Saturday, September 12, 2015

Dickie Moore R.I.P.

Dickie Moore, who appeared in many "Our Gang" comedy shorts and starred as a child actor in many feature films, died on September 7 2015 at the age of 89.

John Richard "Dickie" Moore, Jr. was born on September 12 1925 in Los Angeles, California. He was barely a toddler when he made his film debut in The Beloved Rogue in 1927. Over the next few years he appeared in such films as Madame X (1929), Let Us Be Gay (1930), Passion Flower (1930), Aloha (1931), The Squaw Man (1931), Manhattan Parade (1931), So Big! (1932), Winner Take All (1932),   Blonde Venus (1932), Gabriel Over the White House (1933), and  Man's Castle (1933). In 1932 Dickie Moore began appearing in Hal Roach's "Our Gang" shorts. He ultimately appeared in only eight of the shorts, but had a significant role as the leader of the gang.

In 1933 Dickie Moore left the "Our Gang" shorts for more lucrative work in feature films. Even as he was appearing in the "Our Gang" films, he starred in the title role in the 1933 version of Oliver Twist. In the mid to late Thirties he appeared in such films as Little Men (1934), Peter Ibbetson (1935), The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Madame X (1937), The Gladiator (1938), and Lincoln in the White House (1939).

The Forties saw Dickie Moore appear in such films as Sergeant York (1941), Miss Annie Rooney (1942), The Song of Bernadette (1943), Youth Runs Wild (1944), Sweet and Low-Down (1944), Out of the Past (1947), Dangerous Years (1947), Bad Boy (1949), Boy and the Eagle (1949), and Cody of the Pony Express. He made his television debut in 1949 playing Jeff in episodes of Captain Video and His Video Rangers. During World War II Dickie Moore served in the United States Army. He wrote for Stars and Stripes in the Pacific Theatre. Following the war he studied journalism at Los Angeles City College.

By the Fifties Dickie Moore was being billed as "Dick Moore", a name more fitting for a young man. He appeared in the films The Member of the Wedding (1952) and Eight Iron Men (1952). On television he guest starred on the shows Sure as Fate, Starlight Theatre, Lux Video Theatre, The Man Behind the Badge, and The Web. His last appearance was in an episode of Omnibus in 1957.

In 1966 Mr. Moore founded a public relations firm that operated for 44 years. In 1984 he published the book Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star: (But Don't Have Sex or Take the Car), which detailed his experiences as a child actor in Hollywood, as well as those of other former child actors. In 1988 he married actress Jane Powell. The two remained married until his death.

Dickie Moore numbers among the most successful child actors of all time. The reason is not hard to find. He had an extremely naturalistic acting style. In an era when many child actors were playing saccharine Hollywood creations, Mr. Moore was playing boys who could actually exist in real life. This made him a perfect fit in the "Our Gang" comedies, as Hal Roach encouraged his young actors to behave like normal kids in the shorts. If Dickie Moore is remembered as a child actor today, it is then because he acted like children in real life and not some Hollywood fantasy of how children should be.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Beau Geste (1939)

Although today it is one of his better known films, Beau Geste (1939) was almost not directed by William Wellman. The story of how William Wellman came to direct Beau Geste began in 1924 when the novel Beau Geste by P. C. Wren was published for the first time. The novel followed the adventures of the Geste brothers (Beau, Digby, and John) in the French Foreign Legion. The book proved highly successful, so much so that Paramount Pictures purchased the rights to make a film version of the novel. The first film adaptation of Beau Geste was released in 1926 and starred Ronald Colman, Neil Hamilton, and Ralph Forbes.

With the advent of the Sound Era with the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927, it was perhaps inevitable that Paramount would want to make a sound version of Beau Geste. It was on April 10 1936 that Paramount announced a new version of Beau Geste would be shot in Technicolor and directed by Henry Hathaway. Gary Cooper was set to star in the film. It was on May 30 of that year that it was announced that Beau Geste had been postponed. As to Henry Hathaway, he was assigned to direct Hell on Earth, a film about the African slave trade that was ultimately never made.

It was in January 1937 that Paramount once again announced the production of a new version of Beau Geste. Henry Hathaway was still assigned to direct, although the Geste brothers would be played by George Raft, Ray Milland, and Richard Arlen. Once more Beau Geste was postponed and this time Henry Hathaway was assigned to direct Spawn of the North (1938).

Nearly a year would pass before William Wellman was announced as the director of Beau Geste. While it had been planned all along to shoot the film in Technicolor, at the very last minute it was decided instead to film Beau Geste in black and white. Gary Cooper was cast in the lead role of Michael "Beau" Geste. It would be the final film under his contract with Paramount. Ray Milland and Robert Preston were cast as the other Geste brothers, John and Digby respectively. Patricia Morison was considered for the role of Isobel Rivers, the love interest in the film, as was reportedly Frances Farmer. The part ultimately went to Susan Hayward, for whom it would be her first major role. In both the novel and the 1926 silent film the corrupt and sadistic French Foreign Legion commandant was a Frenchman named  Sergeant Lejaune (played in the 1926 film by Noah Beery, Sr.). So as not to offend French audiences, in the 1939 version of Beau Geste Sergeant Lejaune was replaced by a Russian named Markoff, played by Brian Donlevy.

While William Wellman was known for his remarkable ability to bring productions in on schedule, if not under schedule, this would not be the case with Beau Geste. After only four days of shooting at the Paramount Ranch, Mr. Wellman was already behind schedule. Unfortunately, he was never able to get caught up and Beau Geste became one of the few films he did not bring in on schedule.

Beau Geste (1939) was released on August 2 1939. The 1926 silent film had not only been critically acclaimed, but had also done spectacularly well at the box office as well. While Beau Geste (1939) would not receive the critical acclaim that Beau Geste (1926) had, it received good reviews over all. The performance of Brian Donlevy as Sergeant Markoff was particularly lauded by critics. Indeed, Mr. Donlevy was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Beau Geste also received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Art Direction. Beau Geste (1939) did not do as well at the box office as the silent version had, although it did do very well. Beau Geste (1939) was the 23rd highest grossing film of the year. Today that might not sound impressive, but one must consider that it was released in 1939 when such films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Gunga Din, and the all time box office champ Gone with the Wind were released. In any other year Beau Geste (1939) might well have ranked much higher in the year end box office.

The novel Beau Geste would be adapted as a feature film once again in 1966 and parodied with The Last Remake of Beau Geste  in 1977.  In 1982 the BBC adapted the novel as a television mini-series.

Today Beau Geste (1939) is perhaps the best known adaptation of the novel. It also remains one of William Wellman's best known films. While Beau Geste (1939) is perhaps not quite as good as the 1926 silent version, it is one of the best high adventures to emerge from the major studios in the Thirties, an era known for films filled with derring-do.  As might be expected, William Wellman's direction is both tight and brisk, quite in keeping with a swashbuckling film. His direction also permitted his cast, four of who would go on to win Oscars (Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Susan Hayward, and  Broderick Crawford), to give some very good performances. Brian Donlevy certainly gives the standout performance among the cast, his Sergeant Markoff ranking among the great screen villains. Ray Milland and Robert Preston also gave impressive performances. Gary Cooper was perhaps too old to be playing Beau Geste (Mr. Cooper was 38 and in the novel Beau is in his twenties) and he is not very convincing as an Englishman, but he is so sincere in the role that none of that really matters.

Ultimately Beau Geste (1939) delivers what one expects of it, plenty of action, adventure, and derring-do. If the story seems familiar after so many remakes and similar films, in the end it does not matter. Nearly eighty years after its release Beau Geste delivers enough excitement to keep almost anyone who watches it entertained.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The 60th Anniversary of Gunsmoke

It was 60 years ago today that that the long-running television show Gunsmoke debuted on CBS-TV. Along with Cheyenne and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (both of which debuted that same season), it was responsible for sparking the enormous cycle towards Westerns that dominated American broadcast television in the late Fifties. It would become the longest running, primetime, regularly scheduled, commercial, broadcast network drama with continuing characters in the history of American television. Indeed, of shows with continuing characters it is only surpassed by the animated sitcom The Simpsons with 25 years so far.

Like many classic television shows, Gunsmoke originated as a radio show. And, as is often the case with radio shows and TV shows, its origins were somewhat complicated. William S. Paley, CBS's chairman and founder, was a huge fan of the radio show The Adventures of Philip Marlowe. He then approached then CBS Vice President, director of TV and radio, Harry Ackerman (who would later be Vice President in Charge of Production of Screen Gems), with the idea of doing a "hard boiled Western," essentially Philip Marlowe in the Old West. Mr. Ackerman brought in writers Mort Fine and David Friedkin to write an audition script. The end result, Mark Dillon Goes to Gouge Eye was firmly in the hard boiled tradition and featured actor Rye Bradbury as Dillon. A lighter version of the script, done as a more traditional Western, was also recorded with Howard Culver of the radio Western Straight Arrow in the lead role. CBS preferred the version with Mr.  Culver as Dillon. Unfortunately, this forerunner of Gunsmoke would not make it to the air. Howard Culver's contract with Straight Arrow restricted him from doing any other Western show. The project was then shelved indefinitely.

This brings us to Norman Macdonnell and John Meston, who adapted an Ernest Haycox Western short story as "Pagosa", an episode of the radio show Romance that aired on August 8 1949. "Pagosa" featured the voice of William Conrad as Jeff Spain, the prototype for Marshall Matt Dillon. Like Gunsmoke after it, it was very much an adult Western. The two later wrote another adult oriented Western as an episode of the radio show Escape, "Wild Jack Rhett," which aired on the show on December 17 1950, also based on an Ernest Haycox story.  Messrs. Macdonnell and Meston came up with the idea of a radio show that would be an adult Western, focusing more on characters than on gunfights or derring do called Jeff Spain (after the lead character on "Pagosa").  They soon learned, however, that CBS had already produced two audition scripts of "Mark Dillon Goes to Gouge Eye," scripts that were remarkably similar to their concept.

Fortunately, for Messrs. Macdonnell and Meston, the sudden cancellation of the show Operation Underground left an empty slot on the CBS Radio schedule. Their new adult Western series was given the go ahead. Before it reached its first broadcast, however, it would undergo some changes. Harry Ackerman did not particularly care for the name "Jeff Spain" and renamed the character "Matt Dillon." As to the show itself, it became known as Gunsmoke. William Conrad, who had played Jeff Spain in "Pagosa," was cast as Marshall Matt Dillon. Howard McNear (best known as Floyd the Barber on The Andy Griffith Show) was cast as Doc Adams (named for cartoonist Charles Addams, as the character was originally somewhat ghoulish). Georgia Ellis was cast as Kitty Russell. Parley Baer (who played Mayor Stoner on The Andy Griffith Show and was the voice of Ernie the Keebler Elf) was cast as Chester, Matt Dillon's assistant. The format of the radio show would be familiar to anyone who has seen the TV series. Matt Dillon was a U.S. Marshall based out of Dodge City, Kansas in the 1870s. The show quickly became well known for its realism. In fact, many of the episodes were much more explicit than would be seen on the TV show, touching upon lynchings, massacres, various violent crimes, and even opium addiction. Although she was never called such on the show, it was hinted that Miss Kitty was a prostitute.

Gunsmoke soon became one of the most successful radio shows on the air. It also proved to be the first of a trend that would come to dominate film and later television in the Fifties, that of the "adult Western".  Within months of the radio show's debut on April 26 1952,  High Noon, regarded by many as the first "adult Western" film, was playing in theatres. The following year another adult Western film was released, Shane. The radio show Gunsmoke preceded them both.

Throughout its run on radio Gunsmoke topped the ratings and received widespread critical acclaim. In the end it would run until June 18 1961. Its demise was probably more due to the declining popularity of radio shows in light of television--it would be a little over a year later, September 30 1962, that CBS cancelled its last remaining traditional radio shows (Suspense, Yours Truly, and Johnny Dollar), bringing the era of Old Time Radio to an end.

Of course given the success of Gunsmoke on radio, nearly from the beginning there were those at CBS who wanted to bring the show to television.  Norman Macdonnell himself had serious doubts about Gumsmoke being adapted to television. In his words, Gunsmoke was "...perfect for radio." He worried that a television version of Gunsmoke, confined as it would be to a television picture, would not be as authentic as the radio show was to detail. In the end CBS decided to go ahead with a television version of Gunsmoke with or without Norman Macdonnell and John Meston. To adapt the radio show to television CBS hired Charles Marquis Warren, who had directed such films as Little Big Horn, Arrowhead, and Seven Angry Men. Mr. Warren would also serve as the producer on Gunsmoke for its first two seasons. John Meston was retained as the show's head writer while Mr. Macdonnell was a producer (after Mr. Warren left Mr. Macdonnell would become the show's primary producer, a position he kept until 1965).

With regards to casting, Norman Macdonnell and John Meston would have been happy enough to have retained the cast from the radio show for the television version, something with which Charles Marquis Warren disagreed.  In particular, William Conrad, who played the role on the radio show, was considered too heavy to play Matt Dillon. Contrary to popular belief, the role of Dillon was never offered to John Wayne, although he did introduce the first episode (Charles Marquis Warren knew John Wayne personally). Other actors were auditioned for the role, including Raymond Burr (also deemed to be to heavy, he would soon be cast as Perry Mason), Denver Pyle, and Richard Boone (who would go onto play Paladin on Have Gun--Will Travel). It was John Wayne who recommended a young actor named James Arness, who had appeared with Mr. Wayne in Hondo and Big Jim MacLain. In the role of Doc Addams was cast Milburn Stone, who had played on Broadway and in any many small parts in films. Amanda Blake, who had made several guest appearances on TV and appeared in small films, was cast as Miss Kitty. Cast as Chester, Dennis Weaver was a relative newcomer. He had made his first film appearance in 1952 and had appeared in various Westerns before receiving his role on Gunsmoke.

As might be expected, the television version of Gunsmoke was generally tamer than the radio show.  The television version of Doc was somewhat warmer than the radio version of Doc, who could be sharp tongued, morbid,  and even mercenary at times. While on the radio show it was hinted that Miss Kitty was a prostitute, in the TV series she merely worked at and later owned the Long Branch Saloon. While Gunsmoke could be a very violent TV show in its early seasons, it was still generally more family friendly than the radio version.

Surprisingly for a show that ran for twenty years and was one of three shows that started a whole boom in Westerns on TV in the late Fifties, Gunsmoke did not do spectacularly well in the ratings during its first season. It did not even crack the top thirty shows for the year. In its second season, however, it made it all the way to no. 8 in the Nielsens for the year.  With its third season it became the no. 1 show on the air, a position it maintained for the next three years.

Like most dramas in the mid-Fifties, the original television version of Gunsmoke was only a half hour in length. In fact, American broadcast network television's first hour Western with continuing characters debuted the same season that Gunsmoke did, fellow Western Cheyenne. As the Fifties progressed, hour long, episodic dramas began to dominate the small screen (everything from Perry Mason to the various Warner Bros. action shows), so that it became inevitable that Gunsmoke would eventually expand to an hour long format. It did so with the 1961-1962 season. Curiously, that season also saw the show drop from the no. 1 spot for the year to no. 3. Originally filmed in black and white, Gunsmoke would make the transition to colour with the 1966-1967 season.

Surprisingly for a show that ran for twenty seasons, Gunsmoke saw only a few major changes in its primary cast. Dennis Weaver, tired of playing Matt Dillon's sidekick Chester, left the show in 1964 to play the lead in the short lived show Kentucky Jones. He was replaced by hillbilly Deputy Marshal Festus Haggen, played by Ken Curtis, who remained with the show for the rest of its run. Various secondary characters came and went on the show. Glenn Strange (best known for playing Frankenstein's Creature in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula) joined the cast as Sam the Bartender in 1961 and remained until 1973. Burt Reynolds played half Comanche blacksmith Quint Asper from 1962 to 1965. Roger Ewing played Deputy Marshall Thad Greenwood from 1966 to 1968. Buck Taylor played gunsmith Newly O'Brian from 1967 to the end of the show's run. After nineteen years Amanda Blake left the show in 1974.  As to James Arness and Milburn Stone, they both remained with the show for its entire run, although Stone missed seven episodes in 1971 due to an illness and was temporarily replaced by Pat Hingle.

While Gunsmoke began the Sixties still at the top of the ratings, its high ratings would not last. In the 1961-1962 season the groundbreaking movie anthology NBC Saturday Night at the Movies debuted opposite the then six year old oater. As NBC Saturday Night at the Movies began to climb in the ratings, Gunsmoke began to drop. With the 1962-1963 season it dropped from no. 3 to no. 10. With the 1963-1964 season it dropped to no. 20. Gunsmoke continued to drop until it reached a series low of no. 34 for the year in the 1966-1967 season.

Generally speaking, ranking no. 34 for the season would warrant the renewal of a series. In the 1966-1967 season, however, CBS was worried about its ageing audience. That season CBS cancelled three of its long running panel shows, I've Got a Secret What's My Line, and To Tell the Truth because their audiences were perceived as being too old. CBS also decided to cancel Gunsmoke for the same reason. The outcry over the cancellation of Gunsmoke was immediate. Critics and viewers alike were outraged. Senator Robert Byrd even criticised the network's decision on the Senate floor. Even with such outcry, it is quite possible that CBS would not have given Gunsmoke a reprieve had it not been for one thing. Quite simply, Gunsmoke was among the favourite shows of both William S. Paley and his wife Babe. When he saw that Gunsmoke was not on the fall 1967-1968 schedule, he immediately called CBS vice president Mike Dann and demanded that the show be renewed. With visions of losing their jobs, CBS' programmers then rushed to find a solution to their scheduling dilemma. Ultimately a solution was found by cancelling Gilligan's Island, a show that Mr. Paley had never cared for, and the brand new, yet to be aired sitcom Doc, which was not popular with CBS's affiliates. Gunsmoke would return in the 7:30 PM Eastern Monday time slot.

In its new time slot Gunsmoke made a remarkable recovery. It leapt to no. 4 in the ratings for the 1967-1968 season. What is more, it remained in the top ten for the next five seasons. Gunsmoke was still doing well in the 1974-1975 season, coming in at no. 28 for the year, when it was cancelled for the second and final time. Once again its cancellation apparently came because its audience was "too old".

Gunsmoke would be followed by five television movies:  Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge in 1987, Gunsmoke: The Last Apache in 1990, Gunsmoke: To the Last Man in 1992, Gunsmoke: The Long Ride in 1992, and Gunsmoke: One Man's Justice in 1994. For the first film Amanda Blake returned as Miss Kitty and Buck Taylor returned as Newly O'Brian. The other films featured only James Arness as Matt Dillon from the original cast (Amanda Blake had died in 1989).

Given its long run and its persistence in syndication (both in its half-hour and hour long formats), today it is easy to take Gunsmoke for granted. Upon its debut on television in 1955, however, it was a groundbreaking television show. Prior to Gunsmoke, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (which was actually the first of the three to debut), and  Cheyenne, Western TV shows were made primarily for children, and action always took precedence over characterisation. Gunsmoke was a far cry from The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, and other Westerns made for kids. The characters always took precedence over the plot, and characters often had complex motivations so that it was rare that anyone was entirely good or entirely bad. Indeed, Gunsmoke picked up its share of awards, particularly in its early days. It won the 1958 Emmy for Best Dramatic Series with Continuing Characters. Over the years both Dennis Weaver and Milburn Stone would take away Emmys for Best Supporting Actor.

Of course, the most lasting impact of Gunsmoke may be that, along with The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and Cheyenne, it triggered the boom in Westerns in the mid to late Fifties. As hard as it may be to believe now, in the late Fifties there were seasons when there was at least one Western on the American networks every single night of the week. What is more, the Fifties cycle towards Westerns would produce several shows now regarded as classics, including Have-Gun Will Travel, Maverick, The Rifleman, and Bonanza. It seems unlikely that any of these shows would have made it to the air had Gunsmoke, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, and Cheyenne had failed.

While Gunsmoke was not the only Western to debut in the 1955-1956 season, it was by far the most successful. Indeed, while many older people fondly remember Cheyenne and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Gunsmoke is probably the only one familiar to the American population as a whole, regardless of age. It has lasted for sixty years. One has to suspect it will last for sixty more.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Definining "Classic Film"

When Turner Classic Movies announced its new "Let's Movie" campaign intended to attract a broader audience to the channel, there were those long time viewers who panicked, thinking that perhaps TCM was changing its programming. Fortunately this was not the case, as confirmed by Ben Mankiewicz himself. Of course, it was perhaps only natural that in the ensuing discussion about the campaign there would arise a question often debated by classic film buffs, "What exactly is a classic?"

It might seem strange, but there appears to be no agreed upon definition of the word "classic". In fact, I suspect that if one asked five different classic film fans what constitutes a "classic film", then he or she might well get five different explanations of what constitutes a "classic film". Surprisingly, the lack of agreement upon what makes a film a "classic" causes little problem in the classic film community (at least in my experience). In fact, the only time I have seen very many arguments erupt among classic film buffs is when Turner Classic Movies shows a movie some might consider too "recent" to be a classic (generally anything made after 1980).

Of course, for anything to be a classic most fans agree that they must be of a certain age. That is, a movie released just last year, no matter how critically acclaimed, can not be a "classic". In fact, for many a film can only be considered a "classic" if it comes from a specific era. That is, there are many who regard the Golden Age of Hollywood as "the Classic Era". For those unfamiliar with the term, the Golden Age of Hollywood is generally agreed to have lasted from the late Twenties into either the Fifties or Sixties. Most critics and fans begin the Golden Age of Hollywood with the release of The Jazz Singer in 1927.

As to when the Golden Age of Hollywood ended, there tends to be some disagreement as to that. Some would end it as early as 1948 when the antitrust case United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. was decided by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court's decision forced the major studios to divest themselves of their theatres, to cease the practice of block booking (whereby theatres were required to accept an entire block of films produced by a studio), to cease discriminating against independent theatres in favour of the large theatre chains, and to end various other practices. Effectively, United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. dealt a serious blow to the major studios and the studio system under which they had operated since the late Twenties.

While some might end the Golden Age of Hollywood with the United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. decision, it seems to me that most fans would say it lasted beyond 1948. Quite simply, while the case dealt a serious blow to the studio system, the studio system lingered to some degree or another into the Fifties, with some remnants of the system still around in the Sixties. Given this, one can choose a number of different years when he or she could say the Golden Age ended. One could say the Golden Age of Hollywood ended when formidable studio executive Louis B. Mayer resigned from MGM in 1951. Others could say that the Golden Age of Hollywood ended in January 1957 when General Tire and Rubber Company closed production at RKO. Yet others might say the Golden Age of Hollywood ended as late as November 1 1968 when the MPAA's new rating system took effect, replacing the the Motion Picture Production Code under which Hollywood had made movies for decades.

Even beyond the fact that there is not very much agreement as to when the Golden Age of Hollywood ended, I must admit that I have always had a problem with regarding only films from that era as "classics". Indeed, it seems to me that using the Golden Age of Hollywood as a means of determining what is a "classic film" ignores common usage of the term "classic". I have often heard films made long after the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood and the demise of the studio system described as "classics". The Godfather (1972), Jaws (1975), and Blade Runner (1982) have all been called "classics" and rather often at that. What is more, it is not simply the general public who have called these films "classics", but critics, historians, and classic film buffs. Given  the term "classic" is commonly used to refer to films made after the Golden Age of Hollywood, I am not sure that one can say the only classics were made during that era.

Of course, another problem I have with using the Golden Age of Hollywood as a gauge for determining what is a classic film is that, well, it is too Hollywood-centric. As I see it, the United States was far from the only country to produce classic films. Many classic films emerged from the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, and yet other countries. And while arguably the Golden Ages of some of these countries roughly corresponded with that of Hollywood (I would say that the Golden Age for British Cinema ran roughly from the Thirties to the Sixties), others did not. Arguably the best years for cinema in Japan, France, and Italy came following World War II--the Fifties and Sixties were the era of Akira Kurosawa, François Truffaut, and Federico Fellini. An argument could be made that the best years for German cinema predated the Sound Era for the most part--the Twenties up until the rise of Nazi Germany in 1933. Given I view The Ladykillers (1955),  Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922), Seven Samurai (1954), The 400 Blows (1959), and La Dolce Vita (1960) as classics, I couldn't very well use the Golden Age of Hollywood as a means of determining what is and is not a classic.

Indeed, I have to point out that as the Golden Age of Hollywood is generally agreed to begin with The Jazz Singer, films made during the Silent Era would not be "classics" if the Golden Age is used to determine what is and is not a classic. Since there are many silent films I regard as classics, I would submit that I could not very well say that classic films were only made during the Golden Age of Hollywood.

While there are those who use the Golden Age of Hollywood as a means to determine what is a classic, many (perhaps most) classic film buffs simply regard a film as a "classic" if it is over a certain age and is a truly great film. I must confess that I am one of these people. I have what I call "the Thirty Year Rule". That is, before I will consider a film a classic, it must be at least thirty years old. My reasoning is that a film must have stood the test of time before it can be considered a classic. I am sure we can all think of films that received a good deal of critical acclaim and even won awards upon their initial release but are now regarded as mediocre at best. On the other hand, I am sure we can all think of films that did not receive widespread critical acclaim upon their initial release, but are now regarded as, well, "classics". Of course, beyond being at least thirty years old, for me to consider a film a classic, I must also regard it as a film of high quality. Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) is well over thirty years old, but I would not regard it as a classic (unless I regarded it as a "camp classic", which is an entirely different matter....).

Ultimately, I think a good definition of what is a classic film may then be any film that is several years old (at least more than ten or twenty years) that is currently regarded by a majority of critics, film historians, and classic film buffs as being of the highest quality. Of course, this definition is not perfect. To a large degree whether someone regards a film as a "classic" is going to be subjective. Using the above definition I do believe that Detour (1945) would be a "classic film". It is 70 years old and well regarded by many critics, film historians, and film buffs. That having been said, given how truly bad I think Detour is, I cannot in all honesty say that it is a classic movie in my humble opinion. I am sure others have the same opinions about other films widely regarded as classics. Indeed, while I love the film myself, I know there are a few who would not only debate the idea that Citzen Kane (1941) is the greatest film of all time, but that it is a classic at all (here I must point out that I regard Seven Samurai as the greatest film of all time).

 In the end I am not sure there will ever be a definition of "classic film" upon which everyone will agree. At best I think classic film buffs can only agree that classics will always be older films (as I said earlier, a film released last year is not a classic) and films that are always the best in quality. Beyond these two things I think there is always going to be room for argument as to what constitutes a classic, and from time to time such arguments are going to occur.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Judy Carne R.I.P.

Judy Carne, best known as one of the regulars on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, died September 3 2015 at the age of 76. The cause was pneumonia.

Judy Carne was born Joyce Botterill on April 27 1939 in Northampton, Northamptonshire. She grew up in Kingsthorpe, Northamptonshire. She took an interest in acting and dancing while she was still a little girl. She trained at the Bush Davies Theatrical School for Girls at East Grinstead. Miss Carne made her debut on the West End in 1957 in For Amusement Only. She made her television debut in the production The First Day of Spring. In the late Fifties she was a panellist on Juke Box Jury.

Judy Carne began the Sixties with a guest appearance on Danger Man in 1961. That same year she had a recurring role on the sitcom The Rag Trade. She made her film debut in A Pair of Briefs in 1962 and that same year guest starred on The Cheaters. Miss Carne migrated to the United States and was cast as the lead in the short lived sitcom Fair Exchange. On the show, which ran from 1962 to 1963 on CBS, she played Heather Finch, an English exchange student to the United States. During the 1966-1967 season she starred in the sitcom Love on a Rooftop, playing one half of a newlywed couple opposite Peter Deuel. It was in 1968 that Judy Carne began her run on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. A frequent schtick on the show was for Miss Carne to say, "Sock it to me!", only to be doused with water, knocked over, or be subjected to some other form of humiliation. She left the show in 1970, saying that it had become boring.

During the Sixties Miss Carne also guest starred on such shows as Bonanza, Dr. Kildare, Gidget, The Farmer's Daughter, Gunsmoke, I Dream of Jeannie, The Patty Duke Show, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Big Valley, and Run for Your Life. She appeared on such talk shows, variety shows, and game shows as The Joey Bishop Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, Hollywood Squares, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. She appeared in the film The Americanization of Emily (1964).

Her career slowed considerably after she left Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. In the Seventies she guest starred on such shows as Alias Smith and Jones; Cade's County; Love, American StyleIronside; QBVII; Get Christie Love!; and Police Woman. She appeared in the film All the Right Noises (1971). In the Eighties she appeared in the film Out of Order (1981) and guest starred on the show On the Line. Her autobiography Laughing on the Outside, Crying on the Inside: The Bittersweet Saga of the Sock-It-To-Me Girl was published in 1985.

Judy Carne was a very talented actress whose career was sadly ended by her own personal demons. She was particularly gifted when it came to comedy. She had perfect timing and could deliver lines as good as any experienced comic. And as ably proven on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, she was very good at slapstick. She was a very talented performer, so much so that one only wishes she had more of a career.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Late Great Martin Milner

Martin Milner, on the right
with Route 66 co-star George Maharis

Martin Milner, best known for starring as Tod Stiles on Route 66 and as Pete Malloy on Adam-12, died yesterday evening, September 6 2015, at the age of 83.

Martin Milner was born in Detroit, Michigan on December 31 1931. His father, Sam Gordon Milner, was a film distributor for Universal International and Eagle­-Lion Films. His mother, Mildred E. "Jerre" Milner (née  Martin), was a dancer. The family moved a good deal when Martin Milner was young. It was when he was 9 years old and the family was living in Seattle, Washington that he became involved in acting in local plays. Mr. Milner was 14 years old when his family settled in Hollywood. He studied with an acting coach and later got an agent.

Martin Milner was only 14 when he made his film debut in Life with Father (1947), playing the second oldest son of Clarence and Vinnie Day (played by William Powell and Irene Dunne). Over the next few years he appeared in the films The Wreck of the Hesperus (1948), The Green Promise (1949), Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Halls of Montezuma (1950), Louisa (1950), and Our Very Own (1950). He made his television debut in an episode of The Lone Ranger in 1950. It was while he was shooting Halls of Montezuma that he met and became friends with Jack Webb, with whom he would work quite a few times in his career.

In the early Fifties Martin Milner was a regular on the television sitcom The Stu Erwin Show. He also made several guest appearances on Jack Webb's show Dragnet. He guest starred on the anthology show The Bigelow Theatre. He also appeared in such films as Operation Pacific (1951), The Captive City (1952), Belles on Their Toes (1952), My Wife's Best Friend (1952), Battle Zone (1952), and Springfield Rifle (1952). In 1952 Martin Milner began two years in the United States Army. In the Army he was assigned to Special Services at Fort Ord in California. He directed training films, and performed in a touring show unit as well as acted as the unit's master of ceremonies. While still in the Army he did voice work for the radio version of Dragnet while on three day passes.While in the Army he also befriended fellow actor David Janssen (future star of Richard Diamond and The Fugitive) and Clint Eastwood. According to legend, it was Messrs. Milner and Janssen who persuaded Clint Eastwood to try acting as a career.

The latter part of the Fifties would see Martin Milner play some of his best known roles. He appeared as James Earp in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). In Sweet Smell of Success (1957) he played up and coming jazz guitarist Steve Dallas. In Compulsion (1958) he played Sid Brooks, the law school student who uncovers the murder committed by fellow law students Artie Strauss and Judd Steiner (played by Bradford Dillman and Dean Stockwell). He also appeared in such films as Last of the Comanches (1953), Dial M for Murder (1954), The Long Grey Line (1955), Mister Roberts (1955), Pete Kelly's Blues (1955), Francis in the Navy (1955), The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960), 13 Ghosts (1960), and Sex Kittens Go to College (1960). 

It was in 1960 that Martin Milner was cast as Tod Stiles in the television show Route 66. The television show centred on two young men who travelled about the United States in a Chevrolet Corvette. Initially the two young travellers were Yale educated Tod Stiles and street educated Buz Murdock (played by George Maharis). Later, after George Maharis left the series, they were Tod and Vietnam veteran Linc Case (played by Glenn Corbett). The show was created by Herbert B. Leonard and Stirling Silliphant, who had earlier developed the critically acclaimed semi-anthology Naked City. Route 66 was unique among TV shows of the time in that it was shot on location throughout the United States, with two episodes shot in Canada. The show was critically acclaimed and developed a cult following that it maintains to this day. It ran from 1960 to 1964.

In the mid to late Fifties Martin Milner had a recurring role on The Life of Riley. He guest starred on such shows as Science Fiction Theatre, Wagon Train, Matinee Theatre, Rawhide, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, Playhouse 90, The Millionaire, and The Twilight Zone.

In addition to his continuing role on Route 66, in the Sixties Martin Milner guest starred on such shows as The DuPont Show of the Week, Slatterly's People, Kraft Suspense Theatre, Gidget, Laredo, The Virginian, Run for Your Life, and Dragnet. It would be Dragnet that would lead to Mr. Milner's next regular role on a TV show, that of Pete Malloy on Adam-12. Adam-12 was spun off from Dragnet, with Pete Malloy and his partner Jim Reed (played by Kent McCord) first appearing in episodes of Dragnet. Adam-12 followed Pete Malloy and Jim Reed, two officers of the Los Angeles Police Department, as they worked their beat in the city. The show proved very popular, running from 1968 to 1975 and is still seen in reruns to this day. In the Sixties Martin Milner appeared in the films Zebra in the Kitchen (1965), Ski Fever (1966), Valley of the Dolls (1967), and Three Guns for Texas (1968). He appeared on Broadway in The Ninety Day Mistress.

In the Seventies Martin Milner appeared as Pete Malloy on the shows The D.A. and Emergency!. He starred in the short lived series Swiss Family Robinson. He guest starred on Columbo, becoming the show's first murder victim in its very first episode. He played a mystery writer whose writing partner (played by Jack Cassidy) kills him when he decides to end the partnership. He also guest starred on Police Story and The Littlest Hobo, and appeared in the mini-series Black Beauty, The Seekers, and The Last Convertible.

In the Eighties Martin Milner guest starred on Fantasy Island, Masquerade, Airwolf, and MacGyver. In the Nineties Mr. Milner had a recurring role on the family drama Life Goes On, playing book store owner Harris Cassidy. He reprised his role of Pete Malloy, now a captain in the Los Angeles Police Department, in the short lived sequel/spinoff series The New Adam-12. He also guest starred in the shows MacGyver; RoboCop; Murder, She Wrote; and Diagnosis Murder.

After retiring from acting Martin Milner hosted a radio show devoted to fishing, Let's Talk Hook-up, on XTRA 690.

There can be no doubt that Martin Milner was a good actor. The two roles for which he is best known, Tod Stiles of Route 66 and Pete Malloy of Adam-12, were both very similar: strait-laced, clean cut gentlemen who nonetheless had an eye for the ladies. Both Tod and Pete were sensitive to others, but could be tough when needed. While Tod Stiles and Pete Malloy were both very similar, Martin Milner was capable of playing vastly different roles. Harris on Life Goes On was very different from either Tod or Pete. An unabashed socialist, he had long hair and was as idealistic as Tod and Pete were practical. As Harris Cassidy, Martin Milner easily gave one of the best performances on the show. Martin Milner could even play villains when he was called upon to do so, and he could play them quite well. In the Virginian episode "Trail to Ashley Mountain" Mr. Milner played Case, a double dealing telegraph operator.

While he could easily play villains, in real life Martin Milner was in many ways quite like Tod Stiles and Pete Malloy. In fact, despite the fact that he had starred in several successful movies and two hit TV shows, Mr. Milner once said, "I was never a celebrity - just a working actor." His treatment of his fans demonstrates his attitude that he was simply an ordinary guy. Everyone I know who had the opportunity to meet Martin Milner had only glowing words to say of him. Quite simply, he was one of the nicest people one could ever meet. Indeed, he was even married to the same woman, Judy Milner, for 58 years--a remarkable feat in Hollywood. Ultimately Martin Milner was not simply a talented actor. He was truly a nice person and a fine gentleman.