Saturday, February 14, 2015

Happy Valentine's Day 2015

Not everyone has a significant other, so for some Valentine's Day is a total bust. For those of you in that situation, here is the song I usually post to various social networks on Valentine's Day. Here's "Love Stinks" by The J. Geils Band:

Of course, everyone appreciates classic pin-ups, so I wish you a "Happy St. Valentine's Day" and leave you with some classic film beauties.

First up is the lovely Audrey Hepburn.

Next up is the beautiful Cyd Charisse.

Next up is Angie Dickinson

And here's the lovely Debra Paget

This is Karen Steele with a special message.

And, of course, no holiday is complete without Ann Miller. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

"I Can Hear the Grass Grow" by The Move

I am guessing the only Americans who have ever heard of The Move are fans of classic rock, Anglophiles, and music historians, and even then many of them may only know of The Move as the band that would give rise to the Electric Light Orchestra. While they may not be particularly well known in the United States, The Move were one of the most influential bands of the Sixties.

The Move grew out of three different bands: Carl Wayne & the Vikings, The Nightriders, and The Mayfair Set. They were one of two bands to emerge out of the Birmingham Mod scene in the mid-Sixties, the other being The Spencer Davis Group. The Move's very first single, "Night of Fear" would be a hit, going all the way to #2 on the UK singles chart. It would be followed by six more top ten hits, with their single "Blackberry Way" going all the way to #1. Over time the line up of The Move would change dramatically, with guitarist Ron Wood and drummer Bev Bevan being the two constants. It would be Ron Wood, Jeff Lynne (who joined in 1969), and Bev Bevan who would form the Electric Light Orchestra.

Even beyond giving way to the Electric Light Orchestra, The Move would have a lasting influence. In the United Kingdom The Move influenced such Mod Revival bands as The Jam, The Records, and The Moment. Even in the United States, where The Move saw very little success, they would have a lasting impact. The quintessential American power pop band Cheap Trick covered no less than three songs originated by The Move: "California Man", "Brontosaurus", and "Down On the Bay".

For those unfamiliar with The Move, here is what I consider their best song, "I Can Hear the Grass Grow" (which went to #5 on the UK singles chart in 1967).

Thursday, February 12, 2015

100 Years Ago Today Lorne Greene Was Born

It was 100 years ago today that Lorne Greene was born in Ottawa, Ontario. For many today he is best remembered as Ben Cartwright, the patriarch of the Ponderosa on the television show Bonanza, but Lorne Greene's career went far beyond Bonanza, or other TV shows for that matter.

Lorne Greene was born  Lyon Himan Green on February 12 1915. While his mother called him "Chaim", his name on report cards and other documents from when he was young is given as "Hyman". It is not known when he began using "Lorne" as his first name, nor when he added an "e" to his surname. Regardless, he attended Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. He started out as a chemical engineering major, but found himself drawn to radio broadcasting while working for the Queen's University radio station CFRC. It was also while he was at Queen's University that he first became involved in acting. He was a member of the university's Drama Guild.

It was following his graduation from Queen's University that Lorne Greene got a job at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). It was not long before he became the principal newsreader for the CBC National News. It was after Canada entered World War II that many listeners began referring to Lorne Greene as "The Voice of Doom" because of his solemn voice when often reading bad news from the war. With his impressive voice Lorne Greene was very much in demand as a narrator for propaganda films produced during the war. He served as the narrator on such films as "Front of Steel" (1940), "Churchill's Island" (1941), "The Mask of Nippon" (1942). Colloquially referred to as "The Voice of Doom", the CBC later referred to Lorne Green as "The Voice of Canada". During World War II he served as a flying officer in  the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Following the war Mr. Greene continued to work for the CBC as well as narrate such documentaries as "White Fortress" (1949) and "Social-Sex Attitudes in Adolescence" (1953).  He also founded the  Lorne Greene School of Broadcasting, now known as the Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto.

It was in the early Fifties that Lorne Greene began acting. He made his television acting debut in an episode of The Philip Morris Playhouse in 1953. That same year he appeared on Broadway in The Prescott Proposals. In the Fifties he later appeared on Broadway in the productions Speaking of Murder and Edwin Booth. Throughout the Fifties he appeared on such TV shows as Danger, You Are There, Climax, Encounter, Studio 57, The United States Steel Hour, Playhouse 90, Studio One, The Third Man, and Cheyenne. He was the star of the short lived TV series Sailor of Fortune. Mr. Greene also appeared in the movies The Silver Chalice (1954), Tight Spot (1955), Autumn Leaves (1956), Peyton Place (1957), The Last of the Fast Guns (1958), The Gift of Love (1958), The Hard Man (1957), The Buccaneer (1958), The Trap (1959), and The Hangman (1959).

It was in 1959 that Lorne Greene first appeared in what may be his most famous role, that of Ben Cartwright on Bonanza. Set on the sprawling Ponderosa Ranch in Nevada in the 1860s, Bonanza centred on the Carwrights--Ben and his sons Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe. Bonanza could well have been the most successful show of the Sixties. It spent ten of its fourteen seasons in the top ten shows on the air. Nine of those seasons were spent in the the top five shows on the air, and three of them as the number one show. From 1962 to 1971 Lorne Greene hosted the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade alongside Betty White. He also appeared on such shows as The Andy Williams Show, The Jack Paar Programme, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and The Dean Martin Show.

Bonanza went off the air in 1974. Afterwards Lorne Greene played the lead in the television shows Griff, Battlestar Galactica, and Code Red. In the Eighties he was the host and producer on the syndicated wildlife series Lorne Greene's New Wilderness. He appeared in the television mockumentary The Canadian Conspiracy and the mini-series Roots. He also appeared in such films as Tidal Wave (1973), Earthquake (1974), Klondike Fever (1980), Living Legend: The King of Rock and Roll (1980), and Vasectomy: A Delicate Matter (1986).  His last appearance was in the TV movie The Alamo: Thirteen Days to Glory.

In the Sixties Lorne Greene also released ten record albums, as well as several singles. His single "Ringo" hit number one on both the Billboard Hot 100 in 1964. His single "The Man" peaked at #3 on the Canadian Country chart. 

Lorne Greene died on September 11 1987 from pneumonia following surgery for ulcers. Sadly, he had signed onto a revival of Bonanza only a few weeks before his death.

Lorne Greene had a huge impact on popular culture, and in more than one country at that. In Canada he first became famous as "The Voice of Doom", the newsreader at the CBC who was often heard during World War II. In the United States he would reach the height of his fame as Ben Cartwright on Bonanza. He was the host of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade for the better part of the Sixties. He also narrated several documentaries throughout this career, and was the host of Lorne Greene's New Wilderness in the Eighties. Indeed, in the history of Canadian broadcasting he is as important as Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite are in the history of American broadcasting. While today Lorne Greene may be best known as Ben Cartwright, he did much more throughout a career than spanned nearly 50 years

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Wicked Lady: The British Film Censored by Americans and How It Changed the English Language

After The Lady Vanishes (1938), The Wicked Lady (1945) is probably Margaret Lockwood's most famous film. What is more, it is also probably her most successful film in the United Kingdom. It was the top British film for the year 1946 in the United Kingdom. What is more, it still ranks among the top grossing British films in the United Kingdom when adjusted for inflation. Of the melodramas released by Gainsborough Studios in the Forties, it was by far the most successful. The Wicked Lady would also do well in the United States, although it would also prove to be a source of controversy in the United States as well.

The Wicked Lady was based on the novel The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton by Magdalen King-Hall. The novel in turn was based on popular legends surrounding Lady Katherine Ferrers, who allegedly became a highwayman who preyed on travellers in  Hertfordshire. Like the novel, the film centred on the beautiful Lady Barbara Skelton (née Worth), who finds excitement in engaging in highway robbery. For all that it was based on a bodice ripper with plenty of sex and violence, The Wicked Lady did not generate a great  deal of controversy upon its initial release in the United Kingdom. There were critics who decried the film as being "immoral," "disgraceful," "bawdy," and "salacious," but that was about the extent of it. Of course, it helped that the film had royal approval. Queen Mary (the Queen Consort of the late King George V) attended the film's premiere at the  Gaumont, Haymarket on November 19 1945 and thoroughly enjoyed the film. Audiences agreed with the Queen Mother. The Wicked Lady proved to be a sensation at the box office, breaking box office records for the time across the United Kingdom.

While any controversy regarding The Wicked Lady was generally confined to film critics in the United Kingdom, the film would create a bit more of a stir in the United States. In fact, there were signs that the movie could cause controversy in the United States well before it was even released here. It was in February 1946 that a copy of the script of The Wicked Lady was sent to the Motion Picture Association of America's Production Code Administration (PCA).  Joseph Breen, the head of the PCA, commented on the script, "This basic story is unacceptable because of its extremely low moral tone." He went onto mention that it contained "...several incidents of adultery, illicit sex, murder, rape, unacceptably intimate details of a bridal night, many offensive lines referring to mistresses, etc., and an unacceptable dance sequence." Needless to say, when the PCA actually screened The Wicked Lady they would find even more objectionable material.

Of course, The Wicked Lady was not the first British film to run afoul of the PCA. It wasn't even the first Margaret Lockwood film to run into trouble in the United States. The PCA required several cuts to Bank Holiday (1938), which would be released in the United States as Three on a Weekend, before they would give it a seal of approval. In all about five minutes of material would be cut from Bank Holiday before the PCA found it acceptable. The Wicked Lady would also see even more extensive cuts, among other things, before it would receive a Production Code Administration seal of approval.

Indeed, upon screening The Wicked Lady the PCA found a good deal of the completed film objectionable, even though Joseph Breen personally liked the film (he thought it would be a "...great money-maker"). The PCA recommended that several sexually suggestive lines be cut from the film, as well as scenes involving beds. They also expressed concern over the historically accurate, but very low-cut gowns worn by Margaret Lockwood and Patricia Roc. It was in discussing these low-cut gowns that the PCA gave new meaning to a then somewhat rarely used word in English language. Previously when discussing the hollow between a woman's breasts as exposed by a low cut garment, the word décolletage would have been used. For whatever strange reason the PCA chose to use the word cleavage, a word that literally means "the act of cleaving" or "the state of having been cleft". Prior to 1946 the word cleavage was used in various sciences, for instance, geologists referring to the way various minerals can break or biologists describing the division of cells in embryos. After 1946 cleavage would bring to mind something else entirely. The word cleavage, meaning "the hollow between a woman's breasts as exposed by a low cut garment," entered common usage because of the controversy over The Wicked Lady. For example, Time magazine referred to the term in its article on the controversy, "Cleavage & the Code", in its August 5 1946 issue.

Ultimately the PCA, American distributor Universal, and the Rank Organisation agreed upon reshooting those scenes in The Wicked Lady that had an amount of cleavage that would be "objectionable" in the United States. It was then in August 1946 that Margaret Lockwood and Patricia Roc returned to  Gainsborough Studios to reshoot specific scenes. The reshooting was a painstaking process. Sets and props had to be reassembled. Costumes had to be modified to show, well, less of Margaret Lockwood and Patricia Roc. In order to preserve the film's continuity, the actresses had to precisely duplicate any facial expressions or gestures from the scenes as originally shot. Beyond the reshooting of specific scenes, The Wicked Lady would also have have five minutes worth of footage cut from the film for American audiences.

While the reshooting of entire scenes for The Wicked Lady to satisfy the PCA would seem to have been a bit of a hassle for Gainsborough Studios, in the end it would prove to be worth it. The controversy over the film in the United States would give The Wicked Lady a good deal of press coverage it might not have otherwise had. Publicity materials created for the film in the United States even capitalised on the idea that The Wicked Lady was a film filled with sex and sin. Posters featured referenced "...violent love and love of violence" and proclaimed "She couldn't resist anything that belonged to someone else!" Posters also prominently featured an image of stars Margaret Lockwood and James Mason in a passionate embrace. The controversy insured that The Wicked Lady would be a success in the United States.

The Wicked Lady would be neither the last Margaret Lockwood movie nor the last Gainsborough film to run afoul of the PCA. A whole new ending had to be shot for Bedelia (1946) in order for it to receive Production Code seal in the United States.

The Wicked Lady was a phenomenal success in the United Kingdom upon its initial release and it remains among the highest grossing British films of all time there. In the United States it would be a source of controversy as what was perceived as an absolutely scandalous motion picture. Ultimately that controversy would not only lead to big box office receipts in the United States, but it would give new meaning to a word that had previously been infrequently used in English.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Robert Blees R.I.P.

Robert Blees who co-wrote the screenplay for Magnificent Obsession (1954) as well as those for such films as High School Confidential! (1958) and Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), died on January 31 2015 at the age of 96.

Robert Blees was born in Lathrop, Missouri on June 9 1918. He attended Dartmouth College, where he was Phi Beta Kappa. Early in his career he worked for Time and Life magazines. His first screenplay was for the film Sweater Girl (1942). During World War II he served as a navigator in the United States Army Air Corps. He wrote the screenplay for the film Paid in Full (1950).

During the Fifties Mr. Blees wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for the films All I Desire (1953), Playgirl (1954), Magnificent Obsession (1954), The Yellow Mountain (1954), Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), One Desire (1955), The Fighting Chance (1955), Slightly Scarlet (1956), Autumn Leaves (1956), The Black Scorpion (1957), High School Confidential! (1958), Screaming Mimi (1958), and From the Earth to the Moon (1958).  He also worked in television, writing episodes of such shows as Lux Video Theatre; Climax; Peter Gunn; Richard Diamond, Private Detective; Tales of the Vikings; Zane Grey Theatre; Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse; and The Barbara Stanwyck Show.

The Sixties saw Mr. Blees primarily working in television. He wrote episodes of Hong Kong, Checkmate, Bus Stop, Kraft Mystery Theatre, and Kraft Suspense Theatre. He also served as a producer on the shows Bus Stop, Combat, Kraft Suspense Theatre, and Bonanza.

In the Seventies Robert Blees wrote the screenplays for the films Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972), Frogs (1972), Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), and A Woman for All Men (1975).  He wrote episodes of the TV shows Cannon, Harry O, What Really Happened to the Class of '65?, Columbo, and Project U.F.O. He served as a producer on the shows What Really Happened to the Class of '65? and Project U.F.O., as well as a story consultant on Project U.F.O. In the Eighties he wrote episodes of Flamingo Road and Airwolf, as well as the TV movie Gidget's Summer Reunion. He wrote the screenplay for the film Savage Harvest (1981).

Robert Blees served as a board member of both the Writers Guild of America West and the Producers Guild of America. He also served for several decades on the board of the Motion Picture & Television Fund.

Robert Blees was a very prolific writer. He was also a very versatile one. He worked in several different genres, including film noir (The Glass Web), drama (Autumn Leaves), Westerns (Cattle Queen of Montana), science fiction (From the Earth to the Moon), and horror (Dr. Phibes Rises Again). What is more, he was as comfortable writing a big budget "A" picture (Magnificent Obsession) as he was a low budget "B" movie (Frogs). While some of Robert Blees' film work could hardly be considered classics, the fact is that he wrote several films, many of which were quite good. While The Glass Web, From the Earth to the Moon, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, and Dr. Phibes Rises Again may not be Citizen Kane, they are very enjoyable examples of their respective genres.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Godspeed Stewart Stern

Stewart Stern, perhaps best known for writing the screenplay for Rebel Without a Cause (1955), died February 2 2015 at the age of 92 after a long battle with cancer.

Stewart Stern was born on March 22 1922 in New York City. An uncle by marriage was Adolph Zukor, the founder of Paramount Pictures. Mr. Stern attended the University of Iowa in Iowa City. During World War II he enlisted in the United States Army. At the Battle of the Bulge he earned the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

Following the war Stewart Stern worked as a dialogue director on such films as The Big Fix (1947), Out of the Blue (1947), Railroaded! (1947), T-Men (1947), Man from Texas (1948), The Cobra Strikes (1948), The Amazing Mr. X (1948), Hollow Triumph (1948), and He Walked by Night (1948).

It was 1951 that Mr. Stern received his first credit for a screenplay; it was on the documentary short subject "Benjy" in 1951. In the Fifties he wrote the screenplays for the films Teresa (1951), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), The Rack (1956), The James Dean Story (1957), and Thunder in the Sun (1959). He also wrote episodes of the television shows The Gulf Playhouse, Goodyear Playhouse, and Playhouse 90.

In the Sixties and the Seventies Stewart Stern wrote the screenplays for the films The Outsider (1961), The Ugly American (1963), Rachel, Rachel (1968), The Last Movie (1971), and Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973). He wrote the teleplays for a television adaptation of The Glass Menagerie and the TV movie A Christmas to Remember, as well as the mini-series Sybill.

Mr. Stern later moved to Seattle and taught screenwriting at the University of Washington. He co-founded the non-profit organisation The Film School with John Jacobsen and taught there as well. He wrote the bookNo Tricks in My Pocket: Paul Newman Directs, published in 1989.

Stewart Stern was notable for writing screenplays with a good deal of psychological depth. His characters were always three-dimensional creations, often with complex motives and thought processes. Indeed, in none of Mr. Stern's films are there clear-cut villains or clear-cut heroes. He always presented his characters as realistic human beings with their own agendas.