Saturday, November 12, 2016

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

It was on April 29 1983 that Walt Disney Productions released an adaptation of Ray Bradbury's 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Even then Something Wicked This Way Comes was regarded as one of the classics in the dark fantasy genre. Indeed, the novel had already had an impact on popular culture. Harry Nilsson's 1967 album Pandemonium Shadow Show drew its name directly from the novel, and it was a major influence on best selling author Stephen King. What many at the time of the movie's release might not have realised is that the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes actually had its origins in film.

It all began when Ray Bradbury and his wife Marguerite were invited to a showing of Invitation to the Dance (1956) by their friend, legendary actor, director, and dancer Gene Kelly. The carnival sequence in the movie struck a particular chord with Mr. Bradbury. He told his wife walking home from the film, "I'd give my right arm to write a screenplay for Gene Kelly." His wife told him she was certain that in his files he had something dealing with carnivals or circuses.

The two of them looked through his files and found an unfinished story entitled "The Black Ferris" that had been meant for The Dark Carnival (Bradbury's first anthology as well as his first book). Ray Bradbury wrote an 80 page screenplay and sent it to Gene Kelly. Gene Kelly loved the screenplay and wanted to both produce and direct it. Unfortunately, he had difficulty getting backing for the project. Gene Kelly sent the script back to Mr. Bradbury. Ray Bradbury then re-wrote the screenplay as a novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which was published in 1962.

For those unfamiliar with Something Wicked Way Comes, it is a dark fantasy novel about two thirteen year old boys (Jim Nightshade and William Halloway) who, with the help of Will's father Charles, find that they must defend their small town of Green Town, Illinois against a sinister, supernatural carnival--Cooger & Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show. Headed by the menacing Mr. Dark, the Pandemonium Shadow Show featured such unusual attractions as the Dust Witch, The Skeleton, and a rather unusual carousel. Ray Bradbury drew a good deal upon nostalgia for his Midwestern childhood for much of the inspiration for Something Wicked This Way Comes, but he also drew upon the horror genre and folk tales a good deal as well. In the end, it is one of the darkest works he had ever written.

While Ray Bradbury never got to make Something Wicked This Way Comes as a film with Gene Kelly, it was only a matter of time before the novel would become a movie. It was in 1977 that Ray Bradbury sold the film rights to the novel to Paramount Pictures. To work on the script with him, he turned to Jack Clayton, who had been one of the associate producers on the film Moby Dick (1956), for which Mr. Bradbury had written the screenplay. Jack Clayton was an established director, having directed such films as Room at the Top (1959), The Innocents (1961), and The Pumpkin Eater (1964). The film would have starred Kirk Douglas and would have been produced by Kirk Douglas's company Bryna Productions. Unfortunately, Paramount Pictures never made the film.

It was in 1983 that Walt Disney Productions bought the film rights to Something Wicked This Way Comes. Starting with The Black Hole in 1979, Walt Disney Productions had been trying to break free of their reputation for family films and animated features by making films that were still family friendly, but included more mature themes. Walt Disney Productions then hired Ray Bradbury to write the screenplay. It was Ray Bradbury who suggested to Disney that they hire Jack Clayton as the film's director.

Unfortunately, production on Something Wicked This Way Comes would not proceed smoothly. Ray Bradbury and Jack Clayton wanted the film to be fairly faithful to the novel, which is fairly dark. Disney wanted a more family friendly film. Disney would eventually insist that Ray Bradbury's screenplay had to be revised. As a result Jack Clayton hired writer John Mortimer to make some uncredited revisions to the script. This led to a disagreement between Ray Bradbury and Jack Clayton.

In the end Walt Disney Productions would wind up taking control of the project from Jack Clayton and Ray Bradbury. A test screening went poorly, and as a result Disney re-edited the film and even shot whole new scenes with a second unit director. A good number of special effects sequences were added. The original score composed by Georges Delerue (who had composed the score for Jack Clayton's film The Pumpkin Eater), which Disney considered "too dark", was replaced with a new score by James Horner (who later composed the score for 1997's Titanic). Neither Ray Bradbury nor Jack Clayton were particularly happy with Disney's interference with the film.

Unfortunately for Walt Disney Productions, their intervention was all for naught. In fact, it seems possible that it could have made things worse. While Something Wicked This Way Comes received mixed to positive reviews, it bombed at the box office. Something Wicked This Way Comes made only $8.4 million at the box office, but cost  $19 million to make. As to Ray Bradbury himself, he said that the movie was "..not a great film, no, but a decently nice one."

As an adaptation of the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, in some ways the movie Something Wicked This Way Comes is a failure. While it does a good job of capturing the Norman Rockwell qualities of small town America in the novel, it falls slightly short in its portrayal of the darkness just lying beneath the surface of life in Green Town. Sadly, it would seem Disney's attempts to make Something Wicked This Way Comes family friendly made it something less powerful than the original novel. Of course, here it should be pointed out that perhaps any adaptation of Something Wicked This Way Comes would fall short, given the book has been counted among the greatest American novels of the 20th Century.

Considered its on its own, it would seem that Ray Bradbury's assessment of the movie Something Wicked This Way Comes as "..a decently nice one" is fairly accurate. The movie does succeed quite well in painting a portrait of small town life in the first half of the 20th Century, and it does feature some true moments of horror. Jonathan Pryce made for a great villain in the form of Mr. Dark. While the film does not measure up to the novel nor does it capture the novel perfectly, it is quite enjoyable on its own.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Late Great Robert Vaughn

I am not sure where I first saw Robert Vaughn. It may have been in The Magnificent Seven (1960) or it might have been on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. I do know he has been one of my favourite actors since childhood. As a lad I always thought he was so cool as Napoleon Solo on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  Even then I realised he was a very talented actor from his performance as Lee in The Magnificent Seven. Throughout my childhood I would see many more performances from Robert Vaughn in various TV shows and movies. And while I was a huge fan of him as a child, as an adult I grew to admire him even more. I discovered his book Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting on the Hollywood blacklist. The book was his dissertation for his Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Southern California. That's right. Robert Vaughn was not only a talented actor, but he also had a PhD. Sadly, Dr. Vaughn died today at the age of 83 after a long battle with leukaemia.

Robert Vaughn was born on November 22 1932 in New York City. He sprang from a long line of actors. His maternal great grandfather, Sebastian Gaudel, was reportedly in the commedia dell' arte in France. His maternal grandfather, Frank S. Gaudel, was the director of the Glencoe Comedy Players in Glencoe, Minnesota. His maternal grandmother,  Marie or Mary Halloran (she was called both) was an actress in Glencoe. His parents were also actors. His father, Gerald Walter Vaughn, was a radio actor who generally played heavies on such shows as Gangbusters and Crime Doctor. His mother, Marcella Gaudel, was an actress who appeared in the 1931 Broadway production of Dracula.

Robert Vaughn's parents divorced when he was a baby. His mother moved back to Minnesota where he was partially raised by his maternal grandparents. His mother encouraged young Robert in acting, teaching him the "To be or not to be" soliloquy from Hamlet when he was only five. At age twelve he travelled with an Iowa tent show, Sweet's Famous Players. He debuted on radio in the part of Billy on Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. He also appeared on such radio shows as Let's Pretend. He attended North Community High School in Minneapolis, where he was active in theatrical productions. After graduating high school he attended the University of Minnesota as a journalism major. He dropped out after a year and moved to Los Angeles. There he attended  Los Angeles City College. He later transferred to  Los Angeles State College of Applied Arts and Sciences where he earned his master's degree in theatre. He was an established actor when he earned his PhD from the University of Southern California in 1970.

In 1955 Robert Vaughn played Judas Iscariot in the annual The Pilgrimage Play at the Pilgrimage Play Theatre (now the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre) in Hollywood. That same year he made his television debut in an episode of Medic. In the late Fifties Dr. Vaughn appeared on such shows as You Are There, Big TownThe Millionaire, Father Knows Best, Zane Grey Theatre, Gunsmoke, Dragnet, Mike Hammer, The Rifleman, Zorro, Bronco, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Rebel, Laramie, and Wagon Train.

He made his film debut in a bit part in The Ten Commandments (1956). His first substantial role was in Hell's Crossroads (1957). He appeared in the films No Time to Be Young (1957), Teenage Cave Man (1958), and Unwed Mother (1958). Dr. Vaughn served in the United States Army for a time in the late Fifties before returning to acting. He played Chester A. Gwynn in The Young Philadelphians (1959), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The Young Philadelphians was followed by Robert Vaughn's most famous film, The Magnificent Seven (1960). In the film he played Lee, the gunslinger suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Sixties would see Robert Vaughn cast in his most famous role, that of superspy Napoleon Solo on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Alongside Illya Kuryakin (played by David McCallum), Solo was an agent for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, a secret organisation constantly in battle with the forces of evil, which usually came in the form of THRUSH, a group dedicated to world conquest. The show proved to be something of a fad, and at its height Robert Vaughn was receiving 70,000 pieces of mail a week.

Robert Vaughn also starred on the single season show The Lieutenant, on which he played Captain Raymond Rambridge, the commanding officer of Second Lieutenant William Tiberius Rice (played by Gary Lockwood), the lieutenant of the title. He made one guest appearance on the spin-off from The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. In the Sixties he also guest starred on such shows as Tales of Wells Fargo, Bonanza, The Virginian, The Dick Van Dyke Show, 77 Sunset Strip, Please Don't Eat the Daisies (as Napoleon Solo), and The Red Skelton Show.

During the Sixties some episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. were edited together and released theatrically, but Robert Vaughn appeared in several movies besides these. He had a cameo in The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) as Napoleon Solo. He played an atypical role as politician Walter Chalmers in Bullitt (1968). He also appeared in the films The Big Show (1961), The Caretakers (1963), If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969), The Bridge at Remagen (1969), Julius Caesar (1970), and The Mind of Mr. Soames (1970),

In the Seventies Robert Vaughn starred on the TV show The Protectors, on which he played international troubleshooter Harry Rule. He also starred on the miniseries Captains and the Kings, Washington: Behind Closed Doors, and Centennial. He guest starred on such shows as Columbo, Police Woman, The Eddie Capra Mysteries, Hawaii Five-O, Trapper John M.D., and The Love Boat. He appeared in several movies during the decade, including another remake of Seven Samurai. Gelt in Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) was essentially Lee from The Magnificent Seven in space. He also provided the voice of Proteus IV in the movie Demon Seed (1977). He appeared in the films The Statue (1971), Clay Pigeon (1971), The Man from Independence (1974), The Towering Inferno (1974), La baby sitter (1975), Atraco en la jungla (1976), Starship Invasions (1977), The Lucifer Complex (1978), Brass Target (1978), Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff (1979), Cuba Crossing (1980), Fukkatsu no hi (1980), and Hangar 18 (1980).

In the Eighties Dr. Vaughn had regular roles on both Emerald Point N.A.S. and The A-Team. He appeared in the miniseries The Blue and the Grey. He guest starred on such shows as Hotel, The Hitchhiker, The Ray Bradbury Theatre, and Hunter. He played the title role in the TV movie FDR: That Man in the White House (1982). Perhaps his most notable TV appearance was the 1983 reunion movie The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair. He appeared in such films as S.O.B. (1981), Superman III (1983), Veliki transport (1983), The Delta Force (1986), Killing Birds (1987), Hour of the Assassin (1987), Skeleton Coast (1988), The Emissary (1988), C.H.U.D. II - Bud the Chud (1989), Transylvania Twist (1989), Nobody's Perfect (1990), and Buried Alive (1990).

In the Nineties Robert Vaughn was the host of Danger Theatre. He had a role on the short lived show The Magnificent Seven. He guest starred on such shows as Murder, She Wrote; Kung Fu: The Legend Continues; Burke's Law; One Life to Live; Diagnosis Murder; The Nanny; and Law & Order. He appeared in such films as Blind Vision (1992), Dust to Dust (1994), Witch Academy (1995), An American Affair (1997), Vulcan (1997), Motel Blue (1997), Visions (1998), The Sender (1998), and BASEketball (1998).

From the Naughts into the Teens, Robert Vaughn starred on Hustle, on which he played Albert Stroller, the roper for the group of con men on the show (the roper being someone who identifies marks and "roping them in'). He appeared in the miniseries Family of the Year and  In the Naughts he also appeared in such films as Cottonmouth (2002), Happy Hour (2003), and Scene Stealers (2004). In the Teens he continued to appear on Hustle. He also appeared as Milton Fanshaw on thirteen episodes of Coronation Street. He guest starred on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. He appeared in the films Patrimony (2011), The Magnificent Eleven (2012), Excuse Me for Living (2012), A Cry from Within (2014), and The American Side (2016). His final appearance will be in the film Gold Star.

I think there will be no doubt that Robert Vaughn will always be remembered as Napoleon Solo on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Lee on The Magnificent Seven. He was very fortunate to have played one of the most iconic roles in television and one of the most iconic roles in film. That having been said, the two roles do show just how very talented Robert Vaughn was, as they were both very different from each. Napoleon Solo was calm, cool, collected, and very charming. Lee was nervous and obviously suffering from trauma. Both men were very sophisticated and both could be deadly, but they were also very different.

Indeed, Robert Vaughn played a wide variety of roles throughout his career. He played three United States presidents (Harry Truman, FDR, and, in an episode of Law of the Plainsman, a young Teddy Roosevelt) and did so convincingly. He played the opponent of the lieutenant of the title on two episodes of Columbo, one the owner of a ship-building business and the other a used car salesman. In The Young Philadelphians he was a disabled veteran accused of murder. He was evil the voice of an evil computer in Demon Seed. Through his long career he played everything from politicians to military officers to scientists to con men. What is more he was convincing in every role. What is more, those who worked with him remarked upon his professionalism and described him with such words as "lovely' and "charming". I don't know too many people who had the honour of meeting Robert Vaughn, but those few that I do described him as the nicest man one could hope to meet. Robert Vaughn was then the consummate professional and a true gentleman.  He had been one of my heroes nearly my whole life. I am very sad to know he is gone.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief

When people hear the phrase "Hitchcock blonde", chances are good that Grace Kelly may be the first actress that comes to their minds. She starred in three Alfred Hitchock's fillms, all three of which might number among his most iconic. She first worked with Mr. Hitchcock in Dial M for Murder (1954) and then again with him on Rear Window (1954). Their final film together was To Catch a Thief (1955), which also starred frequent Hitchcock collaborator Cary Grant.

In To Catch a Thief Grace Kelly played Frances Stevens, daughter of wealthy widow Jessie Stevens (played Jessie Royce Landis). Cary Grant played retired jewel thief John Robie, AKA "The Cat", who must prove his innocence when a string of thefts start occurring on the French Riviera. The film was a significant one for Cary Grant, who briefly left the film industry after his career experienced a slump in the early Fifties. Alfred Hitchcock actually had to lure him out of retirement. Like Rear Window and, to a lesser degree Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief was in some respects a significant film for Grace Kelly. Arguably it cemented her place in many peoples' minds as the Hitchcock blonde.

Much like Rear Window, To Catch a Thief arguably featured Grace Kelly in some of her best known costumes. In the case of both films, the costumes were designed by the legendary Edith Head. For To Catch a Thief Miss Head was nominated for Best Costume Design, Colour.  Grace Kelly and Edith Head weren't the only veterans of Rear Window to work on To Catch a Thief.  John Michael Hayes had also written the screenplay for Rear Window and, following To Catch a Thief, would work on the screenplay for The Trouble With Harry (1955) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

A portion of To Catch a Thief would be filmed in Monaco, the postage stamp kingdom of which Grace Kelly would soon become its princess. While shooting Miss Kelly saw a beautiful, walled garden she wanted to visit. Unfortunately, arrangements with  its owner, Prince Rainier of Monaco, could not be made. It would only be seven months later that Grace Kelly would marry Prince Ranier and retire from acting. She only made two more films after To Catch a Thief: The Swan (1956) and High Society (1956).

Below are some of Edith Head's costumes worn by Grace Kelly in the film.

Monday, November 7, 2016

50 Years Ago Today NBC Went All Colour

It was 50 years ago today that the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) became the first American broadcast network to have an all colour schedule. It was on November 7 1966 that their last, regularly scheduled black and white show, the daytime game show Concentration, aired its first regularly scheduled, colour edition. While all three broadcast networks (NBC, CBS, and ABC) had prime time schedules entirely in colour starting with the 1966-1967 season, various daytime shows would continue to be broadcast in black-and-white on CBS and ABC. In fact, ABC would continue to air a good deal of daytime programming in black and white until December 1967, over a year after NBC had converted over to an all colour schedule.

For NBC the conversion to an all colour schedule was no simple victory over its competitors, but the end result of what had been a long fought battle with its old rival CBS. It was on July 3 1928 that John Logie Baird demonstrated the first ever colour television transmission in London. In the United States Bell Laboratories demonstrated colour television in June 1929. It would not be until after World War II that the development of colour television would really take off in the United States. While various companies developed their own colour systems, the competition would ultimately come down to systems developed by CBS and RCA (the parent company of NBC).

CBS was actually the first of the two companies to develop a colour system. Unfortunately for CBS, its system was incompatible with the black-and-white sets of the early Fifties. The system ultimately developed by RCA was compatible with the black-and-white sets of the time. While CBS's system had been favoured early on, it was then the RCA colour system that ultimately won in 1953. As NBC was not only owned by the company that developed the American colour system, but a company that manufactured television sets, it should perhaps not be surprising that NBC took the lead in colour programming.

Indeed, NBC was the only American broadcast network to air programmes in colour during the 1953-1954 season. On November 22 1953 an edition of The Colgate Comedy Hour became the first colour television broadcast in the NTSC colour system. Later that season, on January 1 1954, NBC aired the Tournament of Roses Parade in colour. It was on January 5 1955 that NBC debuted the first regularly scheduled, colour TV show, Norby. Norby was a short-lived sitcom starring David Wayne as the title character, the vice president of a small town bank. It was also in 1955 that NBC's popular children's show, Howdy Doody, made the switch to colour.

From the mid-Fifties into the mid-Sixties NBC gradually increased its colour programming. The adventure series Northwest Passage was aired in colour for its only season (1958-1959). Much more successful was the Western Bonanza. Debuting in 1959, it proved to be one of the longest running and highest rated shows of the Sixties. It aired in colour from the beginning. By the 1965-1966 season NBC aired only two shows in black-and-white in its prime time line-up. The short lived World War II drama Convoy had to be shot in black-and-white because of its use of black-and-white, archive footage. The classic sitcom I Dream of Jeannie was shot in black and white in part because of its special effects, but also largely due to the fact that NBC executives had little faith in the show. As it turned out I Dream of Jeannie became the last prime time show regularly aired in black-and-white on NBC. It also defied NBC executives' expectations and ran for five seasons, not to mention a highly successful run as a syndicated rerun. With the 1966-1967 season NBC's entire line-up was in colour.

As to why CBS and ABC were not as quick to jump on the colour television bandwagon, much of it probably had to do with the fact that ownership of colour television sets was very low from the mid-Fifties to the mid-Sixties. In 1964, eleven years after RCA's colour system had become the industry standard, only 3.1% of all American households owned a colour television set. As to why so few households owned colour TV sets, there can be no doubt it was due to their sheer cost. In 1954 a RCA colour set cost $1000, roughly the same amount as some cars sold during the era. Prices for colour sets would drop from the Fifties into the Sixties, although they were still somewhat expensive. In 1962 a colour TV set cost about $400, which would be about $3198 today.

Fortunately by the mid-Sixties colour sets had become somewhat more affordable. It was in 1966 that for the first time ever colour television sets surpassed black-and-white sets in sales, with 5.8 million sets sold. With colour sets more affordable than they had been, ownership of colour sets increased steadily from the Sixties into the Seventies. In 1970 39.3% of all homes owned colour television sets. By 1972 the majority of American homes had colour sets, a full 52.6%. By 1978 the ownership of colour TV sets was up to 78%.

While only a few households owned colour sets in 1966, NBC was then wise to switch to an all colour line-up that year. The year 1966 was the beginning of a dramatic increase in the ownership of colour TV sets in the United States that would continue well into the Seventies. It should be little wonder that the other networks were quick to follow in NBC's footsteps. By December 1967 the entire schedules of all three broadcast networks were entirely in colour.