but at times rivalled The Beatles in record sales. Frank Gorshin would play The Riddler on the TV show Batman, a show that would become the centre of a rather large fad in 1966.

While there were several other guests on The Ed Sullivan Show that night, it was no secret that it was The Beatles everyone wanted to see. Ed Sullivan told his young audience that they could scream all they want while The Beatles performed, but asked them to be respectful of the other guests on the show.  In the first half of the show The Beatles played "All My Loving", "Till There Was You", and "She Loves You". Mr. Sullivan then brought out his other guests before The Beatles returned in the show's second half to perform "I Saw Her Standing There" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand".

The Beatles' first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show would prove to be a resounding success. Not only was it the highest rated Ed Sullivan Show ever, but it would also be the most watched American television programme of all time for several years. Indeed, it still ranks among the most watched entertainment programmes ever.

Of course, The Beatles would appear the following week on The Ed Sullivan Show, on 16 February 1964. This edition of the show aired live from the Deauville Hotel in Miami, Florida. This time Mitzi Gaynor headlined the show. Other guests on the show included the comedy team of Marty Allen & Steve Rossi, comedian Soupy Sales, a sway pole acrobat act called The Nerveless Nocks, and a unicycle balancing act called The Volantes. The Beatles performed the songs "She Loves You", "This Boy", "All My Loving", "I Saw Her Standing There", "From Me To You", and "I Want To Hold Your Hand".

The Beatles would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show for the third Sunday in a row on 23 February 1964. Unlike the 9 February 1964 and 16 February 1964 editions of the show, which had aired live, this programme had been recorded earlier, on the afternoon of 9 February 1964. Other guests on the show included Gordon and Sheila MacRae, The Cab Calloway Orchestra, the comedy team of Morecambe & Wise, humorist Dave Barry, comedian, Morty Gunty, and the marionettes Morty Gunty. The Beatles performed "Twist And Shout", "Please Please Me", and "I Want To Hold Your Hand".

It was two days later, on 11 February 1964, that The Beatles performed their first concert in the United States at the Washington Coliseum in Washington, D.C. Originally called the Uline Arena before it was renamed in 1960, the Washington Coliseum had been the home of the hockey team the Washington Lions. It would later be used for other sporting events, including NBA games and boxing matches. Tommy Roe, whom The Beatles had supported in a tour in Britain the previous year, was the opening act. He perfomred only two songs, "Sheila" and "Everybody".

The Beatles then took the stage. While they only performed for 35 minutes, it was before the largest audience they had ever seen, with 8092 fans in attendance. They played 12 songs in total: "Roll Over Beethoven", "From Me To You", "I Saw Her Standing There", 'This Boy", "All My Loving", "I Wanna Be Your Man", "Please Please Me", "Till There Was You", "She Loves You", "I Want To Hold Your Hand", "Twist And Shout", and "Long Tall Sally". The Chiffons had been scheduled to appear, but could not do so because of a snowstorm that had struck Washington D.C. the previous day.

It was the following day, on 12 February 1964, that The Beatles performed their two shows at Carnegie Hall. The first show was scheduled for 7:45 PM, while the second was scheduled to begin at 11:15 PM. Each show lasted about 34 minutes in length. The opening act was a folk band known as The Briarwood Singers, who were meant to play a 20 minute set at the first show, but wound up playing for 40 minutes as The Beatles got ready. George Martin had wanted to record The Beatles' shows at Carnegie Hall and was even given permission to do so by Capitol Records. Unfortunately, the American Federation of Musicians would not let him do so.

The Beatles returned to London on 22 February 1964, but they left behind a country that would be forever changed by their presence. Virtually unknown in the nation only a few months before, Beatlemania had now overtaken the United States much as it had the United Kingdom in 1963. The Beatles would pave the way for other British artists who would make the trip across the Pond, including The Dave Clark Five, The Animals, The Zombies, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Hollies, The Who, and yet others. In fact, so many British artists would dominate the American music charts from 1964 to 1966 that it would give rise to the term "the British Invasion".

Of course, The Beatles' impact would go far beyond spurring the British Invasion. The Beatles could possibly be not only the most successful recording artists of all time, but perhaps the most influential recording artists as well. The Beatles would have a profound influence on several subgenres of rock music (even creating some of them), subgenres ranging from power pop to heavy metal to symphonic rock. It seems possible that The Beatles would have an impact even on genres outside of rock music, from country to mainstream pop. It also seems likely that none of this would have happened had The Beatles never conquered America. In many respects when Beatlemania finally took hold in the United States, it not only changed America. It changed the world.