Friday, February 9, 2018

Mon oncle Antoine (1971)

 (This blog post is part of the O Canada Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings and Speakeasy)

Among Canadian films Mon oncle Antoine (1971) is legendary. Not only has it often been counted among the greatest Canadian films ever made, but among the greatest films made by any nation. Although it is still not particularly well known outside of Canada, Mon oncle Antoine is still highly respected internationally to this day.

For those unfamiliar with Mon oncle Antoine, it is set in rural Quebec at Christmastime in the late Forties. It centres around Benoit (played by Jacques Gagnon), a young orphan in his early teens. He lives with his Uncle Antoine (played by Jean Duceppe) and his Aunt Cécile (played by Olivette Thibault) and works in their general store. Benoit's Uncle Antoine is also the village's undertaker. Mon oncle Antoine unfolds over a 24 hour period, during which young Benoit grows up considerably.

For those unfamiliar with Canadian history, Mon oncle Antoine is set in a region of Quebec that was the centre of asbestos mining there. The film takes place during the period known as "La Grande Noirceur" (literally in English "the Great Darkness").  La Grande Noirceur refers to the period when Maurice Duplessis was the premier of Quebec and the province's politics were dominated by the conservative party called the Union Nationale. The Union Nationale favoured rural areas over urban areas, were extremely anti-Communist, and were also very anti-labour union. In fact, Maurice Durplessis's time as premier was marked by several strikes. Mon oncle Antoine takes place not long before the Asbestos Strike of 1949, when asbestos miners went on strike. Today the miner's demands (which included a small increase in wages and the elimination of asbestos dust in and outside the mills) would not seem particularly remarkable, but in Quebec in the Forties they were positively revolutionary. The strike would prove pivotal in the career of Pierre Trudeau.

Because of the time and place in which it is set, there is a small undercurrent of social and political commentary in Mon oncle Antoine. We see the resentment of the local Quebecers towards the "English" (actually English speaking Canadians, not people from England). We see the poverty and we see how hard their lives are. At its heart, however, Mon oncle Antoine is a coming of age story. In the course of 24 hours Benoit witnesses the pettiness of the villagers, hears his Uncle Antoine confess the regrets of his life, witnesses a sexual transgression, has his first real experience in dealing with death, and his first real experience with regards to sex. Mon oncle Antoine has often been called nostalgic and even heart warming, but it is also a film in which some rather dark undercurrents run throughout. At the time of its release some critics in Quebec were critical of Mon oncle Antoine because it departed from the province's history of direct cinema ( a documentary genre prevalent from 1958 to 1962) and that it did not deal with those political issues facing Quebec in the late Sixties and early Seventies. As it was, these criticisms largely fell on deaf ears.

Quite simply, Mon oncle Antoine received widespread critical acclaim immediately upon its release. It won the award for Best Feature at the 1971 Chicago International Film Festival. It was nominated for the Golden Prize at the 1971 Moscow Film Festival. It swept the Genie Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars), where it won eight different awards. Since then it has often been counted among the greatest Canadian films of all time. Sight & Sound twice voted it the best Canadian film ever made. The Toronto International Film Festival named it the greatest Canadian film three different times. In 1980 it was named the best film made in Quebec by Séquences magazine.

While Mon oncle Antoine would achieve critical acclaim and modest success upon its initial release, it was perhaps television that cemented its place as a classic in Canada. When the film made its television debut on Radio-Canada Télé in Quebec in October 1973, it garnered half of the audience. Mon oncle Antoine see similar successes when aired on the CBC.

Mon oncle Antoine remains counted among the greatest Canadian films of all time, although its director, Claude Jutra, has since been disgraced. In 2016, nearly thirty years after his death, allegations that he was a paedophile were published in the book Claude Jutra, biographie. Author Yves Lever offered no real evidence for the allegations, but then an interview with one of Jutra's alleged victims was published in La Presse. Awards, places, and streets named in his honour were swiftly renamed. As to Claude Jutra himself, he had committed suicide in 1986, after having been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease earlier in the decade.

If the allegations regarding Claude Jutra are true, certainly his actions are indefensible, and the rush to remove his name from awards, places, and streets is perfectly understandable. That having been said, it does not change the fact that Mon oncle Antoine remains an important achievement in Canadian film history. Claude Jutra may have been a monster, but he created a masterpiece.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Planet of the Apes Craze Remembered

It was fifty years ago today that the movie Planet of the Apes premiered at the Capitol in New York City. I plan to do a more in-depth post on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its wide release (April 3), but today I would like to take a moment to remember the Planet of the Apes craze of the mid-Seventies.

Upon its initial release in 1968 Planet of the Apes proved to be a huge success. It made $32,589,624 at the box office and was the 9th highest grossing film for the year. Such success was not lost on 20th Century Fox, and as a result it would be followed by four sequels: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). Each film made less than the one before it, so that in 1973 it looked like Battle for the Planet of the Apes would be the last in the franchise. As it turned out, however, the franchise's brightest days were actually ahead.

Quite simply, on September 14 1973 CBS showed Planet of the Apes on the CBS Friday Night Movie. It was followed by Beneath the Planet of the Apes on October 26 and Escape from the Planet of the Apes on November 16. The Planet of the Apes movies achieved very high ratings for CBS. They also created a Planet of the Apes craze, five years after the first movie was released. Quite simply, there would be more Planet of the Apes merchandise available than had been when the movies were still being made. In 1974 20th Century Fox would even release all five movies to theatres, so that cinemas could show them back to back. Posters for the movies featured the tagline, "20th Century Fox wants you to...Go Ape!"

In 1974 Marvel Comics (under the Curtis Magazines imprint) began a black and white comic magazine titled Planet of the Apes. The magazine featured both adaptations of the movies as well as original stories. It ran until 1977 for 28 issues. It was followed in 1975  by a more traditional, colour comic book titled Adventures on the Planet of the Apes. Adventures on the Planet of the Apes adapted the first two movies and ran for eleven issues, from October 1975 to December 1976.

It was also in 1974 that Mego Corporation started a line of Planet of the Apes action figures, which proved to be one of their most popular lines. The first year included figures of the Planet of the Apes figures Cornelius, Zira, Dr. Zaius, a gorilla soldier, and an astronaut. In 1975 they issued figures based on the Planet of the Apes TV series (more on that in a bit), which included Galen, Alan Virdon, Peter Burke, General Urko, and General Ursus. The Apes Craze would come to an end, and Mego issued no new Planet of the Apes figures after 1975.

There would also be a wide array of other merchandise in addition to comic books and action figures. In 1974 ADDAR Plastics Co. issued a series of models based on Planet of the Apes. The models included figure kits of such characters as Caesar, Cornelius, Dr. Zira, and Dr. Zaius, as well as such kits as the Jail Wagon and the Tree House. Power Records issued book-and-record sets based on Planet of the Apes. There were such diverse Planet of the Apes items on store shelves in the mid-Seventies as Halloween costumes from Ben Cooper, masks by Don Post Studios, a plastic cup, a sub-machine gun by Mattel, and so on. Topps, who had issued trading cards based on Planet of the Apes (1968) in 1968, issued a series of cards based on the Planet of the Apes TV show.

Among the best remembered products of the Planet of the Apes craze was a short-lived, live action TV series. Producer Arthur P. Jacobs had conceived of a Planet of the Apes TV series as early as 1971, thinking that Conquest of the Planet of the Apes would be the last film in the series. As it turned out, there would be one more film (Battle of the Planet of the Apes). Unfortunately, Arthur P. Jacobs died on June 27 1973. That did not mean that there would not be a Planet of the Apes TV series. With the success of the Planet of the Apes movies on CBS, CBS and 20th Century Fox then went forward with a TV show based on the films. The TV series Planet of the Apes debuted on September 13 1974. Unfortunately, it met with low ratings. It ended its run on December 20 1974 after 14 episodes.

The 1974 Planet of the Apes series would not be the last TV show based on the movies. In 1975 a Saturday morning cartoon based on the films debuted. Return to the Planet of the Apes differed from the movies in that the apes had 20th Century technology, not unlike Pierre Boulle's original novel. The apes had cars, movies, television sets, and so on. Return to the Planet of the Apes did not prove successful, ending after thirteen episodes. With the Planet of the Apes craze coming to an end, Return to the Planet of the Apes would be the last new Planet of the Apes material with the exception of comic books published in the Nineties by Malibu Comics until Tim Burton's re-imagining of Planet of the Apes in 2001.

In all the Planet of the Apes craze lasted only from about 1973 to 1975, with Marvel's black and white magazine ending its run in 1977. That having been said, the craze would have a lasting impact. Quite simply, it introduced the Planet of the Apes to many youngsters who were too young to see the first movie when it came out in 1968. This would in turn insure the continuing popularity of the franchise. While Planet of the Apes merchandise would not remain on store shelves past about 1976, the movies would continue to be shown frequently on television, sometimes back to back. The revival series that began in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes owes a good deal to the Planet of the Apes craze of the Seventies.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

John Mahoney Passes On

John Mahoney, best known for playing Martin Crane on the sitcom Frasier, as well as appearing in such films as Eight Men Out (1988) and The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), died on February 4 2018 at the age of 77. The cause was complications from throat cancer.

John Mahoney was born on June 20 1940 in Blackpool, Lancashire. Following World War II he visited his older, married sister in the United States, and he decided he wanted to move there. He returned to the United States in his late teens and served in the United States Army. He earned his citizenship in 1959. After serving in the military he earned a Bachelor's degree at Quincy College in Quincy, Illinois. He earned a Master's degree Western Illinois University in Macomb. He was a teacher for a time and later edited a medical journal. He also found himself unhappy. He decided to take up acting and took classes at the St. Nicholas Theatre in Chicago.

David Mamet was his teacher at the St. Nicholas Theatre, and Mr. Mahoney appeared in Mr. Mamet's The Water Engine. A fellow member of the cast, John Malkovich, invited him to join the Steppenwolf Theatre. At the Steppenwolf Theatre he appeared in such productions as Of Mice and Men, The Man Who Came to Dinner, and The Dresser.

In 1981 he made his movie debut in Hudson Taylor. He made his television debut in 1982 in an episode of Crime Story. In 1986 he made his Broadway debut in The House of Blue Leaves. In the Eighties he appeared in such films as Mission Hill (1982), Code of Silence (1985), The Manhattan Project (1986), Tin Men (1987), Moonstruck (1987), Eight Men Out (1988), Say Anything (1989), and The Russia House (1990). On television he guest starred on such shows as Lady Blue, Saturday Night Live, and American Playhouse. He was a regular on the short-lived series H.E.L.P. He appeared in such television movies as The Christmas Gift and Favourite Son.

In the Nineties Mr. Mahoney was a regular on the short-lived show The Human Factor. It was in 1993 that he began an eleven year stint on Frasier, playing the title psychiatrist's curmudgeonly father Martin Crane. He was twice nominated for the Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for the role. In the Nineties he guest starred on such shows as Cheers, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Tracy Takes On, and Becker. He appeared in such films as Barton Fink (1991), Striking Distance (1993), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), The American President (1995), and Primal Fear (1996). He provided voices for the animated films Antz (1998) and The Iron Giant (1999).

In the Naughts John Mahoney continued to appear on Frasier. He guest starred on ER, The Simpsons, and Burn Notice. He was a regular on the short lived show In Treatment. He appeared in the films Almost Salinas (2001), Dan in Real Life (2007), and Flipped (2010). He provided a voice for the animated film Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001).  He appeared on Broadway in Prelude to a Kiss. In the Teens he guest starred on Burn Notice, $#*! My Dad Says, and Foyle's War.  He had a recurring role on Hot in Cleveland.

John Mahoney was an extremely talented actor. This can be seen in his performance as Martin Crane. He was totally convincing as Martin, even though he was much younger than the character (in reality Mr. Mahoney was only around 15 years older than the show's star, Kelsey Grammer, who played his son). Of course, Mr. Mahoney played more than Martin Crane and his career is notable for the variety of roles he played. In Eight Men Out he played White Sox manager Kid Gleason. In Say Anything he played a divorced father. In The Iron Giant he was the voice of General Rogard. Throughout his career John Mahoney played a variety of roles, from police officers to doctors.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Ann Gillis Passes On

Ann Gillis, who played both Little Orphan Annie and Becky Thatcher, died on January 31 2018 at the age of 90.

Ann Gillis was born on February 12 1927 in Little Rock, Arkansas. She made her film debut when she was only seven years old, in an uncredited role in Men in White in 1934. She appeared in small roles in such films as The Great Ziegfeld (1936), The Singing Cowboy (1936), and The Garden of Allah (1936) before receiving her big break in the film King of Hockey in 1936. Arguably the height of Ann Gillis's career was in the late Thirties, when she appeared as Beck Thatcher in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938) and starred as the title character in Little Orphan Annie (1938).  In the late Thirties she also appeared in such movies as Off to the Races (1937), Peck's Bad Boy with the Circus (1938), Beau Geste (1939), All This, and Heaven Too (1940), and Little Men (1940).

In the Forties Miss Gillis appeared in such films as Nice Girl? (1941), Glamour Boy (1941), Meet the Stewarts (1942), Tough As They Come (1942), Man from Music Mountain (1943), A Wave, a WAC and a Marine (1944), The Time of Their Lives (1946), Sweetheart of Sigma Chi (1946), and Big Town After Dark (1947). She more or less retired after 1947 and only appeared in a few television shows for much of the Fifties and Sixties. She made her television debut in 1951 on the sci-fi anthology Out There and then guest starred on such shows as Studio One, BBC Sunday-Night Play, Man of the World, Espionage, and The Saint. Her last appearance on screen was as Poole's mother in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Monday, February 5, 2018

Super Bowl Commercials 2018

The Super Bowl is often counted as one of the big events in the American calendar. That having been said, I suspect a lot of people look forward to the commercials that air during the game more than the game itself. As someone who prefers the commercials to the game (in fact, I don't even watch the Super Bowl--I watch the commercials later), I have to confess that I was somewhat disappointed in this year's adverts. Unlike the past few years most advertisers eschewed politics and instead made commercials that tried to be funny (usually a good thing, IMHO). And I cannot emphasise "tried" enough. The M&M's commercial with Danny DeVito had potential, but it ultimately fell flat. Amazon's advertisement didn't work for me because, quite frankly, I would just as soon Alexa lose its voice (I truly despise virtual assistants).  I didn't find a lot of the Super Bowl commercials very funny and some didn't seem that special either, almost as if they could have debuted during a summer rerun of Blue Bloods.

While this year's Super Bowl commercials weren't particularly funny, they also steered clear of controversy for the most part. There was nothing as disturbing as Nationwide's "dead kid" commercial from a  few years ago. That is not to say this year's Super Bowl commercials were entirely free of controversy. A Dodge commercial used the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a voiceover to sell their trucks. Outrage on the part of viewers was swift and immediate, as they took to Twitter to take Dodge to task for their sheer tastelessness. Strangely enough, the particular sermon  from which Dodge lifted the Rev. Dr. King's words addressed, among other things, the dangers of overspending on material goods. Somehow Dodge apparently missed that.

While I was disappointed in most of this year's commercials, I do have to say that Tide rolled out some of the best (and most meta) Super Bowl commercials ever.  The Tide ads were a series of commercials  starring David Harbour of Stranger Things. They began as if they were for cars or beer, only to have them turn out to be for Tide instead. The spots were truly funny and truly witty as well.

Of course, several movie trailers also aired during the Super Bowl. In the past it has generally been the big blockbusters that Hollywood chose to advertise during the big game. Certainly some blockbusters were advertised this year: Han Solo, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, and Marvel's Avengers: Infinity War, among others. Other film trailers just seemed out of place as they were not what one would consider "Hollywood blockbusters".  A Quiet Place, Skyscraper, and Red Sparrow just did not seem like the sort of movies whose trailers would debut during the Super Bowl . Here I want to stress that I am not saying that these are not necessarily good movies. In fact, I would rather see A Quiet Place in the theatre than another Jurassic Park or Mission: Impossible movie. It looks very interesting That having been said, they don't seem typical of the sort of movies usually advertised during the Super Bowl.

Anyhow, I am hoping that next year's batch of Super Bowl commercials will be better over all than this year's batch.  At the very least, at least there was nothing as truly frightening as Mountain Dew's creepy PuppyMonkeyBaby from two years ago....

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The 100th Anniversary of Ida Lupino's Birth

It seems likely that most people know Ida Lupino only as  a beautiful and talented actress from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Classic movie buffs know otherwise. We know that she was not only a talented actress, but a talented director as well. Over the years she directed several films and several hours worth of television. As only the second woman to join the Directors Guild of America (Dorothy Arzner was the first), Ida Lupino was a true pioneer. She was born 100 years ago today.

Ida Lupino was born into an acting dynasty. Miss Lupino's grandfather was actor and dancer George Hook. George Hook took the surname "Lupino" after working with the Lupino family, another acting dynasty that had migrated from Italy to England in the 17th Century. Yet other members of the Hook family would take the surname "Lane", taken from Sarah Lane, the director of the Britannia Theatre in Hoxton. Among George Hook's children were actor Arthur Lupino and Ida Lupino's father, music hall entertainer Stanley Lupino. Besides Ida Lupino, another one of George Hook's famous grandchildren was music hall performer Lupino Lane, whose great aunt was Sarah Lane.

Interestingly enough, Ida Lupino had wanted to be a writer. In fact, she wrote her first play when she was only seven years old. Of course, her father wanted her to go into the family business, so after playing various parts as a child, she enrolled in the Royal Academy for Dramatic Art. She made her film debut when she was very young, appearing at age 13 in The Love Race (1931), which starred her father Stanley Lupino.

It was not long before Ida Lupino was playing leads in such British films as Money for Speed (1933), I Lived with You (1933), and High Finance (1933). Paramount spotted her in Money for Speed and gave her a five year contract. It was then that she moved to Hollywood. Her first film for Paramount was Search for Beauty (1934). Over the next several years she appeared in such films as Peter Ibbetson (1935), Yours for the Asking (1936), Fight for Your Lady (1937), and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) for such studios as Paramount, United Artists, RKO, and Columbia. Her big break as an actress came with The Light That Failed in 1939. It was following The Light That Failed that Ida Lupino was taken more seriously as an actress. In fact, her performance in the film would lead to one of her best known roles. Impressed by her performance in The Light That Failed, Warner Bros. cast Miss Lupino as Lana Carlsen in They Drive By Night (1940).

Although Ida Lupino did not emerge as a major star in the Forties, she did become a very respected actress with good deal of critical acclaim. During the decade she appeared in such films as Ladies in Retirement (1941), The Hard Way (1943), and Pillow to Post (1945). At times she clashed with Jack Warner, the head of Warner Bros. She was suspended from the studio when she rejected a role in Kings Row (1942).  It was neither her first nor last clash with the studio, so it was probably no surprise to anyone when she left Warner Bros. in 1947.

As it was, it would not be long before Ida Lupino embarked on a new career. It was while she was on her various suspensions through the years that Miss Lupino was able to observe films being made more closely than she had been while acting. As a result she took an interest in directing. She and her husband at the time, Collier Young, formed their own production company through which they would make independent films. That having been said, her directorial debut would come about through unusual circumstances. With screenwriter Paul Jarrico she wrote the film Not Wanted (1949) about a girl who has a baby out of wedlock. Elmer Clifton was set to direct the movie, but had a heart attack and as a result could not complete it. Miss Lupino then took over directing the film.

Like Not Wanted, most of Ida Lupino's films dealt with issues not often addressed by Hollywood at the time. Her first film on which she was credited as director, Never Fear (1939), dealt with an issue Miss Lupino knew all too well. Never Fear centred on a young dancer crippled by polio. While young Ida Lupino had also suffered with polio. In her films Ida Lupino also dealt with such issues as rape (1950's Outrage) and bigamy (1952's The Bigamist). With The Hitch-Hiker (1953) she not only became the first woman to direct a film noir, but also directed one of the most important films in the genre.

The Bigamist would be the last film Ida Lupino would direct until The Trouble With Angels in 1966, but she would have a very successful directorial career in television. She directed multiple episodes of the classic shows Have Gun--Will Travel, General Electric Theatre, and Thriller. She also directed episodes of such shows as The Donna Reed Show, 77 Sunset Strip, The Rifleman, The Untouchables, The Fugitive, The Twilight Zone, Gilligan's Island, and The Virginian.  Ida Lupino had her own idiosyncratic directorial style. She was referred to as "Mother" and the back of her director's chair read "Mother of Us All". Rather than ordering the cast and crew around, she would phrase what she wanted done as a suggestion and as a result it would always get done the way that Miss Lupino wanted it.

Of course, after Ida Lupino began directing, she also continued acting, although following the Fifties much of her acting career would be spent on television. She was a frequent guest star on Four Star Playhouse and starred alongside her husband Howard Duff in the sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve. She would go onto guest star on such shows as The Twilight Zone, Bonanza, The Virginian, The Wild Wild West, Batman, The Mod Squad, The Streets of San Francisco, Columbo, and Ellery Queen. She returned to films in the Seventies, appearing in Junior Bonner (1972), The Devil's Rain (1975), The Food of the Gods (1976), and My Boys Are Good Boys (1978).

Ida Lupino retired from filmmaking in 1978. She died in 1995 at the age of 77 from a stroke while undergoing treatment for colon cancer.

As an actress Ida Lupino was sometimes described as "the poor man's Bette Davis". As a director she jokingly referred to herself as "the poor man's Don Siegel." To a large degree neither of these things were particularly accurate. While Ida Lupino had considerable talent much as Bette Davis had, she also considerable sex appeal, which was something that Miss Davis lacked. Quite simply, while Ida Lupino could play most of the roles that Bette Davis did, it is difficult seeing Miss Davis play the sort of femmes fatales that Miss Lupino so often did. Of course, both actresses were very versatile. In the case of Ida Lupino, she played everything from the ambitious Helen Chernen in The Hard Way to socialite turned travelling salesman in Pillow to Post farm girl Libby Saul in Deep Valley.  Although best known for her dramas, Ida Lupino could play comedy. Aside from Pillow to Post, she also guest starred in the Bonanza episode, "The Saga of Annie O'Toole".

As to being "the poor man's Don Siegel", while both he and Miss Lupino were great directors, an argument can be made that Ida Lupino was the more versatile of the two. Don Seigel is best known for such suspense thrillers and action films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Killers (1964), Coogan's Bluff (1968), and Dirty Harry (1971). Including her career directing television shows, Miss Lupino directed in a diverse number of genres. Many of her films were issue-oriented dramas. The Hitch-hiker is both film noir and a suspense movie. The Trouble with Angels was a comedy. With regards to television, Ida Lupino directed shows in a diverse number of genres, including Westerns (Have Gun--Will Travel), horror (Thriller), crime (The Untouchables), and comedy (Bewitched), among others. Had Ida Lupino directed in an era that gave women more opportunities in the field, one has to suspect that she would have directed many more films in a wide range of genres.

Although to this day Ida Lupino is remembered as a very talented actress, she was so much more. Miss Lupino was a pioneering director, screenwriter, and producer at a time in Hollywood when opportunities for women were much more limited than they are now. What is more, she covered topics in her films that were largely ignored by Hollywood at the time. In the end Ida Lupino wasn't simply a legendary actress. She was a true pioneer.

(For a closer look at Ida Lupino's directorial career, read my blog post "Ida Lupino as Director" from many years ago)