Saturday, May 4, 2019

Star Wars Day

Happy Star Wars Day! May the 4th be with you. Star Wars Day is a day observed by Star Wars fans to honour the movie franchise. Here I must stress that May 4 is not the day Star Wars (1977) was released. Star Wars (1977) was released on May 25 1977 (what many of we fans consider to the be the Real Star Wars Day). As to why many observe May 4 as Star Wars Day, it would appear to be based around the pun "May the 4th be with you."

In fact, there is some evidence that the pun, "May the 4th be with you," actually came about before Star Wars Day. There is an apocryphal story that the phrase may have first been used on May 4 1979, when Margaret Thatcher assumed the office of Prime Minster of the United Kingdom. According to the story the Tories (Thatcher's party) placed an advert in The London Evening News that read, "May the Fourth Be with You, Maggie. Congratulations."

Whether or not this story is true, it was certainly used a debate over defence in the House of Commons on May 4 1994, as shown in the UK Parliament Hansard for that date. During the debate, Harry Cohen, the MP for Leyton, said, "May the Fourth is an appropriate date for a defence debate. My researcher, who is a bit of a wit, said that it should be called National Star Wars Day. He was talking about the film Star Wars rather than President Reagan's defence fantasy, and he added, 'May the fourth be with you.' That is a very bad joke; he deserves the sack for making it, but he is a good researcher."

In her 1999 book The Science of Star Wars, while discussing C-3PO's speech recognition capacity and the then current language technology project Verbmobil, former NASA astrophysicist Jeanne Cavales lists various phrases that are similar in sound to "May the Force be with you," including "May the fourth, be with you." While it seems unlikely that Star Wars fans would have paid attention to an ad placed in The London Evening News celebrating Margaret Thatcher or the UK Parliament Hansard, one can assume that a large number of them have read The Science of Star Wars. It seems possible, then, that some of those fans may have latched onto the phrase for their own.

Regardless, Star Wars Day appears to have emerged in the Naughts. An article from The Staten Island Real-Time News from 2007 reported that retailers in California were observing May 4 as Star Wars Day with discounts and giveaways. In 2008 a Facebook group called "Luke Skywalker Day: May the 4th" was created. It used the catchphrase, "May the 4th be with you."

It appears to have been in 2009 that Star Wars Day broke into the mainstream. The New York Daily News, KNBC in Los Angeles, and The Inquistr were among the outlets that did stories on Star Wars Day. In 2010 even more media outlets would cover Star Wars Day. ABC News, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Wired, and The Telegraph all did stories on Star Wars Day. KTLA in Los Angeles did a story on Star Wars Day for their evening news, on which they interviewed my dearest Vanessa Marquez, who was the biggest Star Wars fan I ever knew.

Since 2010 Star Wars Day has only grown, to the point that it is nearly ubiquitous on social media sites. The past many years, including this year, several news outlets have done stories on the day. California's legislature even declared May 4, Star Wars Day, this year.

Of course, as popular as Star Wars Day is, for many fans the real Star Wars Day remains May 25. As Vanessa explained in her interview with KTLA in 2010, it was on May 25 1977 that Star Wars was released. That having been said, neither Vanessa nor myself nor any other Star Wars fans I know object to May 4 being observed by many as "Star Wars Day." As I see it, it simply gives us another day to celebrate Star Wars!

Below is KTLA's story from May 4 2010, complete with the interview of my beloved Vanessa Marquez.

Friday, May 3, 2019

The Late Great Peter Mayhew

Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca in the Star Wars films and related Star Wars projects, died April 30 2019 at the age of 74.

Peter Mayhew was born on May 19 1944 in Barnes, Surrey. His enormous height was not due to gigantism, but instead due to Marfan syndrome. a genetic disorder which affects connective tissue. Mr. Mayhew was working in a hospital in 1976 when he was cast as the Minoton in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). It was shortly thereafter that he was cast as Chewbacca in the movie Star Wars (1977). He would reprise the role in successive Star Wars movies, including Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983), Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005), and Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015). He also reprised the role of Chewbacca on The Star Wars Holiday Special and served as a consultant on Chewbacca for the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars. He trained his successor, Joonas Suotamo, in playing the character for later Star Wars movies. Over the years he appeared as Chewbacca on several TV shows, including Donny and Marie, The Muppet Show, Late Night with David Letterman, and Glee.

Peter Mayhew also played other roles beyond Chewbacca. He appeared in the films Terror (1978), Yesterday Was a Lie (2008), and Killer Ink (2016). He guest starred on the television shows Hazell, The Kenny Everett Television Show, and Breaking In (on which he played himself). He had a regular role on the TV series Dark Towers.

Peter Mayhew was perfect for the role of Chewbacca, and not simply because of his height. While Chewbacca's well known roars were dubbed in by others later, it was Mr. Mayhew's movements, body language, and his eyes that made the character come alive. As George Lucas said in his tribute to Peter Mayhew following his death, "He was the closest any human being could be to a Wookiee: big heart, gentle nature...."

Of course, if Peter Mayhew was so great as Chewbacca, it was perhaps because he brought so much of himself to the character. Peter Mayhew has always been described as a gentle giant. His co-stars in the Star Wars movies always spoke of his kindness, his gentleness, and his sense of humour, and all of them counted him as a dear friend. Among Star Wars fans he was one of the most beloved  actors in the franchise. What is more, Peter Mayhew loved Star Wars fans back. I have quite a few friends who met Peter Mayhew, and all of them have said that he was the kindest, gentlest gentleman one could hope to meet. I have heard no kinder words spoken of a celebrity than those spoken of Mr. Mayhew.

In keeping with his giving nature, Peter Mayhew supported several charities over the years. He has supported the 501st Legion, the Wounded Warriors Project, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and many others. He founded the Peter Mayhew Foundation, which, in the words of the Foundation itself, is a "nonprofit organization devoted to the alleviation of disease, pain, suffering, and the financial toll brought on by life's traumatic events." The Foundation has worked with many charities over the years, from College Student Ambassador Programs to Toys for Tots. Mark Hamill said of Mr. Mayhew on Twitter, "He was the gentlest of giants-A big man with an even bigger heart who never failed to make me smile & a loyal friend who I loved dearly." There were few people bigger than Peter Mayhew. There were even fewer with a bigger heart.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Lux Radio Theatre

Jimmy Stewart, Joan Blondell, and host William Keighley
from a rehearsal for the 1945 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation
of Destry Rides Again.
For a period from the Twenties into the early Fifties, radio was the dominant medium in the American home. In the days of Old Time Radio, the various radio networks aired a variety of shows, including action/adventure shows, anthology series, situation comedies, variety shows, and many more. Among the most prestigious shows to air during the era of Old Time Radio, as well as one of the most popular was Lux Radio Theatre. Lux Radio Theatre had huge budgets when compared to most radio programmes. It also boasted the biggest stars of the era. Even if Lux Radio Theatre didn't feature some of the biggest names from the Golden Age of Hollywood, it would be of interest to classic movie buffs. Quite simply, Lux Radio Theatre regularly adapted recent motion pictures.

Lux Radio Theatre debuted on NBC's Blue Network on October 14 1934. Its original host was John Anthony playing the show's fictional producer, Douglass Garrick. John Anthony stayed with the show until June 30 1935. Thereafter Albert Hayes portrayed the show's host and fictional producer, Douglas Garrick. It was a position he held until May 25 1936. For the Lux Radio Theatre's first two seasons it aired adaptations of Broadway plays. It would not be until its third season that it began adapting movies.

Lux Radio Theatre would not remain on the Blue Network for long. It was on July 29 1935 that the show moved to CBS, where it would remain for nearly the next nineteen years. The third season of the show would see several changes to Lux Radio Theatre. Originally broadcast from New York City, Lux Radio Theatre moved to Hollywood in 1936. The move to Hollywood would see Lux Radio Theatre begin adapting movies, as well as a new host. It was on June 1 1936 that legendary director Cecil B. DeMille took over as the show's regular host. It was that same date that Lux Radio Theatre aired its first adaptation of a movie, The Legionnaire and the Lady starring Marlene Dietrich and Clark Gable. It had been filmed in 1930 as Morocco, starring Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich.

There were two basic reasons that Lux Radio Theatre moved to Hollywood. The first was, quite simply, the ratings. By 1936 the ratings for Lux Radio Theatre had dropped and it was in danger of cancellation. At the same time, with the growth of the motion picture industry, the talent was increasingly moving from New York City to Hollywood. Quite simply, it was becoming harder for Lux Video Theatre to attract big name actors in New York City. The executive at the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson in charge of the Lever Brothers account (Lever Brothers being the company that made Lux) was Danny Danker. It was Mr. Danker who convinced both J. Walter Thompson and CBS to move the show to Hollywood. This would solve the problem of attracting big names to the show. At the same time it was decided to do adaptations of movies rather than Broadway plays, motion pictures having long ago overtaken stage plays in popularity.

After its move to Hollywood and its slight change in format, Lux Radio Theatre went from a show faltering in the ratings to one of the most popular shows on the air. At its height it drew an audience estimated to be around 40 million people. Lux Radio Theatre grew in popularity and power to such a point that the major studios would actually alter their shooting schedules so that their stars could appear on the programme. Lux Video Theatre also paid very well for top stars. Big names could expect to get $5000 simply for appearing on the show for an hour.

Over the years Lux Radio Theatre featured some very big stars. The actor who appeared the most was Don Ameche, who appeared in 18 episodes. Close behind Mr. Ameche was Fred MacMurray with 17. Of actresses it was Barbara Stanwyck who appeared the most, with 15 episodes. Loretta Young was a close second with 14 episodes. A list of the stars who appeared on Lux Radio Theatre through the years reads like a Who's Who of the Golden Age of Hollywood. They included  such big names as Lionel Barrymore, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Bing Crosby Bette Davis, Irene Dunne, Edward G. Robinson, Ginger Rogers, Jimmy Stewart, Loretta Young, and many more.

This is not to say that everything always went smoothly for Lux Radio Theatre. In 1944 there was a proposition on the ballot in California that would have made the state a "right-to-work" state. That is, it would have prohibited union security agreements, meaning that someone would not have to have a union membership to get a job. As might be expected, AFRA opposed the proposition and as a result charged all of its members $1 to fund its campaign against the proposition. Cecil B. DeMille disagreed with AFRA's stance on the proposition, as well as requiring members to pay $1 to fund their campaign against it. As a result, he refused to pay his dollar. AFRA then suspended his membership, which meant he could no longer work in radio. Of course, it also meant that he could no longer host Lux Radio Theatre.

Lux Radio Theatre would then utilise several guest hosts until they found a new permanent one. In 1945 Lionel Barrymore, Walter Huston, Mark Hellinger, Brian Aherne, and Irving Pichel all hosted the show. William Keighley became the show's next permanent host in 1945 and would stay in that position until 1952. Irving Cummings then hosted Lux Radio Theatre until it went off the air in 1955.

Over the years Lux Radio Theatre adapted some very well-known movies. At times these adaptations would even include members of the original cast of the movie. On February 22 1937 the show adapted Captain Blood with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. On May 9 1939 Lux Radio Theatre aired an adaption of My Man Godfrey with William Powell and Carole Lombard. Even when a particular adaptation did not include members of the original cast, the casting could be interesting. The February 15 1937 adaptation of Brewster's Millions featured Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone. The November 4 1940 adaptation of Wuthering Heights featured Ida Lupino and Basil Rathbone. Through the years Lux Radio Theatre aired adaptations of such movies as Stella Dallas, Dark Victory, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Rebecca, The Lady Eve, The Maltese Falcon, Road to Morocco, and many more.

Like many radio shows, Lux Radio Show made the transition to television. Lux Video Theatre debuted on October 2 1950. Lux Video Theatre never proved as popular as the original radio show. The highest it ever ranked in the Nielsen ratings was #25 in the 1955-1956 season. In all, Lux Video Theatre lasted seven seasons. It was a respectable run, but nowhere as long as the radio show's 21 years on the air.

As television increased in popularity, the ratings for Lux Radio Theatre began to decline. This was particularly the case as the show entered the year 1954. It was on September 15 1954 that Lux Radio Theatre returned to NBC after nearly 19 years on CBS. The show's ratings did not improve, and Lux Radio Theatre ended its run on June 7 1955. In all, Lux Radio Theatre ran a remarkable 21 years.

While many classic film buffs are interested in Old Time Radio as well, Lux Radio Theatre would be of particular interest to them for its close ties to classic film. It is not simply that it adapted many movies now considered classics, but that it starred the biggest movie stars of the era and for many years was hosted by one of the best known movie directors of all time. Fortunately, the majority of episodes have survived so that they can still be enjoyed in a variety of formats, from CDs to mp3s to streaming.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Godspeed David Winters

Dancer, choreographer, actor, and director David Winters died on April 23 2019 at the age of 80. Among many other roles, he played Baby John in the original, Broadway stage version of West Side Story and A-Rab in the 1961 film version.

David Winters was born in London, England on April 5 1939 in London. It was in 1953 that his family moved to the United States. A talent agent spotted him while he was dancing in a restaurant in New York City. He made his television debut in an episode of The Big Story (1949) and the following year he appeared in an episode of Studio One. In the Fifties he appeared in such shows as Love of Life, Campbell Playhouse, The Philco Television Playhouse, The Red Buttons Show, ABC Album, Lux Video Theatre, Mister Peepers, Atom Squad, The Web, The United States Steel Hour, and Naked City. He appeared as a performer on Texaco Star Theatre Starring Milton Berle and The Perry Como Show. In the Sixties he guest starred on such shows as The Detectives, Bus Stop, 77 Sunset Strip, Perry Mason, Burke's Law, Out of the Unknown and Love on a Rooftop,. After a number of years absent from acting on television, he appeared in the recurring role of Silas Bridges in the mini-series Blackbeard in 2006.

David Winters not only acted on television, but he was a director and producer as well. Mr. Winters made his directorial debut on television with two episodes of The Monkees. Over the years he would direct the TV movie Where the Girls Are (1968), the TV special The Ann Margaret Show (1968), the TV special Ann-Margret: From Hollywood with Love (1969), the TV special Raquel! (1970),  The Special London Bridge Special (1972), the TV movie Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1973), and the TV movie Steadfast Tin Soldier (1984). He served as a producer on several TV specials and the regular series The Barbara McNair Show and Rollin' on the River.

David Winters made his debut on Broadway in the 1954 revival of On Your Toes. He would go onto appear on Broadway in the productions Sandhog, Shinbone Alley, Westside Story, Gypsy, One More River, and Of Love Remembered.

David Winters worked a good deal as a choreographer, working on the Elvis Presley movie Viva Las Vegas (1964). He would also choreograph such movies as Pajama Party (1964), Girl Happy (1965), Tickle Me (1965), and Made in Paris (1966). He worked extensively as a choreographer in television, choreographing such TV specials as Ann-Margret: From Hollywood with Love, The Special London Bridge Special, and The Star Wars Holiday Special, as well as such regularly scheduled shows as Hullabaloo,Donny and Marie, and The Big Show. Reportedly, it was while he was working on Hullabaloo that he invented the dance "the Freddie",  a dance linked to the British band Freddie and the Dreamers. He also served as choreographer on Alice Cooper's Welcome to My Nightmare tour and Diana Ross's The Boss tour.

David Winters made his acting debut on film in Roogie's Bump (1954). In the Fifties he appeared in the movies Rock Rock Rock! (1956) and The Last Angry Man (1959). In the Sixties he appeared in the movies West Side Story (1961), Take Her, She's Mine (1963), Captain Newman M.D. (1963), The New Interns (1964), and The Crazy-Quilt (1966). In the Eighties he appeared in the film The Last Horror Film (1982). In the Naughts and the Teens he appeared in the films Welcome 2 Ibiza (2003), Hanuman klook foon (2008), 10 timer til Paradis (2012), Dragonwolf (2013), and Dancin': It's On (2015).  He also directed films as well. He made his directorial debut with the concert film Alice Cooper: Welcome to My Nightmare (1975). He would go onto direct such films as Racquet (1979), The Last Horror Film (1982), Mission Kill (1986), Space Mutiny (1988), Fight and Revenge (1997), Welcome 2 Ibiza (2003), and Dancin': It's On! (2015).

David Winters was among the best choreographers of mid to late Twentieth Century. He both directed and choreographed a number of well-know TV specials, including Movin' with Nancy (for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award), The Ann Margret Show, Ann-Margret: From Hollywood with Love (for which he was nominated for another Emmy Award), and Raquel. While he did not invent the Watusi, Mr. Winters was the first one to choreograph for television (it was on the TV show Hullabaloo). He invented "the Freddie." David Winters would leave a mark in popular culture in a way that few choreographers have.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Godspeed John Singleton

Director John Singleton died yesterday, April 29 2019, at the age of 51. The cause was a massive stroke. He was the first African American ever to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Director and, at age 24, the youngest person ever nominated for that award as well. It was for the movie Boyz n the Hood (1991).

John Singleton was born on January 6 1968 in Los Angeles, California. He attended Blair High School and Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California and the USC School of Cinematic Arts in Los Angeles. Mr. Singleton's debut film, Boyz n the Hood, would prove to be both a critical and financial success. It earned him not only a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Director, but also one for Best Original Screenplay. In the Nineties he directed the films Poetic Justice (1993), Higher Learning (1995), Rosewood (1997), and Shaft (2000). He served as a writer on the films Poetic Justice, Higher Learning, and Shaft.

In the Naughts John Singleton directed the films Baby Boy (2001), 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), and Four Brothers (2005). He directed an episode of the documentary TV show 30 for 30. In the Teens he directed the film Abduction (2011). He directed episodes of the shows Empire, American Crime Story, Rebel, Billions, and Snowfall. He also co-created the TV series Snowfall.

John Singleton was certainly a pioneer. At the time that Boyz in the Hood came out, both Spike Lee and Robert Townsend had made inroads into American cinema, but it was arguably directors like John Singleton, Mario Van Peebles, and Reginald Hudlin who would spur a boom in black-centred movies in the Nineties. If Boyz n the Hood proved successful both critically and financially, it was because Mr. Singleton already displayed considerable skill as a director. He certainly had his own style, always making sure that the visuals in a film re-enforced the story he was telling. He was one of the few directors in recent years whose style could truly be described as cinematic, even when he was directing for television. Of course, it should be little wonder. A devoted cineaste, his influences included John Cassavetes, Francis Ford Coppola, Akira Kurosawa, Gordon Parks, Martin Scorsese, François Truffaut, and Orson Welles.

As Mr. Singleton loved classic film, it should come as no surprise that he was a guest programmer on TCM in 2008. He showed a diverse group of films, including Lassie Come Home (1943), Meet John Doe (1941), High Noon (1952), Gunga Din (1939), and Psycho (1960).

John Singleton was a remarkable director and a true pioneer. It is sad that his life ended much too soon.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Meet Cutes on TCM in May

Tuesdays this May on Turner Classic Movies are going to be dedicated to "meet cutes" in films. If you are a fan of classic movies, chances are good that you are familiar with the term "meet cute." For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a meet cute is a scene in a movie in which two characters who will eventually be romantically involved meet for the first time, often under unusual circumstances.

The term "meet cute" is not a new one, as it goes back decades. That having been said, its origins are obscure. The book Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder by Gene Phillips indicates that in a meeting with writers Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett regarding the film Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), director Ernst Lubitch told the two writers that the hero and heroine of the film should not meet as couples ordinarily do, but that they should "meet cute." By 1941 the term was established well enough for Anthony Boucher to use it in his novel The Case of the Solid Key (and to use it twice, no less). The first time the term appears in the novel, the character Sarah says, "We met cute, as they say in story conferences, but people don't live cute." The character of Norman later uses the phrase, saying, "As she said, we met cute." Since the Forties, the term "meet cute" has become the common term for any any time two characters who will be romantically involved meet for the first time in an unusual manner in a film. Of course, meet cutes were a well-established cliche in romantic comedies even before Ernst Lubitsch may have used the term, with plenty of examples to be found as early as the Thirties.

With so many movies featuring meet cutes over the years, TCM had many films they could have chosen to feature on Tuesday in May. Among these are some of my favourites, including  It Happened One Night (1934), Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, My Man Godfrey (1936), Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), A Girl, a Guy and a Gob (1941), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), Sunday in New York (1963), and Viva Las Vegas (1964), among many others. Each Tuesday is devoted to a different era of meet cutes, including First Encounters on May 7 (movies from the Thirties), Second Base on May 14 (movies from the Forties), Mid-Century Meet Cutes on May 21 (movies from the Sixties), and Modern Love (more recent films).

I am sure many of my fellow romantic comedy fans will be tuning into TCM on Tuesday nights. I know I will (I think I can watch romantic comedies now without crying...).