Saturday, April 21, 2018

TCM Spotlight on Movie Series on Tuesday in May

Movie series are a concept familiar to modern day audiences. Among the many examples are the Star Wars series, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and, most notably, the James Bond series. As common as movie series might seem now, they were even more common during the Golden Age of Hollywood. So great was the popularity of such series as that the Blondie series, The Cisco Kid, and yet others racked up a large number of entries over the years. With but a few exceptions (the entire Thin Man series and the early Tarzan entries), most films belonging to movie series were programmers or B-movies, the sort of movies that would occupy the bottom half of a double bill. Regardless, they proved very popular and were often guaranteed money makers for the studios that made them.

Next month the TCM Spotlight will be on movies series. Every Tuesday night and Wednesday night next month Turner Classic Movies will air a number of movies in series starting at 8 PM Eastern/7 PM Central. May 1 sees TCM airing entries in the Blondie and Mexican Spitfire series. On May2 TCM will air entries in the Maisie and Great Gildersleeve series.  On May 8 they are airing movies in the Tarzan series. May 9 viewers will be treated to entries in the Jungle Jim and Bomba the Jungle Boy series. On May 15 Turner Classic Movies is airing entries in the Andy Hardy series. On May 16 they'll be showing films from the Five Little Peepers and Dr. Kildare series. May 22 sees movies from the Nancy Drew series and the Miss Marple series. May 23 TCM will show the "Thin Man" movies and Perry Mason movies. On May 29 they will be airing movies in the Boston Blackie and Bulldog Drummond series. Finally, on May 30 TCM will show entries in the Lassie and Rusty series.

If you are a fan of the old movie series, then you will definitely want to tune into TCM on Tuesday nights next month!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Mystery Street (1950)

As a movie genre the police procedural reached prominence in the years following World War II. It was a period that saw the release of such films as Quai des Orfèvres (1947), The Naked City (1948), and He Walked By Night (1948).  Among the very best of the police procedurals was Mystery Street, in 1950. Indeed, in some respects Mystery Street could be considered revolutionary in that it incorporated a good deal of forensic science into its plot. It could quite rightfully be considered the forerunner of such TV shows as Quincy M.E. and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

In Mystery Street a B-girl's skeleton (she was played by Jan Sterling) is found long after she was murdered. State Police Lt. Peter Morales (played by Ricardo Montalban) is assigned to the case. To make any progress on the case at all, he must enlist the help of Dr. McAdoo (played by Bruce Bennett) of the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine at Harvard University. Through a combination of Lt. Morales's detective work and the forensic science of Dr. McAdoo, the murderer is eventually revealed.

Mystery Street was based on a story by Leonard Spigelgass (for which he received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story), who had previously wrote the screenplays for The Big Street (1942) and I Was a Male War Bride (1949). Mr. Spigelgass's story was adapted by Sydney Boehm (who had previously wrote the screenplay for the film noir The High Wall) and Richard Brooks (who would later write the screenplay for The Blackboard Jungle). It was directed by John Sturges, who would go onto direct such films as Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and The Great Escape (1963).

Mystery Street is significant as the first commercial film to be shot primarily on location in the Boston area, with scenes shot not only in Boston itself, but at Cape Cod and Harvard University as well. In fact, the film was initially going to be titled Murder at Harvard. MGM acknowledged the university in the credits, "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer wishes to thank the president and fellows of Harvard College for their generous cooperation in the making of this motion picture." The on-location shooting makes Mystery Street much more realistic than if it had simply been shot on a Hollywood backlot.

Of course, Mystery Street is also significant as perhaps the first feature film to incorporate a good deal of forensic science into its plot. At one point in the plot Lt. Morales and Dr. McAdoo compare the photographs of 86 different women to the photograph of the victim's skull in an effort to identify her. In another sequence they examine the car in which she was murdered. This might not seem particularly exciting, but on screen it proves to be more riveting than the similar investigations seen on such TV shows as those in the CSI franchise. Earlier police procedurals painstakingly examined police procedure. Mystery Street may have been the first to examine forensic science.

This is not to say that Mystery Street's sole focus was on forensic science. Lt. Morales's family had only recently migrated to the United States, so there is also a bit of class conflict present in the film. This is particularly true in his dealings with James Joshua Harkley (played by Edmond Ryan), whose family arrived in North America in the 17th Century, before the United States was even founded. 

While Mystery Street was made on a relatively low budget (particularly for an MGM film), it still did not make a profit at the box office. In fact, it lost $284,000. That having been said, it did receive good notices from critics, with many applauding its attention to detail. It also received a nomination for Best Writing, Motion Picture Story for Leonard Spigelgass.

In many respects the poor showing of Mystery Street at the box office is regrettable. In many ways it is an incredible film, particularly in its use of forensic science and some very well done set pieces. As Lt. Morales and Dr. McAdoo, Ricardo Montalban and Bruce Bennett make a great team. Mystery Street could have easily provided the basis for a series of films or even, later in the Fifties, a TV show. Aside from Messrs. Montalban and Bennett, the film benefits from some great performances, from Jan Sterling to Elsa Lanchester. As might be expected of a film shot by John Alton, the cinematography is amazing. John Alton was the cinematographer on several films noirs, including He Walked by Night (1948) and Raw Deal (1948). His first film immediately following Mystery Street was Father of the Bride (1950) and he would later shoot Elmer Gantry (1960).

Mystery Street is overall a remarkable film, to the point that it is hard to believe that it was considered a B movie upon its initial release. In fact, I would say that it is one of the best films that John Sturges ever made. It is a must-see for any fan of film noir, police procedurals, or films featuring a good deal of forensic science.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Superman Phenomenon in the Late Thirties and Early Forties

It was eighty years ago yesterday, on April 18 1938,  that Action Comics no. 1 (June 1938) hit newsstands. It was significant as it featured the first appearance of Superman. Today we somewhat take Superman for granted, but his first appearance would prove revolutionary. Superman would usher in a whole slough of other superheroes in comic books, some of who, like the Man of Steel, are still being published this day. What is more, Superman proved to be an outright phenomenon, comparable to Star Wars upon its first release in 1977.

Indeed, sales for Action Comics no. 1 were a sign of Superman's popularity to come.  Its initial print run was 200,000 copies, which sold out very quickly. Despite the fact that the Man of Tomorrow featured prominently on the cover, it would take some time for National Allied Publications (one of the companies that would become DC Comics) to realise that it was Superman that had spurred the issue's sales. Action Comics was an anthology title, so that it also included such features as Zatara (a magician character) and Tex Thompson (an adventurer) among others. In fact, Superman would not appear on the cover of Action Comics again until no. 7 (December 1938). During all that time the circulation of Action Comics rose until it approached 1,000,000 copies a month.

Eventually National Allied Publications realised that it was Superman that was spurring sales of Action Comics. Others did as well, and it was only nine months after his first appearance that Superman expanded into a medium beyond comic books. It was on January 16 1939 that a Superman daily newspaper comic strip was first published.  On November 5 1939 a Superman Sunday strip was added. At the height of its success the Superman daily strip appeared in 300 newspapers and had a readership of over 20 million. In all it would last 27 years, ending in May 1966. The "Superman" newspaper strip would have a lasting influence on the Superman mythos. In his initial appearances in the comic books, Superman's archenemy Lex Luthor had red hair. It was the newspaper comic strip that established him as being bald.  Mr. Mxyzptlk, the imp who would plague Superman throughout the years, would also make his first appearance in the newspaper strip. The newspaper strip would also be the first medium to feature Clark Kent changing into Superman in a phone booth. 

Given the popularity of Superman, it should come as no surprise that he soon received his own title, the first superhero to do so. Superman no. 1 was cover dated summer 1939.  He also began being featured on the cover of every issue of Action Comics starting with no. 19 (December 1939). It was in the pages of Superman no. 1 that Superman's official fan club, the Supermen of America, was launched. For ten cents young (and maybe not so young) Superman fans would receive a welcome letter from Superman himself, a membership certificate, Superman's Secret Code Manual, and a pinback button featuring the Man of Steel himself.  The Supermen of America proved to be very successful. By 1941 it had a quarter of a million members, including movie star Mickey Rooney, Spanky McFarland of Our Gang fame, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia's two children, and even six Annapolis midshipmen (according to an article in the June 21 1941 issue of The Saturday Evening Post).

Superman did not stop at receiving his own title or a newspaper comic strip, but eventually conquered  the medium of radio as well. The Adventures of Superman was sponsored by Hecker's H-O Oats and made its debut on February 12 1940. The radio show would have a lasting impact on the character of Superman. It was on the radio show that Superman is first portrayed as flying (in the comic books originally Superman could only jump really far). Both Perry White and Jimmy Olson originated on the radio show and were late introduced into comic books. It also included the famous introduction later used in cartoons and on the 1950s TV show:  "Faster than an airplane, more powerful than a locomotive, impervious to bullets. 'Up in the sky - look!' 'It's a giant bird.' 'It's a plane.' 'It's Superman!'"  The Adventures of Superman also introduced Kryptonite and on the radio show that Superman first teamed up with Batman and Robin. The Adventures of Superman proved to be very popular. Beginning as a syndicated show, it moved to the Mutual Broadcasting System on August 31 1942  and then ABC on October 29 1949. The radio show would run until March 1 1951 for a total of  a little over eleven years.

By 1941 Superman had become a veritable phenomenon, so much so that various newspapers and magazines were covering him. What is more, a tonne of Superman merchandise was already on store shelves by that time. In 1940 Ideal Novelty and Toy Company manufactured a Superman doll made of wood with articulated joints, making Superman the first superhero to have an action figure based upon him (although the term "action figure" would not be coined until the Sixties). That same year Saalfield manufactured a Superman puzzle set. Daisy, best known for their BB guns, manufactured a Superman Krypto-Raygun in 1940. It was also in 1940 that Marx made a Superman rollover airplane tin toy, and Gum Inc. issued a set of Superman trading cards, the first such cards ever to feature a comic book superhero. There were even Superman Valentine's Day cards, made by Quality Art Novelty Company in 1940. In the early Forties there would be a wide variety of Superman merchandise, from Superman Bread made by Saylor's Bread in 1941 to Syroco Superman figures manufactured in 1942. An entire list of Superman goods made in the early Forties would take a complete book to detail completely.

While Superman conquered both radio and newspapers, it would be some time before he would conquer live action films. In 1939 Republic Pictures began pre-production on a serial to be titled The Adventures of Superman. It was even announced in trade publications. Unfortunately, negotiations with National Allied Publications fell through and as a result Republic did not make the Superman serial as announced. The script for the serial was instead rewritten to become the serial The Mysterious Dr. Satan. Republic attempted to get the rights to do a Superman serial again in 1941, but failed to do so as the film rights had already been acquired by Paramount (more on that in a bit). Ultimately Republic wound up making a serial based on Superman's archrival, with regards to sales: The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941). Of course, there would eventually be a Superman serial. Columbia released Superman, starring Kirk Alyn, on January 5 1948.

It was a mark of Superman's popularity that on July 3 1940 there was a Superman Day at the New York World's Fair. The event not only included many of those involved in the publication of Superman (co-creator Jerry Siegel, publishers Harry Donenfeld and Jack Leibowitz, and All-American Comics publisher Max C. Gaines), but the first ever live actor in a Superman suit. Some have identified the actor as Ray Middleton, who would later appear in the Broadway production of Annie Get Your Gun and the movies Hurricane Smith (1941) and 1776 (1972), but others disagree that it is. There seems to be no proof either way. Superman Day also included a live broadcast of The Adventures of Superman from the fairgrounds.

Such was the popularity of Superman that not only was he the first superhero to have his own comic book and the first superhero to have his own action figure, but he was also the first superhero to be included as a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The Superman balloon appeared in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 21 1940. Sadly, the balloon would be redesigned as football player for the 1941 parade. There would be two more Superman balloons in the parade. The second would appear in the parade from 1966 to 1969. The third was the second largest balloon in the parade of all time and appeared from 1980 until 1987. During the Christmas season of 1940 Macy's also featured a Superman exhibit. Admissions cost 30 cents and made a total of $30,000.

While Superman would not appear in a live action film until 1948, that did not mean that he did not conquer the big screen in the early Forties. With the success of Superman in various media, it was natural that Paramount Pictures would take an interest in the Man of Steel. The studio approached animators Max and Dave Fleischer, whose animated shorts they distributed,  with the offer of producing a series of Superman cartoons. The Fleischer brothers were not particularly keen on making cartoons starring the Man of Steel, and because of this they quoted a then astronomical budget of $100,000 for the series. To their shock and perhaps to their dismay as well, Paramount accepted the offer. It was because of the Superman cartoons that Republic could not get the film rights to their planned Superman serial.

The first Superman animated short, entitled "Superman," but also known as "The Mad Scientist," debuted on September 26 1941. Budgeted at $50,000 (a then unheard of amount for an animated short subject), "Superman" proved to be a hit at theatres. It also received its share of acclaim, even being nominated for Best Animated Short Film at the 14th Academy Awards (Walt Disney's "Lend a Paw" won). "Superman (AKA "Mad Scientist")" would be followed by 16 more "Superman" animated shorts. Paramount ended the series in 1943. While very successful, the "Superman" cartoons were very expensive, costing on average $30,000.

It was in 1942 that Superman conquered the medium of books. That year the novel The Adventures of Superman by George Lowther was published. It included illustrations by Joe Schuster, co-creator of Superman. The novel was significant in including the first description of life on Superman's home planet Krypton in any detail. It also forever changed the names of Superman's birth parents. Originally named Jor-L and Lora, the novel renamed them Jor-El and Lara. The novel went from the destruction of Krypton through Clark Kent being raised by Eben and Sarah Kent (they wouldn't receive their current names of Jonathan and Martha until nearly the Fifties) to becoming Superman and fighting Nazi spies.

As might be expected given his popularity, references to Superman in pop culture occur relatively early in the character's history. On October 9 1940 Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel was interviewed on the popular radio programme The Fred Allen Show.  The episode also featured an appearance by publisher Harry Donenfeld. In the 1942 movie The Man Who Came to Dinner, Sheridan Whiteside refers to Superman. Parodies of Superman appeared relatively early, with the 1943 Bugs Bunny cartoon "Super-Rabbit" being an example. As mentioned earlier, Superman was covered heavily in newspapers and magazines of the era, from The Saturday Evening Post to Look to Time.

Given the meteoric rise of Superman's popularity in the early Forties, it should come as no surprise that he continued to be relatively popular into the late Forties, even after superheroes in general had declined in popularity. A plethora of Superman merchandise still filled store shelves. In 1948 Columbia released the serial Superman, marking his first live action appearance. Columbia followed it with the serial Atom Man vs. Superman in 1950.  In 1951 there would be Superman's feature film debut in Superman and the Mole Men with George Reeves in the lead role. Mr. Reeves would also play Superman in the TV series Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1951 to 1958. Since he was first introduced in 1939, there has not been a decade that has gone by without Superman appearing in some other medium besides comic books. Although not as popular as he once was, the lasting popularity of Superman began with what an almost immediate rise in popularity following his introduction. After all, it is not every character who has a newspaper comic strip, a radio show, and a series of theatrical cartoons within three years of his first appearance.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Late Great Harry Anderson

Harry Anderson, the magician and actor who starred in the classic sitcom Night Court and played a recurring character on Cheers, died on April 16 2018 at the age of 65.

Harry Anderson was born on October 14 1952 in Newport, Rhode Island. His family moved frequently when he was growing up, so that he lived in such cities as Chicago, New York, St. Louis, and New Orleans. He was 16 when his family moved to California. It was there that he became a professional magician, practising his skills in Los Angeles and making a living as a street magician in San Francisco. In his late teens and early twenties he travelled the country performing magic. It was in Austin, Texas that he met the juggler named Turk Pipkin. The two formed a partnership and performed around the United States. Mr. Pipkin would later guest star on Night Court.

Harry Anderson's success as a magician led to appearances on The Mike Douglas Show and Saturday Night Live. His appearances on Saturday Night Live led to him being cast in the recurring role of Harry the Hat on Cheers. His turn as Harry the Hat led to him being cast as Judge Harry Stone on the hit sitcom Night Court. He was nominated three times for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for the role. Night Court ran for nine seasons. In the Eighties he also guest starred on such shows as Tales from the Darkside, The Magical World of Disney, and Tales from the Crypt. He appeared in the television mini-series It. Mr. Anderson also appeared in the movies The Escape Artist  (1982) and She's Having a Baby (1988).

Following Night Court he starred as Dave Barry in Dave's World, which ran for four seasons. In the Nineties he also guest starred on such shows as Parker Lewis Can't Lose, Hearts Afire, Night Stand, The John Larroquette Show, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Noddy, and Explore Our World. He appeared in a television adaptation of the play Harvey.

In 2002 Mr. Anderson moved to New Orleans where he opened a magic and curiosity shop. In 2005 he opened a nightclub called Oswald's Speakeasy. In the Naughts he guest starred on the shows Son of the Beach and 30 Rock. He and his wife attempted to remain in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, but eventually moved to Asheville, North Carolina. Harry Anderson made his last appearance on screen in the film A Matter of Faith in 2014.

Harry Anderson was marvellous in the roles of Harry the Hat on Cheers and Judge Harry Stone on Night Court. Between the two shows he created two of the most memorable characters to emerge on television in the Eighties. He also appeared in other memorable roles, including the absent-minded Professor Henry Crawford on The Magical World of Disney and Richie Tozier in the mini-series It. As good as he was as an actor, Mr. Anderson always considered himself a magician first. And he was a very good magician. When it came to slight-of-hand perhaps no one matched Harry Anderson. With a quick and easy delivery, when it came to magic, Mr. Anerson's hand was definitely quicker than most people's eyes. Enormously gifted as both a magician and an actor, it is sad to know that he is gone.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The 100th Birthday of William Holden

It was 100 years ago today that William Holden was born in O'Fallon, Illinois. He was one of the biggest stars from the mid-Fifties into the early Sixties, ranking every year in the top twenty of Quigley Publishing's Top Money Making Stars poll of theatre owners. He also won won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Stalag 17 (1953).  While his career would decline in the Sixties, he would make a comeback in the Seventies. To this day he remains one of the best remembered stars of the late 20th Century.

If William Holden was so successful as an actor, it was perhaps because he was extremely versatile. He was handsome enough to be a romantic lead, but looked rugged enough that he could be equally convincing in action films. Indeed, for many people he might always be womanising playboy David Larrabee in Sabrina (1954). Although it would be his best known romantic comedy, it was not the only one in which he appeared. He was reunited with Sabrina co-star Audrey Hepburn in Paris When It Sizzles (1964), once more playing a playboy. He also appeared in The Moon is Blue (1954), in which he also played a playboy (who also happened to be an architect). William Holden was very adept at playing the sort of roles for which Cary Grant was well known, that of charming playboys who always got the girl. He also starred in such romantic comedies as Dear Ruth (1947) and Born Yesterday (1950).

Of course, not every comedy William Holden made was a romantic comedy. What is more, some of the comedies in which Mr. Holden appeared could be very dark. Stalag 17 (1954) is arguably as much a comedy as it is a drama. Indeed, it is set in a Nazi prisoner of war camp during World War II. What is more, Mr. Holden's character is a far cry from the charming playboys he sometimes played. Sgt. J. J. Sefton was a hard-nosed cynic who came from somewhat less than wealthy circumstances. As strange as it might sound, the satire Network (1976) is arguably darker than Stalag 17. In the film he plays Howard Beale, a long time evening news anchor who has a psychotic break, an event that his network takes full advantage of. Mr. Holden was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor and some might argue that he should have won.

While William Holden made a number of comedies, he is also well known for his action-adventure films. Indeed, two of his most famous movies could be counted as action-adventure films. The first was the epic war movie The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), in which he played Commander Shears. Held in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, Shears and the other prisoners are forced to work on the construction of a railway bridge over the River Kwai. The second was The Wild Bunch (1969), the famous Western in which William Holden played ageing outlaw Pike Bishop. Over the years Mr. Holden appeared in so many action-adventure films that many probably identify him with that genre more than any other. He appeared in war movies such as Submarine Command (1951), The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), and The Devil's Brigade (1968). He appeared in Westerns such as Texas (1941), The Man from Colorado (1948), Streets of Laredo (1949), and The Horse Soldiers (1959). He even appeared in disaster movies, the most famous being The Towering Inferno (1954).

With Mr. Holden's talent he could easily play drama, and one of his most famous films is a drama. Indeed, it could be considered film noir. In Sunset Boulevard (1950) he played ill-fated screenwriter Joe Gillis. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role. He also played Hal Carter, the drifter who disrupts life in a small Kansas town in Picnic (1955). In Executive Suite (1954) he played Vice President for Design and Development Don Walling. The Dark Past (1948) was another film noir. This time he actually played a bad guy, psychotic killer Al Walker.

William Holden was an extremely talented and versatile actor, whose many roles have definitely left their mark on film history. The characters of William Holden remain recognisable to even casual film viewers, whether as Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard, Sefton in Stalag 17, Pike Bishop in The Wild Bunch, or Howard Beale in Network, or a few other roles. 100 years after his birth, William Holden remains one of the best remembered actors to emerge from Hollywood.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Godspeed Milos Forman

Milos Forman, who directed such films as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), Ragtime (1981), and Amadeus (1984), died April 13 2018 at the age of 86.

Milos Forman was born on February 18 1932 in Cáslav, Czechoslovakia. The Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938. He was only eight years old when his father was arrested by the Gestapo. His mother was arrested not long afterwards. Both were killed in death camps. During part of World War II he lived with his aunt. He was later taken in by the director of the local gas company in Cáslav. Following the war he attended a boarding school for orphans of the war. He attended film school in Prague.

In the late Fifties he served as assistant director on Dedecek automobil (1957) and Stenata (1958). He received his first directorial credit on the documentary Laterna magika II (1960). In the early Sixties he was an assistant director on Tam za lesem (1962).  He directed his first feature film Cerný Petr (1964 Black Peter). It was followed by Lásky jedné plavovlásky (1965 Loves of a Blonde) and Horí, má panenko (1967 The Fireman's Ball).  It was following the Soviet invasion of the Czech Republic that Milos Forman migrated to the United States.

Although it received the Grand Prix at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, Milos Forman's first film made in the United States, Taking Off (1971), did so poorly at the box office that Mr. Forman owed the studio $500. This was not the case with his next film. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) not only did well at the box office, but it also won the Oscars for Best Picture, Actor in Lead Role, Actress in Lead Role, Director, and Screenplay (becoming the first film to do so since It Happened One Night). One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was followed by Milos Forman's adaptation of the Broadway musical Hair (1979), which received mostly positive reviews, but did not perform well at the box office.

Milos Forman began the Eighties with Ragtime (1981), which was nominated for the eight Oscars. It was followed by Amadeus (1984), which won eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director).  He ended the decade with Valmont (1989).

In the Nineties Mr. Forman directed The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) and Man on the Moon (1999). In the Naughts he directed Goya's Ghosts (2006) and Dobre placená procházka (2009).

Milos Forman was a remarkable director. He had a gift for making movies about outsiders and nonconformists, from McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to Mozart in Amadeus. He also had a gift for making period pieces. Among his best films numbered Ragtime and Amadeus. He was also very versatile. During his career he directed documentaries, comedies, a musical, and dramas. The setting of his films varied as well. His movies were set in such diverse places as a mental hospital, a hippie commune, Turn of the Century New York City, and 18th Century France. What is more, he handled all of these diverse genres and settings with a skill and finesse most directors lacked. Few directors were as talented as Milos Forman.