Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Late Great Ron Moody

English actor Ron Moody, who appeared in such films as The Mouse on the Moon (1963), Murder Most Foul (1964), Every Day's a Holiday (1964), and Oliver! (1968), died on June 11 2015 at the age of 91.

Ron Moody was born Ronald Moodnick on January 8 1924 in Tottenham, North London. His father Bernard Moodnick was a studio executive. Ron Moodnick was only six years old when the family surname was legally changed to "Moody". He attended Southgate County School in  Palmers Green, Middlesex. During World War II he served in the Royal Air Force as a radar technician. Following the war he attended the London School of Economics with the goal of becoming a sociologist. It was while he was at the London School of Economics that he was recruited for a student revue, for which he ultimately wrote and acted in a few sketches. Ron Moody graduated in 1950 with a bachelor's degree and even began academic research, but acting soon overtook sociology has his career choice. He made his professional stage debut in 1952 in the revue Intimacy at Eight. He would also go onto do standup comedy in clubs.

Ron Moody made his film debut in an uncredited role as a unicyclist in Davy in 1958. He made his television debut in an episode of The Vise that same year. He appeared in the films Follow a Star (1959) and Make Mine Mink (1960). It was in 1960 at the New Theatre in London that the musical Oliver! debuted with Ron Moody in the role of Fagin. Ultimately Ron Moody's tendency to change his lines would put him at odds with co-star Georgia Brown and others in the cast, as well as playwright, composer, and lyricist Lionel Bart. Mr. Moody ultimately decided not to participate in the show's Broadway run.

In the Sixties Ron Moody made his mark in film. He played Prime Minister Rupert Mountjoy in The Mouse on the Moon (1963), as well as actor and repertory theatre manager H. Driffold Cosgood  in Murder Most Foul (1963). He reprised his role as Fagin for the 1968 screen adaptation of Oliver!. He also appeared in the films Five Golden Hours (1961), A Pair of Briefs (1962), Summer Holiday (1963), Ladies Who Do (1963), Every Day's a Holiday (1964), San Ferry Ann (1965), The Sandwich Man (1966), and The Twelve Chairs (1970). He also appeared often on British television. He played Autolycus in a 1962 adaptation of The Winter's Tale, and Uriah Heep in 1969 adaptation of David Copperfield. Mr. Moody guest starred on such shows as Armchair Theatre, Comedy Playhouse, Thursday Theatre, ITV Play of the Week, and The Avengers. In 1969 Ron Moody turned down a chance to succeed Patrick Troughton as The Doctor on Doctor Who, a decision he always regretted. He appeared on the West End in the play Joey.

In the Seventies Ron Moody starred in the television series Midnight is a Place and Nobody's Perfect. He guest starred on the shows Shirley's World, The Edwardians, Gunsmoke, Village Hall, Starsky and Hutch, and Tales of the Unexpected. Mr. Moody appeared in such films as Flight of the Doves (1971), Dogpound Shuffle (1975), Closed Up-Tight (1975), Legend of the Werewolf (1975), The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It (1977), Dominique (1979), and Unidentified Flying Oddball (1979).

In the Eighties Ron Moody reprised his role as Fagin in a revival of Oliver! on Broadway. On television he played the wizard Rothgo in the series Into the Labyrinth, as well as Detective Sergeant Albert Adams in the series Hideaway. He guest starred on the shows Tales of the Gold Monkey; Hart to Hart, Highway to Heaven; and Murder, She Wrote. He appeared in the films Wrong Is Right (1982) and Where Is Parsifal? (1984). He provided the voice of Prolix in the English dub of the animated feature Asterix and the Big Fight (1989).

In the Nineties Mr. Moody provided the voices of Badger and Toad in the TV animated series The Animals of Farthing Wood. He guest starred on Last of the Summer Wine, Mike & Angelo, and Noah's Island. He appeared in the films How's Business (1991), Emily's Ghost (1992), A Kid in King Arthur's Court (1995), Quality Time (1996), Take Pity (1996), and The 3 Kings (2000).

In the Naughts Ron Moody guest starred on EastEnders, Keen Eddie, The Bill, Casualty, and Holby City. He appeared in the films Chopsticks (2001), Revelation (2001), Paradise Grove (2003), Lost Dogs (2005),  and Moussaka & Chips (2005). In the Teens he made his last television appearance on Holby City and his last film appearance in Fits and Starts of Restlessness (2012).

Ron Moody will forever be known for his role in Fagin in Oliver!, however it is hardly the only role for which he is known or even the best role of his career. As impressive as Mr. Moody's performance as Fagin was, the fact is that he gave a number of great performances throughout his career. In fact, I remember him best as the egotistical, scheming, and wily Prime Minster Rupert Mountjoy in The Mouse on the Moon. The role had been originated by Peter Sellers in The Mouse That Roared in 1959, but Ron Moody made the role all his own. It was the following year that Ron Moody delivered another impressive performance as overly theatrical director and theatre manager  H. Driffold Cosgood in Murder Most Foul.  Ron Moody also delivered an excellent performance as Ippolit Vorobyaninov, the fallen Russian aristocrat desiring a life of luxury, in Mel Brooks's 1970 version of The Twelve Chairs. In Flight of the Doves he was impressive Hawk Dove, a failed actor with a temper and very little in the way of scruples.

Ron Moody was at his best playing quirky characters who could be charming despite whatever character flaws they might have. What is more, Mr. Moody could actually give such characters a depth that they might not have had in the hands of another actor. It was a gift that he shared with fellow actors Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers. While Ron Moody might not have been as famous as either of those actors, he was certainly just as talented.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)

I have a confession to make. I really don't like the beach very much. What's more, I don't like summer at all. That having been said, I have always had a weakness for American International Pictures' series of "Beach Party" films from the mid-Sixties. It was in the summer of 1963 that AIP released Beach Party starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. The film proved to be a roaring success, so much so that it not only launched the "Beach Party" series from AIP, but it also sparked a cycle of "beach party" films in which nearly every major studio took part in some way, shape, or form.

AIP's "Beach Party" movies were standard fare on television when I was growing up. The networks showed the films on their various movie anthologies. Later local television stations would show them, usually on weekend afternoons in those days before sporting events overtook television on Saturdays and Sundays. As a kid growing up in the late Sixties and the Seventies it would have been very difficult to miss the "Beach Party" movies. As it was, I think I saw most of them before I was ten years old. In fact, the very first one I can remember watching was Beach Blanket Bingo (1965). To this day it has remained my second favourite of AIP's "Beach Party" movies, right after the original Beach Party (1963).

Like nearly all of the "Beach Party" movies, the plot of Beach Blanket Bingo was less important than the various comedic bits, songs, and appealing actors in the movie. Quite simply, like the other "Beach Party" movies Beach Blanket Bingo was pure escapism, set in a world where it is apparently never too hot, never too cold, and the worst thing that could happen is biker Eric Von Zipper  (played by Harvey Lembeck) spoiling the party. Not surprisingly the plot threads of Beach Blanket Bingo are pretty easy to summarise: agent Bullets (played by Paul Lynde) is staging publicity stunts for his singer Sugar Kane (played by Linda Evans) around the beach; Eric Von Zipper becomes smitten with Sugar Kane (as does presumably most of the male population in the film); Dee Dee (played by Annette Funicello) and Frankie (played by Frankie Avalon) decide to take up skydiving; and Bonehead (formerly Deadhead, played by Jody McCrea) meets a mermaid (played by Marta Kristen).

Not surprising given the success AIP had with the "Beach Party" formula, Beach Blanket Bingo differs very little from previous entries in the series. Perhaps the biggest change was in the name of Jody McCrea's character. In the first several movies he is called "Deadhead", a reference to his general lack of intelligence. At some point prior to the production of Beach Blanket Bingo, however, American International Pictures decided that they wanted to use the word "Deadhead" for the title of the film Sergeant Deadhead (1965).  As a result Deadhead became "Bonehead" and remained so for the rest of the series. Regardless of his name, Jody McCrea's character was still good hearted but not terribly bright, the Li'l Abner or Jethro Bodine of the beach. Whether he is called "Deadhead" or "Bonehead", he is the favourite "Beach Party" character of many people.

Of course, in addition to Dee Dee, Frankie, and Bonehead, biker Eric Von Zipper also returns in Beach Blanket Bingo. Eric Von Zipper, the leader of the biker gang known as the Rat Pack or the Ratz (as it is spelled on their jackets), had first appeared in Beach Party and then in the sequel Bikini Beach (1964) and the related film Pyjama Party (1964). For Beach Blanket Bingo he received even more screen time and even a song ("Follow Your Leader"). Harvey Lembeck would continue to play Eric Von Zipper for two more "Beach Party" movies.

Two other actors who were regulars in the "Beach Party" films would also return for Beach Blanket Bingo. John Astley had appeared in the previous movies Beach Party (1963), Muscle Beach Party (1964), and Bikini Beach (1964), although he played a different character every time. In Beach Blanket Bingo he played skydiving instructor Steve. Like John Astley, Don Rickles was another regular actor in the "Beach Party" series who played a different character every time. In Muscle Beach Party he played a character named "Jack Fanny", although in his successive appearances he would play characters called "Big (fill in the blank)". In Bikini Beach he played "Big Drag". In Pyjama Party he played  Big Bang The Martian.  In Beach Blanket Bingo he played Big Drop, the owner of the local skydiving service. While basically playing a variation of his earlier characters in the "Beach Party" films, Don Rickles actually does get to perform his well known insult routine in the film (for which he was famous even then).

Of course, the "Beach Party" films are famous for their many guest stars, and Beach Blanket Bingo had its fair share. Paul Lynde appears as singer Sugar Kane's none too honest agent Bullets. Gossip columnist Earl Wilson appeared as himself in the film. Character actor Timothy Carey played South Dakota Slim, a comedic take on the various psychopaths and sociopaths he played over the years (South Dakota Slim had previously appeared briefly in Bikini Beach). Fans of classic film may be happiest to see Buster Keaton in recurring bits throughout the film, although sadly he wasn't utilised to his full potential.  While some of Buster's bits in  the film are rather funny, many simply seem to fall flat. Buster Keaton would also appear in the next "Beach Party" film How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965).

The "Beach Party" films were also famous for the various music acts that appeared in the films, and Beach Blanket Bingo was no different. Singer Donna Loren had already appeared in Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, and Pyjama Party. In Beach Blanket Bingo she performed the song “It Only Hurts When I Cry". American surf rock band The Hondells also played two numbers in the film. One big name singer who did not appear in Beach Blanket Bingo was Nancy Sinatra. The role of Sugar Kane was written for Miss Sinatra, but she dropped out of the film before shooting began following the kidnapping of her brother Frank Sinatra, Jr.  Quite simply a subplot in which Sugar Kane is kidnapped made her uncomfortable. Non-singer Linda Evans was then cast in the role of Sugar Kane. Miss Evans's singing voice was dubbed by Jackie Ward, who had the hit song "Wonderful Summer" in 1963.

Depending on whether one counts Pyjama Party as part of the "Beach Party" series or simply a film related to the series, Beach Blanket Bingo was either the fourth or fifth film in the series. And while the "beach party" cycle of films peaked in 1965, in many ways Beach Blanket Bingo would be the beginning of the end for the "Beach Party" series. It would the last "Beach Party" film in which Frankie Avalon starred until Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965), in which he played a completely different character. He would only appear briefly in How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. Beach Blanket Bingo would also be the next to the last time Annette Funicello played Dee Dee and Jody McCrea played Deadhead/Bonehead. They would each play their respective roles one more time in How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. After Beach Blanket Bingo there would only be three more "Beach Party" films: How to Stuff a Wild BikiniDr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966).

Sadly,  The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini would fail miserably at the box office in 1966. That same year American International Pictures' outlaw biker movie The Wild Angels would prove to be a surprise hit. AIP abandoned the "Beach Party" movies in favour of a new cycle of biker movies that would continue nearly until the end of the decade. It would seem that Eric Von Zipper and his Rat Pack won in the end.

Like the other "Beach Party" movies, Beach Blanket Bingo is not a great film. I am not sure that I would apply the term "classic" to any of them. That having been said, like the other "Beach Party" movies Beach Blanket Bingo is a fun, lightweight movie that goes down easily. It is the sort of escapist fare that one can enjoy and through which one can forget about one's troubles for a while. That having been said, it would be a mistake to assume that Beach Blanket Bingo, or any of the "Beach Party" movies for that matter, is the motion picture equivalent of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet or The Donna Reed Show. In both  Beach Party and Muscle Beach Party the characters smoke, and there are references to drinking in the earlier films as well.

The smoking and drinking in the "Beach Party" movies would soon fall by the wayside, but one thing that would remain in the films is a good deal of sexual innuendo. The "Beach Party" films are hardly sexless by any means. In fact, in many respects they function as a teenage equivalent of the Sixties sex comedies of the era, those made by Doris Day and Rock Hudson's perhaps being the  best known. Indeed, Beach Blanket Bingo and the other "Beach Party" movies feature the same sort of misunderstandings, attempts at seduction, attempts at deception, assumed identities, and other related tropes often seen in the Sixties sex comedies. By today's standards the "Beach Party" movies might seem like relatively good clean fun, but they weren't nearly as antiseptic or sexless as many today believe them to be.

Many fans of the "Beach Party" series regard Beach Blanket Bingo as their favourite of the series, while others count it as their second favourite after the original Beach Party. Indeed, at IMDB it has the highest user rating of any "Beach Party" film after Beach Party itself. Despite this in many ways Beach Blanket Bingo was the last hurrah for the "Beach Party" movies. It would be the last of the films in which Frankie Avalon starred as his character of Frankie, and the next to the last film in which Annette Funicello played Dee Dee and Jody McCrea played Deadhead/Bonehead. It would be only a little less than a year later that Ghost in the Invisible Bikini was released, spelling the end of the series. The "Beach Party" series that had begun in 1963 would be over by 1966.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Late Great Sir Christopher Lee

For many people Sir Christopher Lee will always be Dracula. In fact, with the possible exception of Bela Lugosi, no other actor is as identified with the role as strongly as Mr. Lee. Unlike many actors who find themselves strongly identified with a particular role, however, Sir Christopher Lee was known for having played many other characters as well. He was Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1973). He was Frankenstein's Creature in Curse of Frankenstein (1957). He was Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun (1974). He was Saruman in Lord of the Rings. Indeed, over the years Sir Christopher Lee has appeared in so many roles that according to Guinness World Records he is the actor with the most screen appearances to his name. Sadly,  Sir Christopher Lee died June 7 2015 at the age of 93.

Sir Christopher Lee was born on May 27 1922 in Belgravia, London. He was the son of Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Trollope Lee of the 60th King’s Royal Rifle Corps and Contessa Estelle Maria Carandini, an Italian countess. His father had fought in both the Boer War and World War I. His mother was a descendent of the Borgias and  a legendary beauty of the Edwardian Era who had been painted by  Sir John Lavery, Oswald Birley, and Olive Snell. His parents separated when he was four years old and divorced two years later. It was at this time that his mother and young Mr. Lee moved to Wengen in Switzerland. It was while he was attending school in Territet, Switzerland that he had his first brush with acting, playing  Rumpelstiltskin.

His mother remarried after she returned to London. Her new husband and young Mr. Lee's stepfather was  Harcourt George St-Croix Rose, a rich banker and Ian Fleming's maternal uncle. Sir Christopher Lee attended Wagner's private school in Queen's Gate and later Summer Fields School in Oxford. At Summer Fields he acted in school plays, often alongside another future actor, Patrick Macnee. He applied for a scholarship to Eton, but attended the more affordable Wellington College in Berkshire. There he excelled in the classics, studying both Ancient Greek and Latin.. Mr. Lee would be fluent in Italian and French, and eventually he would be able to speak  Spanish, German, Russian, Swedish, Danish and Greek as well.

While Sir Christopher Lee was reared in relative privilege, he had to go to work at age 17. His stepfather went bankrupt and his mother would separate from Mr. Lee's stepfather not long afterwards. He went to work for United States Lines as a messenger and later as an office clerk at Beecham's. With the outbreak of World War II he joined the Royal Air Force. Unfortunately his eyesight proved to be too poor for him to become a pilot. Shortly thereafter he applied to join RAF Intelligence. During World War II Sir Christopher Lee was attached to the Special Operations Executive (informally known as "the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare"), but always declined to discuss his involvement.  Following the war he worked with the Central Registry of War Crimes.

Sir Christopher Lee was demobilised when he was 24. With the war over he was undecided as to what he wanted to do. He did not want to return to Beecham's, even though they offered him his old job back. It was his cousin, Nicolò Carandini (then the Italian ambassador to Britain), who suggested that he go into acting. He met with Filippo Del Giudice, the head of Two Cities Films (part of the Rank Organisation), and signed a seven year contract with the Rank Organisation. He started training in acting at the Rank Company of Youth (also known as the "Rank Charm School") in 1946. He made his television debut that same year in an episode of Kaleidoscope. In 1948 he made his film debut in Corridor of Mirrors (1948).

Sir Christopher Lee appeared in several films in the late Forties, generally in small parts. He appeared with future co-star Peter Cushing for the first time in 1948 in Lord Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, although he played an uncredited spear carrier while Mr. Cushing played Osric. Sir Christopher Lee also appeared in the films One Night with You (1948), A Song for Tomorrow (1948), Penny and the Pownall Case (1948), Scott of the Antarctic (1948), Trottie True (1949), They Were Not Divided (1950), and Prelude to Fame (1950).

By the early Fifties Sir Christopher Lee was appearing in larger roles in films than he had earlier. He played a Spanish captain in Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951), the military attaché Joseph in The Crimson Pirate (1952), and Georges Seurat in Moulin Rouge (1952).  From the early to mid-Fifties he appeared ins such films as Valley of Eagles (1951), Innocents in Paris (1953), Destination Milan (1954), The Mirror and Markheim (1954), The Cockleshell Heroes (1955), and The Dark Avenger (1955).  His contract with the Rank Organisation ran out and Sir Christopher Lee began appearing on various television shows, both British and American. He appeared on such TV series as Colonel March of Scotland Yard, The Vise, Tales of Hans Anderson, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Presents, and The Errol Flynn Theatre.

It was in 1957 that Sir Christopher Lee appeared in a role that would forever change his career. He starred as the Creature in Hammer Films' Curse of Frankenstein (1957). The film proved to be a phenomenal hit on both sides of the Atlantic, so much so that Hammer Films decided to follow it up with an adaptation of Dracula. Christopher Lee was cast as the vampiric count and played him as he never had been played before: a noble, self assured entity oozing with sexuality. If anything Dracula proved to be an even bigger hit than Curse of Frankenstein. The two films would lead Hammer to begin an entire cycle of horror movies that would last well into the Seventies and inspire imitations from such studios as American International and Tigon British Film Productions. Sir Christopher Lee would go onto play Dracula six more times for Hammer Films.

Following Sir Christopher Lee's appearance in Dracula, he also played other roles for Hammer Films in the late Fifties. He appeared as Sir Henry in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959),  the title character Kharis in The Mummy (1959), Pierre Gerrard in The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959), and Paul Allen in The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960). Mr. Lee also continued to appear in films not produced by Hammer as well. He played the corrupt Marquis St. Evremonde in A Tale of Two Cities (1958). He also appeared in the films Battle of the V-1 (1958), Corridors of Blood (1958), The Treasure of San Teresa (1959), Beat Girl (1960), and The Hands of Orlac (1960).

The Sixties would see Sir Christopher Lee appear in several more Dracula films, as well as other movies for Hammer Films. He played a heavily fictionalised version of historical figure Grigori Rasputin in Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966. In The Devil Rides Out (1968) he did a rare turn playing a hero, the Duc de Richleau, who comes face to face with diabolists. Beyond Hammer Films he played Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962), as well as Mycroft Holmes in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). He also played the title character in a series of Fu Manchu films produced by  Harry Alan Towers. Mr. Lee played Dracula in a film not produced by Hammer Films, Jess Franco's Count Dracula (1970). Throughout the Sixties he appeared on such films as Taste of Fear (1961), Hercules in the Haunted World (1961), The Devil's Agent (1962), La vergine di Norimberg (1963), The Gorgon (1964), Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965).  She (1965), The Skull (1965), The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967), Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), The Oblong Box (1969), The Magic Christian (1969), Scream and Scream Again (1970),  and Julius Caesar (1970).  Mr. Lee also appeared on television in such shows as Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and The Avengers.

The Seventies saw Sir Christopher Lee play Dracula for Hammer for one last time in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973). His most notable role during the decade was most likely that of Lord Summerisle in the classic horror movie The Wicker Man (1973). Sir Christopher Lee counted it as the best film he ever made. He played the villain Scaramanga in the James Bond movie The Man With the Golden Gun (1974), and Rochefort in The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974). He also played opposite Peter Cushing in the cult classic The Creeping Flesh (1973), a film often mistakenly attributed to Hammer but actually produced by Tigon Pictures. In the Seventies Sir Christopher Lee also appeared in such films as The House That Dripped Blood (1971), Hannie Caulder (1971),  Horror Express (1972), Diagnosis: Murder (1975), To the Devil a Daughter (1976), Airport '77 (1977), Return from Witch Mountain (1978), Circle of Iron (1978), 1941 (1979), and Serial (1980). He also appeared on television in the shows Space: 1999How the West Was Won, Saturday Night Live, and Charlie's Angels.

The Eighties saw Sir Christopher Lee play Blind Pew in a television movie adaptation of Treasure Island, as well as Stuart in a television mini-series adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days. He also appeared in such mini-series and TV shows as The Far Pavilions, Faerie Tale Theatre, and Shaka Zulu. Mr. Lee reprised his role as Rochefort in The Return of the Musketeers (1989). He also appeared in such films as Safari 3000 (1982), House of the Long Shadows (1983), The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), The Rosebud Beach Hotel (1984), Howling II: ... Your Sister Is a Werewolf (1985), Dark Mission: Flowers of Evil (1988), Murder Story (1989), and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990).

In the Nineties Sir Christopher Lee made several appearances on television. He played Flay in the 2000 mini-series Gormenghast. He played Sherlock Holmes for the last time in the TV movies Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady (1991) and Incident at Victoria Falls (1992) (TV). He played Lucas de Beaumanoir in the mini-series Ivanhoe. He appeared in the Tomorrow People serial "The Rameses Connection" and was the voice of Death in the animated series based on Terry Pratchett's Soul Music. He also had recurring roles on the shows Street Gear and The New Adventures of Robin Hood. He guest starred on Tales of Mystery and Imagination and Young Indiana Jones, and played Tiresias in the TV mini-series The Odyssey. In 1998 he appeared in what he considered to be his best performance in the film Jinnah (1998), playing Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of modern day Pakistan. He provided the voice of Monsieur Renard in Beauty and the Beast. He also appeared in such films as Kabuto (1991), Funny Man (1994), Police Academy: Mission to Moscow (1994), A Feast at Midnight (1994), The Stupids (1996), Sleepy Hollow (1999). He also released the album Christopher Lee Sings Devils, Rogues & Other Villains in 1998.

The Naughts saw Sir Christopher Lee appear in one of his best known roles, that of Saruman in Lord of the Rings. He would reprise the role in The Hobbit movies in the Teens. He played Count Dooku in Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005) and voiced the character in the film Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008). He provided the voice of Pastor Galswells in Corpse Bride (2005). He also appeared in the films Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Greyfriars Bobby (2005), The Golden Compass (2007), Triage (2009), and The Heavy (2010).  He provided the voice of the Jabberwocky  in Alice in Wonderland (2010). In 2006 Mr. Lee released the album Revelation, followed by the symphonic metal album Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross in 2010.

In the Teens Sir Christopher Lee reprised his role as Saruman in the movies based on The Hobbit. He played Monsieur Labisse in Hugo (2011) and Cardinal D'Ambroise in Season of the Witch (2011). He appeared in the films The Wicker Tree (2011), Dark Shadows (2012), Night Train to Lisbon (2013), The Girl from Nagasaki (2013), and Angels in Notting Hill (2014).  He released one last album, Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, in 2013.

Sir Christopher Lee received a knighthood in 2009 for services to drama and charity. In 1997 he was named a Commander of the Venerable Order of Saint John. In 2011 he was awarded the  BAFTA Academy Fellowship.

To put it simply, Sir Christopher Lee was an incredible man. As an actor he was nothing but prolific, to the point that he holds the record for the most screen credits of any actor in film and television history. His career spanned nearly seventy years. In fact, he was set to appear next year in the film The 11th, which is currently in pre-production. Over the years he appeared frequently in both television and movies, and from 1948 to 2014 it is doubtful that a year went by that Sir Christopher Lee did not appear in at least one film or TV show (usually more). On top of his appearances on screen Sir Christopher Lee also found time to record music albums, provide narration and voices for symphonic power metal band Rhapsody of Fire's albums, provide voices for video games, and even voice transcripts for audiobooks. It is quite possible that Sir Christopher Lee was the busiest actor of all time.

Of course, what makes Sir Christopher Lee all the more remarkable is that he was not only prolific, but he was also an incredible actor. He once said, “Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them.” Mr. Lee had the knack of being very, very good in some very, very bad movies. Even when a particular movie in which he appeared was not quite up to par, Sir Christopher Lee always delivered an excellent performance. Fortunately, many of Sir Christopher Lee's movies are not only good, but they are classics.

Indeed, as stated earlier, except for Bela Lugosi perhaps no other actor is as identified with the character of Dracula. It is not a simple case that Sir Christopher Lee played the role several times, but that he played it well. With Dracula (1958) he made a very strong impression, playing the vampire as charming, refined, alluring, powerful, and intimidating all at the same time. For many Mr. Lee will always remain the best Dracula. With his extreme height and his deep voice Mr. Lee would find himself playing a number of sophisticated villains over the years, from the Marquis St. Evremonde in A Tale of Two Cities to Fu Manchu to Saruman, but he could play much more than villains. In The Devil Rides Out he played the hero, the Duc de Richleau, who only shared sophistication and charm in common with Count Dracula (in fact, one can assume the Duc de Richleau would stake Dracula if they ever met). With The Wicker Man Sir Christopher Lee played a more complex role, that of Lord Summerisle, who is perhaps neither hero nor villain, but simply the head of a community seeking to insure its survival. 

Of course, Sir Christopher Lee was much more than a great actor. He was a distinguished veteran of World War II who served his country with honour. He was a refined, educated, enlightened man who could speak a number of different languages with ease. What is more, he was truly a rarity in show business in having been married 53 years to the same woman.  Above all else he was a true gentleman. He was known for his professionalism and his respect for both his fellow actors and even his fans. It is nearly impossible to find anyone with a bad thing to say about Sir Christopher Lee. In the end Sir Christopher Lee was simply an amazing talent and a truly great man.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

"Summer in the City" by The Lovin' Spoonful

I must admit that I have always been a bit puzzled by the imagery associated with summer. From calendars to songs to commercials summer is portrayed as a time for picnics, frolicking on the beach, playing baseball, swimming, and other fun activities. The overall picture painted of summer is a time when the weather is pleasant and, to quote  a George Gershwin song about the season, "the livin' is easy." At least for me the truth about summer is very different. It is a time of extreme heat and humidity, when it is really too hot to go outside for a picnic, much less frolic on the beach or play baseball. It is a time when it is too hot to do much of anything but stay inside in the air conditioning. I mean, here it was 91 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity was around 60% (which is actually low for what it can be here)--hardly a time for picnics and parties! To say summer is my least favourite time of the year would be an understatement.

It is because I dislike summer so much that my favourite song about the season is "Summer in the City" by The Lovin' Spoonful. The song was written by John Sebastian, Mark Sebastian, and  Steve Boone, and together they capture much of how I feel about summer. It describes people walking around "half dead" and the sidewalk has being "hotter than a match head." Now the song does portray summer nights a bit more positively, but over all I have to say that I think "Summer in the City" is more truthful with regards to summer than many of the songs that treat it as if it was as pleasant as spring....

Anyhow, here is "Summer in the City" by The Lovin' Spoonful

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Tribute to Les Paul on His 100th Birthday

It was 100 years ago today that guitar virtuoso and recording innovator Les Paul was born Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Beyond his skill with the guitar it is impossible to overestimate the importance of Les Paul to modern music. He developed one of the first solid body, electric guitars (independently Leo Fender was working on his own solid body, electric guitar at the time).  He played a pivotal role in the development of multirack recording, experimenting in multitracking as far back as the Thirties. He was also one of the first artists to utilise delay effects. Between multitracking, overdubbing, and various other recording effects, Les Paul developed much of what is taken for granted in modern day recording. What makes him all the more remarkable is that at the same time he had a highly successful recording career, including a string of hits recorded with his wife Mary Ford.

I already summarised Les Paul's career upon the occasion of his death in 2009 (you can read it here), so I won't repeat myself. Instead I will give you some highlights of his remarkable recording career via YouTube.

Les Paul with Bing Crosby and the Les Paul Trio performing "It's Been a Long, Long Time". 
Les Paul and his instrumental "The Kangaroo"

Les Paul with then wife Mary Ford performing "Mockingbird Hill"

Les Paul and Mary Ford performing "Song in Blue"

Les Paul and Chet Atkins performing "Limehouse Blues"

Les Paul with Joss Stone and Sting performing "Love Sneakin' Up on You"

Monday, June 8, 2015

Actor Richard Johnson R.I.P.

English actor Richard Johnson, who appeared in films from Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951) to Radiator (2014), died on June 5 2015 at the age of 87.

Richard Johnson was born on July 30 1927 in  Upminster, Essex. He attended  Felsted School in Essex before training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. His first professional appearance on stage was in 1944 in John Gielgud's production of Hamlet. He served in the Royal Navy from 1945 to 1948. He made his television debut on an edition of BBC Sunday-Night Theatre in 1950. He made his film debut in a small, uncredited role in Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. in 1951.

In the Fifties Mr. Johnson appeared in the films Calling Bulldog Drummond (1951), Scotland Yard Inspector (1952), Saadia (1953), and Never So Few (1959). On television he played Mr.Wickham in a 1952 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. He guest starred on the TV shows How Does It End?, Wednesday Theatre, The Heir of Skipton, ITV Television Playhouse, Lilli Palmer Theatre, Assignment Foreign Legion, The Buccaneers, Armchair Theatre, The Four Just Men, Epilogue to Capricorn, and BBC Sunday-Night Play. On stage he appeared in  Pericles, Prince of Tyre; Cymbeline; and Twelfth Night. He was one of the very first actors to be part of the Royal Shakespeare Company and remained an Associate Artist of the RSC until his death.

In the Sixties Richard Johnson appeared in such films as 80,000 Suspects (1963), The Haunting (1963), The Pumpkin Eater (1964), The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965), Operation Crossbow (1965), Khartoum (1966), Deadlier Than the Male (1967), Oedipus the King (1968), Some Girls Do (1969), and Julius Caesar (1970). He guest starred on such shows as BBC Sunday-Night Play, ITV Play of the Week, Armchair Mystery Theatre, The Human Jungle, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

In the Seventies he appeared in such films as The Beloved (1971), Chi sei? (1974), Hennessy (1975), Aces High (1976), The Comeback (1978), and Zombie (1979). He appeared on such TV shows as ITV Saturday Night Theatre, Thriller, Great Mysteries, Churchill's People, Quiller, Space: 1999, Hart to Hart, and Spy!.

In the Eighties he appeared in such films as The Monster Club (1981), Turtle Diary (1985), What Waits Below (1985), Lady Jane (1986), and Diving In (1990). He appeared on the TV shows The Member for Chelsea; The Kenny Everett Television Show; Tales of the Unexpected; Magnum, P.I.; Dempsey and Makepeace; and Murder, She Wrote.

In the Nineties Richard Johnson starred in the TV shows The Camomile Lawn and Anglo Saxon Attitudes. He guest starred on such shows as Kavanagh QC, Murder Most Horrid, Tales from the Crypt, Ruth Rendell Mysteries, Supply & Demand, and The Echo. He appeared in the film Milk (1999).

From the Naughts into the Teens he appeared in such films as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), The Birthday (2002), Scoop (2006), Two Families (2007), Jump! (2008), The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008), The Man on the Moor (2013), and Radiator (2014). He was a regular on the TV show The Robinsons. He guest starred on such shows as Rebus, Doc Martin, Midsomer Murders, Waking the Dead, Spooks, and Inspector Lewis.

Richard Johnson had an extraordinarily long career. It spanned over 60 years. He was also incredibly prolific, appearing in several television shows and films over the years, all the while occasionally returning to the stage. If Mr. Johnson was in such demand, it was perhaps because he was very versatile. He played such diverse characters as Bulldog Drummond (the character using his given name of Hugh Drummond in Deadlier Than the Male and Some Girls Do), Mr. Wickham from Pride and Prejudice, Marc Antony (in a TV production of Anthony and Cleopatra), and Lord Mountbatten  (in the TV movie Whatever Love Means).  Among his most famous film roles were paranormal investigator Dr. John Markway in The Haunting, Mr. Quincy in Scoop, and the grandfather in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Throughout his career he played a diverse number of roles and gave a good performance nearly every time. If Mr. Johnson had such a long career, it is perhaps he was just that talented.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Patricia Roc's 100th Birthday

While most Americans and probably many Brits would not recognise her name today, Patricia Roc was one of the most popular British film stars of the Forties. She appeared in many Gainsborough melodramas, including Love Story (1944),  Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945), and The Wicked Lady (1945).  She regularly ranked in the Daily Mail's annual polls of the most popular British movie stars for several years in the Forties. In 1946 she was the third most popular actress in the Daily Mail poll, surpassed only by Margaret Lockwood and Phyllis Calvert. She dropped to sixth place in the 1947 poll, but returned to third place in 1948. Despite such success Miss Roc would largely be forgotten in the following decades, which is particularly sad. Not only was she a strikingly beautiful actress (Arthur Rank himself called her "the "the archetypal British beauty"), but she was extraordinarily talented as well.

Patricia Roc was born Felicia Miriam Ursula Herold in Hampstead 100 years ago today. Her father was Felix Herold, a paper merchant, and her mother was Muriel Angell, who came from St Helier, Jersey. They were not married. She was adopted by wealthy Dutch-Belgian stockbroker André Riese and his wife while she was still an infant. In fact, she would not learn she was adopted until 1949.  She studied at private schools in both London and Paris. In 1937 she enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Patricia Roc made her London stage debut in 1937 in a production of  Nuts in May. Her screen debut would occur the following year, in an uncredited bit part in the film The Divorce of Lady X. She appeared the same year as a Polish princess in the film The Rebel Son. By 1940 Miss Roc had graduated to much more substantial roles in such films as Pack Up Your Troubles and Dr. O'Dowd. Her breakthrough role would come with the film Millions Like Us in 1943.  Cast as Celia, a girl working in an aircraft factory, Patricia Roc made such an impression that she was signed to a seven year contract with Gainsborough Pictures.

Patricia Roc's years with Gainsborough would mark the height of her career. She appeared in Two Thousand Women (1944) with Phyllis Calvert, Love Story (1944) with Margaret Lockwood, and Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945) with Phyllis Calvert again. Her most popular film would once more be opposite Margaret Lockwood. The Wicked Lady (1945) would not only be one of the top British films of the Forties, but to this day remains one of the highest grosseing British films in the United Kingdom. American movie producer Walter Wanger was so impressed with Patricia Roc's performance in Millions Like Us that he persuaded J. Arthur Rank to loan her to him for the Canyon Passage (1946). Sadly, Canyon Passage would be a failure at the box office, losing $63,784. It was the only film she ever made in Hollywood

While Patricia Roc did not find success in Hollywood, she returned to Britain to find continued success there. She was the female lead in The Brothers (1947) and that same year appeared with Margaret Lockwood in Jassy. She played the lead role in such films as When the Bough Breaks (1947), One Night with You (1948), and The Perfect Woman (1949). Unfortunately Patricia Roc's career would begin a decline in the late Forties that would continue into the early Fifties. While she was very prolific in the Forties, Patricia Roc would only make eight films in the Fifties, her last film being Bluebeards Ten Honeymoons in 1960.

Patricia Roc did make a few appearances on television. Her television debut was in an episode of The Errol Flynn Theatre in 1956. She guest starred on such TV shows as No Hiding Place, Skyport, and Dixon of Dock Green. Her final appearance on screen was in the debut episode of The Saint, "The Talented Husband". She retired and moved to Locarno, Switzerland in 1962. It was at Locarno, Switzerland that she died at age 88 of kidney failure.

In her heyday Patricia Roc was not only a popular actress, but one who was respected as well. J. Arthur Rank referred to her as  "the Goddess of Odeons". Noel Coward referred to her as both "a phenomenon" and "an unspoiled film star who can act." While Margaret Lockwood and Patricia Roc played bitter rivals in some of their most popular films, it is notable that the two great actresses always remained the best of friends. It should be little wonder that Patricia Roc should be so well respected. While she may be best known for her "good girl" roles in the Gainsborough melodramas, she had quite a bit of range. In When the Bough Breaks Miss Roc played an English girl who gives up her baby for adoption only to fight the adopted parents for custody of the child.   In one of her last films, The Widow (1955), she played the rather self-centred Countess Diana Gaston, a far cry from the good girls of her Gainsborough days. Patricia Roc was much more than the archetypal English rose or the good girls she so often played. She was an actress with a good deal of talent and a quite a bit of range.