Saturday, June 3, 2017

A Q&A With TCM's Tiffany Vazquez

Tomorrow it will have been one year since Tiffany Vazquez started as Turner Classic Movies' Saturday afternoon host. In many ways it would be a historic moment for TCM. Miss Vazquez is only the third permanent on-air host hired by Turner Classic Movies (after Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz). At 29 she is also the youngest on-air host ever hired by TCM (Robert Osborne was 61 when he started hosting Turner Classic Movies while Ben Mankiewicz was 36). She is also the first woman to serve as a permanent on-air host on TCM and the first Latina to do so as well. Below is a short Q&A with Miss Vazquez, in celebration of her first anniversary as a TCM host.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Tiffany: I was born in the Bronx, and spent most of my life in the Bronx and Queens. Non-movie related hobbies include eating, nail art, and neo-soul/classic hip-hop music.

Every classic film buff has a story of how they discovered classic films. How did you become a classic movie fan?

Tiffany:  I was in a Visual Aesthetics class where we saw It Happened One Night. It blew me away. I felt like I was watching the blueprint Romantic Comedy. I went home and started watching TCM, and haven't stopped since.

How did you become a TCM host?

Tiffany: I won a contest in 2014 called the TCM Ultimate Fan Contest. The grand prize of that was being able to host a movie on air with Robert Osborne, and to introduce that same movie (The Naked City) at the TCM Classic Film Festival that year. After that, the TCM staff and I just established great rapport and eventually, they asked me if I wanted to do a screen test for them. I did, and was offered a Guest Host spot for December 2015, where I introed movies about Girlfriends. A few months after that, I was offered the Saturday Daytime hosting gig!

You are only the third permanent host hired by TCM (after Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz). You are also the first woman to be hired as a permanent TCM host, the first Latina to be hired as a permanent TCM host, and the youngest of the hosts hired by TCM.  Do you ever think of yourself as a pioneer?

Tiffany:  No, because I'm not pioneering hosting. Robert was the best host I've ever seen, and Ben is incredible. I surely hope my presence on TV encourages more diversity in general, and I am forever grateful to TCM for giving me this absolute dream job.

Could you explain what being a host at TCM entails? How are the intros shot? Do you get to choose any of the movies you introduce? Do you get to choose your own wardrobe?

Tiffany:  The process starts with the schedule. I don't normally choose the movies I introduce. I get a list of films I'll be introducing, and I send our script writers some thoughts on each movie. The scripts get sent to me, and I make tweaks from there. Then we shoot two months worth of intros in two days. Ben and I have the same person in charge of wardrobe, who is fantastic. Her name is Holly and she also did Robert's wardrobe.

Did you receive any advice from Robert Osborne or Ben Mankiewicz on your hosting duties?

Tiffany: Robert just wished me all of the best, which means a lot to me. Ben has great advice on interviewing people, handling internet opinions, and more. But he's also very conscious about me navigating my own way, which I deeply appreciate.

Turner Classic Movies has a very large fan base of people under the age of 40. As a young person yourself, can you explain the appeal of classic movies for young people?

Tiffany:  Many people (myself included) just like good movies. If movies are your life, then how can you ignore the complete history of the art form? I'm always a bit disappointed when I talk to someone who says they love film, but don't watch films made earlier than the 70s or 80s. There's a whole foundation to be discovered, and you gain a better understanding/appreciation of contemporary film when you see the films that started it all. Another reason I love classic film - I am fascinated by how much I can still relate to movies made before I was born, before my parents were born, even before my grandparents were born. When Barbara Stanwyck or Cary Grant make me fall over in laughter, it's one of the best feelings in the world to me, because it reassures me that the human condition has not changed that much. We still need to laugh, cry, love, and feel other emotions. We still need human connections, and classic movies tend to provide that more than any other medium I know.

What are some of your all time favourite films? 

Tiffany: Sunset Blvd, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Cabin in the Sky, West Side Story, The Night of the Hunter, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Coming to America, Daughters of the Dust, In the Mood for Love, Killer of Sheep

(I want to thank Miss Vazquez so much for agreeing to this Q&A!)

Friday, June 2, 2017

A Wonder Woman You Might Have Missed

Today the movie Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, was released. While it is the first feature film starring the Amazing Amazon, Wonder Woman has a long history on television that goes back to the Sixties. Over the years Wonder Woman has appeared on the Saturday morning cartoon Super Friends, the classic TV series starring Lynda Carter, the Cartoon Network's various Justice League animated series, and yet other TV shows. Unfortunately Wonder Woman's first encounter with television would be less than wonderful.

In 1966 the big hit show of the year was Batman. Batman not only raked in the ratings, but millions of dollars in merchandising as well. It even resulted in a moderately successful feature film Batman (1966).  Quite naturally there was a desire on the part of the producers of Batman to repeat that success. In 1967 William Dozier, the producer of Batman and The Green Hornet, produced a pilot for a Dick Tracy series that failed to sell. That same year Mr. Dozier also sought to sell a TV show based on Wonder Woman. To this end, he produced a a five minute presentation film entitled "Who's Afraid of Diana Prince?".

The initial script was written by Stan Hart and Larry Siegel. Stanley Ralph Ross, who wrote episodes of Batman and later developed the Seventies TV series Wonder Woman with Douglas S. Cramer, re-wrote this script when it was deemed unusable. Unfortunately, the rewrite appears to have done little good. Not only does "Who's Afraid of Diana Prince" depart a good deal from the comic book, it was also just plain bad.

Indeed, in "Who's Afraid of Diana Prince?" Wonder Woman is played strictly for laughs. Diana Prince (played by Ellie Wood Walker) is portrayed as a shy plain Jane whose mother (who is not Hippolyta of the Amazons) nags her about not having a boyfriend. When she dons the Wonder Woman costume, she sees herself in the mirror as being more beautiful than she really is (the Wonder Woman in the mirror is played by Linda Harrison, later of Planet of the Apes fame). That Diana Prince is not entirely self-deluded is demonstrated by the fact that after preening in the mirror she flies out the window. She then at least has the power of flight. "Who's Afraid of Diana Prince?" was never broadcast nor did a Wonder Woman TV series emerge from it.

As to why a TV show never emerged form the presentation film, much of the reason could have been that Batman, the smash hit of 1966, was in decline in 1967. It ratings had dropped sharply since its debut in January 1966. Worse yet, William Dozier's other superhero show, The Green Hornet, was not doing very well in the ratings either. Of course, much of the reason for the failure of a series to emerge from "Who's Afraid of Diana Prince?" is that it simply was not very good. To be more precise, it was horrendous.

Fortunately, after a rather mediocre pilot starring Cathy Lee Crosby in 1974, Wonder Woman would find her way to television in the form of Lynda Carter in the classic TV series Wonder Woman, which debuted in 1976.

Below, for those brave enough to watch it, is the presentation film "Who's Afraid of Diana Prince?" in all its horrible glory.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

It Was 50 Years Ago Today Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Was Released

It was 50 years ago today that The Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in the United Kingdom. It was released the following day in the United States. It received widespread critical acclaim at the time. It also picked up a number of awards, including five Grammy Awards (Album of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Album, Best Engineered Non-Classical Album, Best Graphic Arts Album Cover, and Best Contemporary (R&R) Performance). Since then it has regularly made lists of the greatest rock albums of all time. In 2012 Rolling Stone ranked it at no. 1 on its list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time".  In his book  All Time Top 1000 Albums, author Colin Larkin also ranked it at no. 1. In 2010 Consequence of Sound ranked Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at no. 8 in its list of the "Top 100 Albums Ever". In NME's list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" it ranked at no. 14. In 2003 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was added by the Library of Congress to the National Recording Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is certainly the stuff of legends, and over the years millions of words have been written about the album. Ten years ago I wrote a detailed post on the occasion of its 40th anniversary (you can read it here). Of course, there has always been debate over whether Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is truly a concept album (I will state emphatically that however one stands on the issue, it was not the first concept album). It was Sir Paul McCartney who suggested that The Beatles record an entire album as if they were another band entirely. To this end, he wrote the song "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band". The Beatles grew moustaches and donned the famous Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band costumes for the album's cover. That having been said, John Lennon always argued that his songs had nothing to do with the "Sgt. Pepper" concept, while Ringo Starr has said that only "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", "With a Little Help From My Friends", and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)" were conceptually connected.

Despite John Lennon and Ringo Starr's words to the contrary, an argument can be made that a common thread does run through most of the songs on the album, even John Lennon's songs (perhaps especially John Lennon's songs). The album begins with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", with its music hall sounds. Even with its psychedelic imagery, "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" brings to mind the British tourist towns on the coast--Blackpool viewed through a psychedelic lens. "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" continues with the similar theme of circuses, while other songs ("Fixing a Hole", "Getting Better", "She's Leaving Home", "When I'm Sixty-Four", "Good Morning, Good Morning", et. al.) touch upon everyday, British life. In my humble opinion, really the only song that has absolutely nothing to do with the "Sgt. Pepper" concept is George Harrison's "Within You Without You". Of course, another one of George Harrison's songs recorded at the time had a bit more to do with the concept--"Only a Northern Song" delas with the act of playing a song itself.  It would be included on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack. Regardless, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band may perhaps be considered an album that one member (Sir Paul McCartney) intended to be a concept album and an album for which other members (John Lennon, George Harrison) simply wrote songs that they thought had nothing to do with the concept, but in the end became a concept album anyway.

Ultimately it might not be particularly important whether Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is a concept album or not, as it had an impact immediately upon its release. In the United Kingdom it debuted at no. 8 on the British album chart based on pre-orders alone. It spent 27 weeks at the top of the British album chart. In the United States it spent 15 weeks at no. 1 on the Billboard album chart. To this day it remains one of the best selling albums of all time.

My Sgt. Pepper pinback button
I know that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band certainly had an impact on me. I had just turned four years old when it was released, so I really don't remember anything about the album's debut. That having been said, while no singles were released from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, radio stations played many of the songs from the album as if they were singles. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", "With a Little Help from My Friends", and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" remain among the earliest songs I remember hearing on the radio. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band would be the first album I ever bought with my own money. I bought it at the department store P. N. Hirsch when I was 13 years old. I still have the album, as well as the cardboard cutouts that came with it. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band would remain my favourite album throughout my childhood. It would only be when I was an adult that it would be overtaken by another Beatles' album, Revolver.

Of course, I would not be the only one that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band would have an impact upon. Indeed, the album had an impact on popular culture even before it was released. The producers of Yellow Submarine (1968) had access to The Beatles' songs on the album even as it was being recorded, so that ultimately the album and its imagery would largely shape the animated feature film. Indeed, the band of the album's title even play a pivotal role in the movie.  The album had been out for only a little less than a year when a snippet of the song "Good Morning, Good Morning"appeared in the Monkees episode "Mijacogeo", also known "The Frodis Caper".

Since then every single song on the album has been covered multiple times. Indeed, it was only three days after the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band that Jimi Hendrix performed the song "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" at the Saville Theatre in London. Since then the entire album has been covered by various artists. In 2009 Cheap Trick performed the entire album live at the Las Vegas Hilton for two weeks. A live album, Sgt. Pepper Live, was released that December. The Flaming Lips covered the entire album in 2014 with their album With a Little Help from My Fwends.

Aside from Yellow Submarine songs from the album have appeared in numerous movies and TV shows. The atrocity known as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) allegedly took its inspiration from the album and included several horrible covers of songs from the album, as well as other Beatles songs. The far superior musical Across the Universe (2007) also featured songs from the album, as well as covers of other Beatles songs, all of which are excellent.  Other films to feature various songs were The Neon Palace (1971--"A Day in the Life") and Shampoo (1975--"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds").  TV shows have also featured songs from the album. Perhaps the best known of these is The Wonder Years, which used Joe Cocker's 1968 cover of "With a Little Help from My Friends" as its theme song. The video game The Beatles: Rock Band included several songs from the album, including the album's title track and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". Other songs from the album would be made available as downloadable content.

Of course, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band's biggest impact would be on popular music. In his book Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties, Ian MacDonald expresses the idea that The Beatles' adoption of alter-egos in colourful costumes would have an influence of glam rock in the Seventies, a subgenre of rock music well known for its outrageous costumes. Carys Wyn Jones in the book The Rock Canon expressed the idea that The Beach Boys' album Pet Sounds and The Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band marked the beginnings of art rock. Allan Moore in his book The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band put forth the idea that with its experimentation in the studio and in The Beatles' efforts to expand rock music beyond three minutes songs, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was pivotal in the development of progressive rock. In the book Beatlesongs, William J. Dowlding wrote, "Sgt. Pepper not only changed pop music, but transformed how we perceived that music and, in a very literal sense, how we perceived ourselves." The album certainly had a widespread influence on rock music, and it played a role in the development of such diverse subgenres as power pop and heavy metal.

Whether Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the greatest Beatles album ever made, let alone the greatest album by anyone ever made, will always be up for debate (my candidate would actually be The Beatles' Revolver), but the overall impact that the album has had over the years really is not a matter for debate. No other album has ever loomed quite as large as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in The Beatles' legend. And no other Beatles album has quite had the impact that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band did. The over all quality of the album might be up for debate, but the fact that it changed popular music and had an impact on pop culture really cannot be.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Elena Verdugo Passes On

Elena Verdugo, who appeared in such films as House of Frankenstein (1944) and The Pathfinder (1952), and starred as Millie Bronson on the sitcom Meet Millie and as Nurse Consuelo Lopez on the medical drama Marcus Welby M.D., died yesterday, May 30 2017, at the age of 92.

Elena Verdugo was born in Paso Robles, California on April 20 1925. She was a descendent of José María Verdugo, a soldier assigned to the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel in California in the 18th Century. In 1784 he received a grant from Governor Pedro Fages to settle what would be known as Rancho San Rafael. The 36,403 acre land grant covered much of what would become Glendale, Burbank, Eagle Rock, and La Crescenta.

Elena Verdugo took to show business early, taking up dance when she was still in kindergarten. She made her film debut when she was only six years old in the Western Cavalier of the West (1931). While she continued to study dance, she would not appear in another film until she was around 15 years old, appearing in a bit part as an Argentine dancer in the movie Down Argentine Way (1940). Over the next few years she would appear in uncredited, bit parts in such films as Blood and Sand (1941), The Hard-Boiled Canary (1941), Belle Starr (1941), and To the Shores of Tripoli (1942). Her first somewhat substantial role came in 1942 in the movie The Moon and Sixpence. In the Forties she would appear in such films as House of Frankenstein (1944), The Frozen Ghost (1945), Little Giant (1946), The Big Sombrero (1949), The Sky Dragon (1949), The Lost Volcano (1950), and Cyrano de Bergerac (1950). As a singer she sang with the Xavier Cugat Orchestra.

In the Fifties Elena Verdugo would spend more of her career in television. It was in 1952 that she took over the role of Millie on the radio show Meet Millie from Audrey Totter. She also starred on the television version of the sitcom, which ran from 1952 to 1956. She guest starred on such TV shows as Schlitz Playhouse, Big Town, G.E. Theatre, Steve Canyon, The Gale Storm Show: Oh! Susanna, The Bob Cummings Show, Rawhide, and The Red Skelton Show. She continued to appear in movies, including such films as Gene Autry and The Mounties (1951),  Jet Job (1952), Thief of Damascus (1952), The Pathfinder (1952), The Marksman (1953), and Panama Sal (1957).

In the Sixties Miss Verdugo was a regular on the TV shows Redigo, The New Phil Silvers Show, Many Happy Returns, and Mona McCluskey. It was in 1969 that she first started playing Consuelo Lopez, the nurse of the physician of the title on Marcus Welby M.D. The show ran until 1976 and Miss Verdugo remained with it for its entire time. It seems likely that Consuelo Lopez was the first Latina professional ever portrayed on American television. She guest starred on Route 66, 77 Sunset Strip, Petticoat Junction, Mannix, Ironside, and Daniel Boone.  She appeared in the films Day of the Nightmare (1965), How Sweet It Is! (1968), and Angel in My Pocket (1969).

In the Seventies Elena Verdugo continued to appear on Marcus Welby M.D. She guest starred on Love, American Style and Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law. She appeared in the film The Boss' Son (1978).  In the Eighties she guest starred on Emerald Point N.A.S. and Scarecrow and Mrs. King. She appeared in the television reunion movie

Elena Verdugo was not simply another beautiful movie star who eventually drifted into television. She was a woman of multiple talents. She was a skilled dancer and she was utilised as such in many of her early films. She was also a very good singer, and was able to display her singing talent in such films as The Big Sombrero and Gene Autry and the Mounties. Miss Verdugo had a particular gift for comedy. She was excellent in the sitcom Meet Millie, as well as the various sitcoms on which she guest starred and the comedy films she made. At the same time she was quite adept at drama. For many Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers she may always be best remembered as Consuelo Lopez on Marcus Welby M.D., and she appeared on dramatic TV shows from Route 66  to Rawhide. Over the years Elena Verdugo appeared in many movies and TV shows. Given her talent it should be little wonder she was very much in demand.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

My Five Favourite Films Directed By Women

If you are a serious movie fan, then chances are good that you have already heard that Sofia Coppola won the Best Director's Award at the Cannes Film Festival this past week. She was only the second woman ever to do so (the first was Yuliya Solntseva for The Story of the Flaming Years in 1961). It is a sad fact that women are given very few opportunities to direct, not just in Hollywood, but worldwide. According to a report from Directors UK in 2016, only 13.6% of all directors in the United Kingdom were women. Hollywood did even worse when it comes to letting women direct. Out of the top 250 films released in 2016, only 7% were directed by women.

As I see it, there is no reason that women should not occupy the director's chair. In fact, French director Alice Guy-Blaché is credited with directing the first narrative film ever, La Fée aux Choux in 1896. She was only 23 at the time. Alice Guy-Blaché would be followed by such women as Lois Weber in the Silent Era, and then Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Not only were women directing fairly early in the history of film, but women have directed some truly great films over the years.

Below I've listed my five favourite films directed by women. Here I want to stress that I am not saying these are necessarily the greatest films ever made by women (well, except for The Hitch-Hiker...). These are simply the five films made by women that I enjoy the most, and can watch over and over again. I'm listing them in chronological order because it is difficult enough for me to decide on an absolute favourite, let alone rank the films.

The Hitch-Hiker (1953): Ida Lupino may be unique among actresses in that she not only starred in films noirs, but she directed one as well. What is more, The Hitch-Hiker is one of the finer films noirs to emerge from the early Fifties. Miss Lupino eschewed the claustrophobic confines of big cities found in most films noirs and instead utilised the desert Southwest. The end result is that the characters seem even more isolated than if they had been in New York City or Los Angeles, California. What is more, the film is beautifully shot, so that the landscape becomes as much of a character in the film as its protagonists. As to the film's plot, The Hitch-Hiker is one of the harder edged films noirs out there. Given its source material this should not be surprising. The Hitch-Hiker was based on an actual case, namely the murder spree of psychopath Billy Cook. Miss Lupino even interviewed two prospectors held hostage by Cook, and got releases from both them and Cook himself so she could integrate aspects of the case into the film. The end result is one of the darkest, most violent noirs out there.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982): Today Amy Heckerling may be best known for Clueless (1995), but as much as I love that film, I think I prefer her feature film debut, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It was based on the 1981 book by Cameron Crowe, who also wrote the screenplay. Speaking as someone who actually attended high school during that era, Cameron Crowe and Amy Heckerling captured the minutiae of attending school and being a teenager in the late Seventies and early Eighties. For me, at least, there seemed to be so much that was true about Fast Times at Ridgemont High, much more so than other films about teenagers from other directors during the era. Indeed, I actually knew people like Jeff Spicoli. Fortunately, Fast Times at Ridgemont High is not some dry treatise on high school in the late Seventies and early Eighties, but also a very funny comedy.

Near Dark (1987): Kathryn Bigelow is one of my favourite modern day directors. She has directed so many films that I love: Strange Days (1995),  K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), and The Hurt Locker (2009). While Hurt Locker would win Miss Bigelow the Oscar for Best Director (making her the only woman to ever win the Best Director Award), my favourite film ever directed by her remains Near Dark. Near Dark is essentially a fusion of the Western with the vampire movie, centring on a young man who is turned by a band of vampires who roam the modern day West. Unlike other vampire movies from the era (Fright Night and The Lost Boys), Near Dark is played entirely seriously. Indeed, it is a movie that is both violent and frightening. What is more, it works as both a vampire movie and a Western. Some of Kathryn Bigelow's other films might be better known, but for me it was with Near Dark that she first truly utilised her talent to its fullest.

Ravenous (1999): I have seen the occasional internet troll claim that women can't direct comedies or action films. With Ravenous the late Antonia Bird proved them wrong on both accounts. Like Near Dark before it, Ravenous blends horror movies with Westerns. Unlike Near Dark it adds a dose of dark comedy and is set in California in the 1840s. As to the horror of the film, it is not the undead, but instead living men who have taken up cannibalism. Ravenous can be very funny one moment, only to become very frightening a few moments later. What is more, it is a very violent film (reportedly they ran out of fake blood for the climax of the film). Sadly, Ravenous would be the last feature film directed by Antonia Bird. She would do a good deal of work in television before dying of anaplastic thyroid cancer at age 62 in 2013.

Across the Universe (2007): Movies inspired by the music of The Beatles don't have a particularly good track record. The Beatles themselves starred in two truly great classics (A Hard Day's Night and Help!), and Yellow Submarine (1968) remains one of the greatest animated films ever made. Unfortunately, after The Beatles' breakup in 1970 we would see such atrocities as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) and Beatlemania (1981). Fortunately, there have been a few good movies inspired by the music of The Beatles made since. Across the Universe numbers among them. The plot of Across the Universe is paper thin, following of the lives of young Brits and Americans in the Sixties. That having been said, it more than makes up for its meagre plot with some incredible visuals and some of the best covers of The Beatles' songs ever recorded. Indeed, the sequence for "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" has to be seen to be believed. Across the Universe was directed by Julie Taymor, who is well known for her work on stage as both a director and a costume designer. With Across the Universe she accomplished something few others have done---a good Beatles movie without The Beatles.