Saturday, January 3, 2015

Godspeed Donna Douglas

Donna Douglas, best known for playing Jed Clampett's daughter Elly May on the wildly successful television show The Beverly Hillbillies, died on 1 January 2015 at the age of 82. The cause was pancreatic cancer.

Donna Douglas was born Doris Smith in the unincorporated community of Pride in  East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana on 26 September 1932. She attended Redemptorist High School in East Baton Rouge Parish where she played both softball and basketball. She was crowned "Miss Baton Rouge" and "Miss New Orleans" in beauty pageants.

Eventually Donna Douglas moved to New York City where she did some modelling, which really did not appeal to her. In 1957 she began a stint as the "Letters Girl" on The Perry Como Show. From 1959 to 1960 she was the "Billboard Girl" on The Steve Allen Show. That same year she made her debut in a television drama in an episode of Tightrope. In 1959 she also appeared in episodes of U.S. Marshall and Bachelor Father. She made her film debut that year as well, in Career. In 1959 she also appeared in an uncredited role as a chorus dancer in Li'l Abner. In 1960 she made guest appearances on Whirlybirds, Lock Up, The Detectives, and Route 66. It was also that year that she made what might be her most notable guest appearance, playing a woman who is undergoing plastic surgery to correct her "ugliness" in the Twilight Zone episode "Eye of the Beholder".

While she may be forever identified with Elly May on The Beverly Hillbillies, Donna Douglas appeared in a number of shows in the early Sixties before playing her most famous role. She had a recurring role on the short-lived series Checkmate. She also guest starred in such shows as Thriller, Michael Shayne, 77 Sunset Strip, Hennessey, The Aquanauts, Surfside 6, Petet & Gladys, Dr. Kildare, The Jack Benny Programme, and Mister Ed. She appeared in the film Lover Come Back (1961), playing Deborah, the secretary of Pete Ramsey (played by Tony Randall).

For the role of Elly May Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies Donna Douglas competed against 500 other actresses. Miss Douglas thought that it was because she was a natural product of the South that she ultimately got the part. In fact, during her audition she was asked to milk a goat. While Miss Douglas had never milked a goat before, she had milked cows. She was then able to milk the goat with no problems at all. Regardless, The Beverly Hillbillies debuted on CBS on 26 September 1962 and proved to be one of the most phenomenally successful shows of all time. In fact, several episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies still rank among the highest rated programmes in the United States. The episode "The Giant Jack Rabbit" (which aired 8 January 1964) remains the highest rated half-hour episode of a television of all time in the Untied States. The Beverly Hillbillies would not maintain such incredible ratings for long, and its ratings would drop after its second season. That having been said, ratings for the show remained good for the entirety of its run. It remained in the top twenty highest rated shows each season until its 9th season. Its ratings were still respectable when it was cancelled in its 9th season, a victim of the Rural Purge.

While The Beverly Hillbillies was still on the air Donna Douglas would make a guest appearance on The Defenders. She also played opposite Elvis Presley in the movie Frankie and Johnny (1966). Sadly, following The Beverly Hillbillies Donna Douglas found herself typecast as Elly May, so that she only played a few roles afterwards. She guest starred on the shows Night Gallery; Love, American Style; Adam-12; McMillan & Wife; Project U.F.O,  and The Nanny. In 1981 she returned to the role of Elly May in the televison reunion movie The Return of The Beverly Hillbillies. In 2008 she appeared in the short "Chronicles of Life Starfish". In 2013 she appeared in the film Chronicles of Life Trials (2013). She also appeared on numerous talk and variety shows.

After The Beverly Hillbillies Donna Douglas also performed as a gospel singer, even recording gospel albums. She wrote two children's books, Donna's Critters & Kids: Children's Stories with a Bible Touch and  Miss Donna's Mulberry Acres Farm. She also published a cook book, Southern Favorites with a Taste of Hollywood, which included recipes from Buddy Ebsen, Phyllis Diller, Valerie Harper, and Debbie Reynolds. She also worked as a real estate agent for a time.

While many actors resent being typecast, Donna Douglas never did. In fact, she was happy to have played a character that so many people love and to have starred in a show that so many people love as well. She once said in an Associated Press interview, "So many kinds of people relate to Elly May. So many people love her, and that means a lot to me.”

Certainly if one had to be typecast, Elly May Clampett was a good role in which to be typecast. Quite simply, Elly May is one of the most remarkable female characters in Sixties television. In 1962 most female characters on television were either housewives or secretaries, and the teenage girl characters on television aspired to be such. This was not the case for Elly May. While Granny (played by Irene Ryan) often fretted about her being an "old maid" (Elly May was only 16 when the show began), Elly May was not particularly eager get married. Not only did it appear that Elly May did not really want to be a housewife, but she could not even cook. Elly May cared much more about caring for her numerous critters than she did about any potential husbands, and she could shoot, run, and "wrassle" as good as any man. While many sitcoms of the era simply prepared young girls and women for lives of domestic "bliss", The Beverly Hillbillies and Elly May let them know it did not have to be that way.

Of course, Donna Douglas did play more roles than Elly May Clampett. As Frankie in Frankie and Johnny she was arguably one of Elvis Presley's best leading ladies. She was convincing as a performer on a riverboat on the Mississippi. Donna Douglas also gave a good performance in the Twilight Zone episode "Eye of the Beholder". Although she doesn't speak a line of dialogue (it was Maxine Stuart who provided the voice of Janet Taylor in the episode), her expressions in the episode required no words to get her feelings across. Donna Douglas was not necessarily among the greatest television actors of all time, but she was quite good. What she brought to her roles was sincerity, something which is seen in everything from The Beverly Hillbillies to her guest appearances on Mister Ed. If millions still love Elly May fifty years after The Beverly Hillbillies debuted, that may be why.

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Late Great Edward Herrmann

Edward Herrmann, who appeared in numerous films and Broadway productions and played Richard Gilmore in the TV show The Gilmore Girls, died 31 December 2014 at the age of 71. The cause was brain cancer.

Edward Herrmann was born on 21 July 1943 in Washington, D.C. He grew up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. He attended Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania where he earned a degree in English. He studied acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He began his career on stage, appearing in  Moonchildren at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. in 1971. He remained with the show when it moved to Broadway in February 1972, thus marking his debut on Broadway. He made his film debut about the same time, in an uncredited role as a policeman in the film La mortadella in 1971.

In the Seventies on Broadway Mr Herrmann appeared in Mrs. Warren's Profession and a revival of The Philadelphia Story. He appeared in such films as The Paper Chase (1973), The Day of the Dolphin (1973), The Great Gatsby (1974), The Great Waldo Pepper (1975), The Betsy (1978), Brass Target (1978), Take Down (1979), and The North Avenue Irregulars (1979). By far his most significant role in the Seventies would be on television. He played Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the television movie Eleanor and Franklin in 1976, as well as in its sequel Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years in 1977. He was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama or Comedy Special both times. He also played Lou Gehrig in the television movie A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story. Edward Herrmann was a regular on the short lived TV shows Beacon Hill and 3 by Cheever. He also appeared in the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation Valley Forge and guest starred on M*A*S*H.

In the Eighties Edward Herrmann appeared on Broadway in productions of Plenty and Love Letters. He appeared in such films as Harry's War (1981), Reds (1981),  A Little Sex (1982) Annie (1982--in which he once more played FDR), Mrs. Soffel (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), The Man with One Red Shoe (1985), The Lost Boys (1987), Overboard (1987), and Big Business (1988). On television he was a regular on the short lived series The Lawrenceville Stories and had a recurring role on St. Elsewhere from its third to fifth seasons. He guest starred on the shows American Playhouse, the revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Hothouse. He also appeared in the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation Dear Liar and the TV movie Murrow.

In the Nineties Edward Herrmann appeared on Broadway in a revival of The Deep Blue Sea. On television he was a regular on The Practice and Oz. It was in 2000 that he began playing Richard Gilmore, father of Lorelei Gilmore (played by Lauren Graham), on Gilmore Girls. He guest starred on such shows as Screen One, Wings, Homicide: Life on the Street, and Crossing Jordan. Mr. Herrmann appeared in the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation Saint Maybe. He appeared in the films Hero (1992), Born Yesterday (1993), My Boyfriend's Back (1993), Foreign Student (1994), Ri¢hie Ri¢h (1994), Nixon (1995), Critical Care (1997), and Walking Across Egypt (1999).

In the Naughts Edward Herrmann continued to play his regular roles on Gilmore Girls and Oz. He guest starred on the shows Grey's Anatomy, 30 Rock, and Law & Order. He appeared in the films Intolerable Cruelty (2003), Bereft (2004), The Aviator (2004), Factory Girl (2006),  I Think I Love My Wife (2007), The Skeptic (2009), and The Six Wives of Henry Lefay (2009).

In the Teens Edward Herrmann had recurring roles on Harry's Law and The Good Wife. He guest starred on the shows CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, How I Met Your Mother, and Black Box. He appeared in the films Heaven's Door (2013), Are You Here (2013), and The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014). He will appear in the film Coach of the Year, due to be released later this year.

Edward Herrmann also did an enormous amount of voice work. He served as a narrator on a number of episodes of PBS programmes (including Nova), as well as History Channel programmes. Throughout the Nineties he also did voice work for Dodge commercials, in which he sometimes appeared on screen. He provided voice work for a number of audio books.

Edward Herrmann was an incredible actor. There can be no doubt that for many he will always be Richard Gilmore on Gilmore Girls. What is more, there is good reason for this beyond the show's success. Edward Hermann was perfect as Richard, the somewhat conservative yet avuncular Gilmore patriarch. It is impossible to picture any other actor in the role. Of course, Edward Herrmann played many other roles than Richard Gilmore and many that were very different. In fact, aside from Richard Gilmore, he may be best known for playing FDR.  He played President Roosevelt in two TV movies, Annie, and even provided FDR's voice in the PBS documentary series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. For many when they think of FDR, they be more inclined to think of Edward Herrmann than they are the actual Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Over the years Mr. Hermann was called upon to play a number of historical figures, from Max Eastman in Reds to Fred Friendly in Murrow to Nelson Rockefeller in Nixon to Joseph Breen in The Aviator.

While Edward Herrmann played a number of historical figures, as well as many men of upper class birth, he also played a wide variety of roles throughout his career. He was the head vampire and hence chief villain Max in The Lost Boys. In the 1993 BBC television movie A Foreign Field he played Ralph, the henpecked husband of Beverly (Geraldine Chaplin), a role as far from Max (or FDR) as one could get. He even played Herman Munster in the 1995 television movie Here Come the Munsters. Throughout his career Edward Herrmann played captains of industry and milquetoasts, stuffed shirts and freethinkers, and he did all of them well.

Of course, beyond his sheer talent as an actor, Edward Herrmann was also gifted with an incredible voice. Mr. Herrmann's voice was mellifluous and always easy to understand. What is more, as a narrator Mr. Hermann spoke with authority, but did so in such a way that he did not sound pedantic or staid. It is little wonder that he did as much voice work as he did, as his voice and his delivery were both perfect.

While many might remember Edward Hermann as Richard Gilmore and others might remember him as FDR, he did so many more great roles throughout his career. What is more, not only was Edward Hermann prolific, but he was also extremely talented. It was a rare thing he when he did not give an outstanding performance in any role he played. He was truly one of the great character actors of the late Twentieth and early Twenty First centuries.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year 2015

I want to wish all of my readers a Happy New Year! I hope that your 2015 is filled with joy and everything you want out of life. Of course, it is customary on this blog to post classic pin ups on New Year's Day, so without further ado here they are!
First up is Joan Vohs, who is apparently
waiting to be kissed at midnight.
Next up is Virginia Dale, who is
welcoming the year 1941!
Dorothy Lee and Thelma White await the
stroke of midnight.
Debra Paget can't wait for the New Year!
Cyd Charisse is spinning for 1950!
And it just wouldn't be New Year's without Ann Miller!
Happy New Year!

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.