Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Power of the Dark Side: Darth Vader

(This post is part of the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Shadows and Satin, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings)

"You underestimate the power of the Dark Side. If you will not fight, then you will meet your destiny." (Darth Vader, Return of the Jedi)

"Only a Sith deals in absolutes." (Obi-Wan Kenobi, Revenge of the Sith)

It was 42 years ago today that Star Wars (1977), later retitled Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, was released. Forty two years later the film's villain, Darth Vader, remains not only one of the most famous movie villains of all time, but one of the most iconic as well. While other villains would appear in the Star Wars franchise, Darth Vader would remain the primary antagonist in the original Star Wars trilogy, the protagonist in the first two movies of the prequel trilogy and an antagonist in the last movie of the prequel trilogy, and has appeared as the villain in assorted Star Wars comic books, novels, video games, the animated TV series Rebels, and even the notorious Star Wars Holiday Special. If Darth Vader has had such an impact on popular culture, it is perhaps because of the character's complexity. Unlike many big screen villains, Darth Vader is not purely evil.

After failing to get the film rights to Flash Gordon, George Lucas began writing his own space opera in January 1973. Of course, every space opera has to have a villain.  For the villain's name George Lucas tried out various names based on the phrase "dark water," eventually coming up with the name "Darth Vader." It would be following the release of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) that Mr. Lucas would claim the name was based on homonyms in German and Dutch (German vater and Dutch vader) meaning "father", so that the name "Darth Vader" could be interpreted as meaning "Dark Father." That having been said, there are some good reasons for this explanation of the name to be doubted (see below).

Regardless, Darth Vader in the original script for Star Wars was very close to the character in the final film. As he would be in the film itself, Darth Vader was not only a Sith Lord, but a Dark Lord of the Sith. As originally conceived, the Sith would have been an organisation that serve the Emperor in much the same way that the Schutzstaffel (the "SS") served Adolph Hitler. It would be with The Empire Strikes Back that Mr. Lucas's conception of the Sith would change, becoming what we understand them to be today. Quite simply, the Sith Order is a group dedicated to the Dark Side of the Force, the polar opposite of the Jedi Knights. 

It was not only the conception of the Sith that would change with The Empire Strikes Back, but the conception of Darth Vader as well. Initially George Lucas hired Leigh Brackett, the legendary science fiction writer who had written the screenplays of such movies as Rio Bravo (1959) and El Dorado (1966), to write a screenplay based upon his story outline for The Empire Strikes Back. While George Lucas was disappointed with Miss Brackett's screenplay, she died of cancer before he could discuss revisions with her. Mr. Lucas then wrote the next draft himself. This draft would contain a major change in the character of Darth Vader. Quite simply, he claimed to be the father of Luke Skywalker.

There is no evidence prior to 1978 that Darth Vader was one and the same as Luke's father, and it does not seem to have been something that was even considered. In fact, in Leigh Brackett's draft of the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker appear as completely separate characters. In the screenplay, even as Darth Vader is alive and terrorising the galaxy, Anakin's ghost appears to Luke. At the time of the release of The Empire Strikes Back, the revelation that Darth Vader was indeed the father of Luke Skywalker would go down in history as one of the most shocking plot twists in the history of cinema, alongside the plot twists in Psycho (1960) and Planet of the Apes (1968). It would also mark profound changes in the character of Darth Vader. He would go from a malevolent and formidable servant of the Emperor to an altogether tragic figure.

Of course, bringing Darth Vader to the screen would be much more complicated than other characters in the original Star Wars trilogy. In the original trilogy it was bodybuilder David Prowse who played the character in the suit in everything except for the lightsabre duels, when stuntman Bob Anderson wore the suit. While George Lucas originally wanted Orson Welles to voice the character, he ultimately decided that Mr. Welles's voice would be too recognisable and went with actor James Earl Jones instead. For Return of the Jedi Sebastian Shaw portrayed the Force spirit of Anakin Skywalker. Hayden Christensen played Anakin in the prequel trilogy, and would even don the iconic Darth Vader suit after Anakin's body was seriously damaged in his climactic fight with Obi-Wan Kenobi. Yet others have provided the voice of Darth Vader in animated projects and video games.

Darth Vader would make his first appearance in the classic Star Wars in 1977. Seen today it is surprising how little Darth Vader actually appears in the movie. We learn that he had been a student of Obi-Wan Kenobi who had turned to the Dark Side. It is Darth Vader who captures and interrogates Princess Leia, who we would learn in later movies was his own daughter. We get to see Darth Vader display quite a bit of the power of the Dark Side, most notably when he uses the Force to choke Admiral Motti for being insolent towards him. 

Of course, it was with The Empire Strikes Back that we learn Darth Vader is indeed Anakin Skywalker.  What is more, we learn that Darth Vader has his own ideas quite separate from those of his master Emperor Palpatine. It is in the lightsabre duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader at the climax to The Empire Strikes Back that Vader reveals to Luke that he is indeed his father. What is more, he tries to tempt Luke over to the Dark Side. He tells Luke that he can destroy the Emperor and together they could rule the galaxy as father and son. It is in The Empire Strikes Back that we get the first indications that Vader's love of his family may be greater than his loyalty to the Emperor. 

While many in the audience might have doubted Darth Vader's claim to Luke's paternity in The Empire Strikes Back, it is Yoda himself who reveals that Vader is indeed Luke's father in Return of the Jedi. It is the Force spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi who further reveals that Leia is Luke's twin sister and also Anakin Skywalker's daughter. Luke also learns that he must once more confront Darth Vader and put an end to the Empire. To this end, Luke surrenders to Imperial troops so that he will be taken to Darth Vader. While Darth Vader is still plotting to lure Luke over to the Dark Side and takes him to Emperor Palpatine in hopes of accomplishing just that, things do not quite go according to his plan. Luke himself senses the conflict within Darth Vader, not only informing him that he senses the good in him, but that Vader cannot bring himself to kill him. As it turns out, Luke is right. Not only is Darth Vader unable to bring himself to kill his son, but when the Emperor tortures Luke with Force lightning it is Darth Vader who kills the Emperor, sacrificing himself for his son. In the end, Emperor Palpatine not only overestimated the power of the Dark Side, but he underestimated the love that Darth Vader had for his family.

It is with the prequel trilogy that we see Anakin Skywalker's transformation into Darth Vader. In The Phantom Menace (1999) we see how Anakin was a nine year-old slave who is brought into the Jedi Order to be given training as a Jedi. Attack of the Clones (2002) sees Anakin being trained as a Jedi, as well as falling in love with Padmé Amidala and marrying her in secret (the Jedi are not supposed to form attachments). It is also in Attack of the Clones that we see the groundwork laid for Anakin's fall from grace. In The Empire Strikes Back Yoda notes that there is much anger in Luke, like his father. Anakin's anger is on full display at times in Attack of the Clones. Anakin learns that Tusken Raiders had abducted his mother only to have her die in his arms when he finds her. He then proceeds to wipe out every single Tusken Raider there. 

This brings us to Revenge of the Sith (2005). Anakin begins to have visions that indicate Padmé will die in childbirth. Unfortunately, the Jedi Council assigns Anakin to keep an eye on Chancellor Palpatine. It is then that Palpatine begins tempting Anakin with the power of the Dark Side, claiming that it can even overcome death. Eventually Palpatine reveals to Anakin that he is a Sith Lord and that he can save Padmé. It is because of his love for Padmé and his fear of losing her that Anakin eventually turns to the Dark Side. Sadly, when Anakin, whom Palaptine has dubbed "Darth Vader" turned to the Dark Side, he really turned to the Dark Side. He massacres the entire Jedi Temple, including the younglings. He then went to the planet Mustafar to murder the Separatist leaders there. Worse yet, when Padmé tries to bring Darth Vader to his senses, he Force chokes her. Following this is Obi-Wan's climactic lightsabre duel with Darth Vader, in which he severs his former pupil's limbs and leaves him to die on the bank of a lava flow. Of course, Vader is rescued by the Empire and rebuilt as the cyborg familiar from the first trilogy. The transformation from Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader is then complete.

Upon his debut in Star Wars (1977) Darth Vader was already an impressive villain. Clad in black armour and speaking in the ominous voice of James Earl Jones, he would have remained memorable even if  there had never again been another Star Wars movie. It is with The Empire Strikes Back that Darth Vader truly became an iconic villain. Quite simply, Darth Vader became a tragic figure. Unlike many villains he was not  motivated purely by a desire for power, nor was he mentally unbalanced or evil simply for the sake of being evil. Instead Darth Vader was initially motivated by something that the average person can easily understand.

Quite simply, much of the impetus for Anakin Skywalker's fall from grace was the same as Darth Vader's saving grace. It was love. To a large degree Anakin's destiny was determined the moment that he fell in love with Padmé. It was because he feared her death that Palpatine was able to lure him to the Dark Side. Even before Anakin was completely lured to the Dark Side, it was clear that he loved deeply and completely. It was because of his love of his mother that he committed what can be considered a most evil act prior to becoming a Sith: the massacre of an entire Tusken tribe. While anyone with any decency would condemn many of Anakin's actions, at the same time we can sympathise with him. After all, only the strongest of us would be able to resist doing anything, even if it was immoral or unethical, to save those we love. 

Of course, there were other factors beyond love that led to Anakin's fall from grace. As Yoda observed, there was much anger in him. One can even see Anakin's temper flare during the various lightsabre duels in which he engages prior to falling to the Dark Side, particularly his fight with Count Dooku. Sadly, Anakin's anger is never greater than when someone he loves is involved. The catalyst for Anakin slaughtering an entire group of Tuskin Raiders was his mother's death. It is certainly true that some Jedi have displayed anger from time to time. Mace Windu displayed something of a temper when he fought Palpatine. Even Obi-Wan Kenobi, known for being level headed, displayed anger in his battle with Darth Maul. Unfortunately, while other Jedi might have occasional bouts of anger and try to keep their tempers under control, all too often Anakin gives into his anger, as well as fear, and lets it take him over. As Yoda said in The Phantom Menace, "Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."

While it was a combination of love, fear, and anger that would ultimately lead to Anakin's downfall, it would be love that would lead to his redemption. In the original Star Wars trilogy Darth Vader can never bring himself to kill Luke Skywalker. He is even willing to defy the Emperor to keep his son alive. When push comes to shove, Darth Vader ultimately decides to sacrifice himself in order to save his son from Emperor Palpatine. For all that Darth Vader claims in Return of the Jedi that the name "Anakin Skywalker" no longer has any meaning for him, he is still Anakin Skywalker and the love he has for his family remained far greater motivation for him than a desire for power or loyalty to the Emperor.

Ultimately Darth Vader remains one of cinema's greatest villains because he is a tragic figure. He was an essentially good person who simply turned evil for reasons that the average person can somewhat understand. Tempted by the power of the Dark Side to save the woman he loves, at the same time it would be Anakin Skywalker's love for his son that would redeem him in the end. It would seem Palpatine was able to lure Anakin to the Dark Side, but in the end he was never able to corrupt him completely.

Friday, May 24, 2019

"Superman" (1941) AKA "The Mad Scientist"

Among my all time favourite animated theatrical shorts is "Superman" (1941), also known as "The Mad Scientist." The cartoon would be historic as the first time Superman (or any other comic book superhero) appeared on the big screen. It was also one of the most lavish animated shorts ever made. It looks like a Golden Age comic book on film.

It was in early 1941 that Paramount Pictures bought the film rights to Superman. The studio then turned to Fleischer Studios to produce the actual cartoons. Dave and Max Fleischer weren't particularly enthusiastic about producing the Superman cartoons, and quoted Paramount an extraordinary price for doing so. As it turned out, Paramount negotiated a lower price, but one that was still well in excess of the average animated theatrical short of time.

Ultimately, the first Superman cartoon was made for a cost of $50,000, which was about 3 times the cost of the average Popeye cartoon that Fleischer Studios produced at the time. Further cartoons in the series would still carry huge budgets for theatrical cartoons at the time, costing around $35,000 to produce. Dave Fleischer himself served as the director on "Superman", while Steve Muffatti was animation director on the film. Fleischer Studios gave "Superman" the same care that they had their feature film Gulliver's Travel (1931). Both rotoscoping and sketches from live models were utilised in the making of the animated short. Special care was made to insure that the characters had realistic proportions. "Superman" featured realistic use of shadows, as well as detailed backgrounds. Some of the most sophisticated special effects animation was utilised on the cartoon.

The voices for the cartoon were drawn from the radio show The Adventures of Superman, with Bud Collyer reprising his role as Superman, Joan Alexander reprising her role as Lois Lane, and Julian Noa reprising his role as Perry White. Jackson Beck, who served as the announcer on the radio show, served as the narrator on the cartoon.

Paramount Pictures provided "Superman" with a promotional campaign worthy of a feature film. Upon its released on October 26 1941 it was very well received by critics. It should come as no surprise that "Superman" would be very successful. It would be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons). It lost to Disney's "Lend a Paw," starring Pluto. The success of "Superman" would lead to 16 more "Superman" animated shorts.

Here, for your viewing pleasure, is "Superman" (1941).

Thursday, May 23, 2019

The 50th Anniversary of The Who's Tommy

It was 50 years today, on May 23 1969, that The Who's album Tommy was released in the United Kingdom. While Tommy was not the first rock opera (British band Nirvana's The Story of Simon Simopath pre-dated it by nearly a year and a half and The Pretty Things' S..F. Sorrow by several months), it was the album responsible for popularising the format. Tommy would also be the album that took The Who from being a popular British band of the Sixties to one of the major groups in the history of rock music.

The origins of Tommy can be traced back to 1966. It was that year that Pete Townshend begin exploring the possibility of going beyond the format of the traditional three-minute pop song. To this end Mr. Townshend developed an idea for a rock opera to be titled Quads, which was set in a future where parents can choose the gender of their children. Ultimately the concept would move no further than the song "I'm a Boy," and Pete Townshend abandoned it. "I'm a Boy" was released as a single on August 26 1966 in the United Kingdom.

While Quads would never come into being, The Who's album A Quick One saw the band record a nine minute, 10 second suite of short songs (described by The Who's manager Kit Lambert as a "mini-opera") titled "A Quick One, While He's Away." "A Quick One, While He's Away' has its origins in a mock oratorio written by Pete Townshend titled "Gratis Amatis." When he played it for Kit Lambert, Mr. Lambert suggested that he write a more serious, mini-opera. "A Quick One, While He's Away" consisted of six short songs. It centred a young woman who cheats on her boyfriend while he is away.

It was while working on the concept album The Who Sell Out that Pete Townshend began work on a rock opera that would be set in 1999 and followed a man during the conquest of the world by Commnist China. This idea would eventually be reworked into a thirty minute work titled "Rael." Over time "Rael" would be cut down to the 5 minute 44 second version, consisting of several movements, that appears on the album. The original, longer version of "Rael" would never be recorded.

It was then in 1968 that Pete Townshend learned of the Indian spiritual teacher Meher Baba from his friend Mike McInnerney (then the art director for International Times). Mr. Townshend became interested in Meher Baha's teachings and he wanted to pursue a project that would include those teachings. At the same time Pete Townshend had concerns about what direction The Who should take. It would be Pete Townshend's interest in Meher Baha's teachings and his concern for the direction of The Who's career that would lead to the rock opera Tommy. Tommy would be written with two concerns in mind. The first was that, while part of a cohesive whole, the songs could still stand on their own. The second was that the entire album could be performed live.

Pete Townshend developed a concept variously called Deaf, Dumb and Blind Boy; Amazing Journey; Journey into Space; The Brain Opera; and Omnibus. Eventually he titled it Tommy, for the rock opera's protagonist. He chose the name because it was a common British name, as well as a slang term for British soldiers during the First World War. The album centred on Tommy, a deaf, mute, and blind young man who develops a preternatural sense of touch. As a result he becomes an international pinball star and later a messianic figure.

The Who recorded Tommy from September 19 1968 to March 7 1969. Pete Townshend wrote the bulk of the albums on the song. John Entwistle wrote the songs "Cousin Kevin" and "Fiddle About." Keith Moon wrote the song "Tommy's Holiday Camp." The album was released on May 23 1969 in the United Kingdom and later in the United States. It proved to be a hit on both sides of the Pond. Tommy peaked at no. 2 on the UK albums chart and no. 4 on the Billboard albums chart.

Tommy would be adapted several times over the years. The first adaptation was a ballet developed by Ferdinand Nault of the Montreal ballet group Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. It was first performed in 1971. The first stage version was produced by the Seattle Opera in 1971. It was in 1975 that a film adaptation, directed by Ken Russell, was released. In 1991 a Broadway musical adaptation of Tommy debuted.

Tommy would prove to be a historic album. While there were rock operas that pre-dated Tommy, it was that album that would popularise the format. It was Tommy that paved the way for such rock operas as Jesus Christ Superstar, Pink Floyd's The Wall, and Green Day's American Idiot. While it seems likely that rock opera would have developed without Tommy, the album certainly allowed for it to develop earlier than it might have otherwise.

Tommy would also have a large impact on the career of The Who. Prior to Tommy, The Who had been fairly successful in their native Britain. Their first two albums reached the top ten of the UK albums chart, while The Who Sell Out peaked at no. 13. They also had several hit singles, eight of which reached the top ten and others that reached the top forty. While The Who had a good deal of success in the UK, they were not nearly as successful in the United States. Their second album, A Quick One, peaked at no. 51. Their third album, The Who Sell Out, peaked at no. 48. Their singles only did a little better. The Who would not have a hit single in the United States until "Happy Jack" reached no. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1966. Prior to Tommy, they would only have two more hit singles in the United States: "I Can See for Miles" (which peaked at no. 9) and "Magic Bus" (which peaked at no. 25).

Tommy changed The Who's fortunes in the United States. Tommy peaked at no. 4 on the Billboard album chart. Its singles would also do well. "Pinball Wizard" peaked at no. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100, while "I'm Free" peaked at no. 37. Tommy also did well in the United Kingdom, peaking at no. 2. "Pinball Wizard" went to no. 4 on the UK singles chart. Following Tommy, The Who's albums would regularly rank in the top ten of the Billboard album chart, with no studio album ever peaking lower than no. 8. Quite simply, Tommy propelled The Who to the top ranks of British bands in the United States.

Tommy also marked a shift in The Who's musical style. The early work of The Who can quite rightfully be described as "power pop (in fact, Pete Townshend coined the term to describe The Who's music in an interview published in NME in 1967)." Tommy was a step towards the hard rock style that would characterise The Who's music for much of the Seventies, while at the same time including softer songs as well. That having been said, The Who had not abandoned power pop completely with Tommy--"Pinball Wizard" could be counted as a harder version of their earlier power pop sound. The Who's sound would continue to evolve with their next album, Who's Next, released in 1971.

While Tommy is not as highly regarded as it first was upon its initial release, it still remains as a highly regarded album. It was certainly a revolutionary album, both with regards to the evolution of rock music and with regards to The Who's career. Prior to Tommy, The Who was simply a reasonably successful British rock band. Following Tommy, The Who would come to be counted in the same ranks as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

"You May Just Be the One" by The Monkees

It was 52 years ago today that The Monkees' album Headquarters was released. After winning the right to perform their own songs from their record label, Headquarters was the first album on which The Monkees both played their own instruments and wrote the majority of songs.

In fact, my favourite track on the album was by Michael Nesmith, who had written songs for The Monkees' first two albums. An earlier version of "You Just May Be the One" had been recorded during the sessions for The Monkee's first album with sessions musicians. This version of the song appeared in the Monkees episodes "The Chaperone," "One Man Shy," and "Monkees à la Mode" during the show's first season. For Headquarters The Monkees remade the song with Michael Nesmith on guitar, Peter Tork on bass, Davy Jones on tambourine, and Micky Dolenz on drums. It would be the only song on Headquarters on which The Monkees played the same instruments that they were portrayed as playing on the TV show. While "You Just May Be the One" remains my favourite song on the album, it is a bit bittersweet for me now, as I identified with a fellow Monkees fan who died last year (if you know me, then you know who that is). Anyway, without further ado, here is the second version of "You Just May Be the One" from The Monkees' album Headquarters.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019


Raquel Stecher of the blog Out of the Past is asking her fellow classic movie buffs to participate in her #ClassicMovieTag. She has ten prompts to which one can respond at any time and can be on any platform the person chooses, whether it is a blog post, a Twitter thread, a Facebook post, or so on. When one posts his or her responses, he or she wants to make sure to use the #ClassicMovieTag and to mention Raquel in the post. You can read Raquel's post on the #ClassicMovieTag here.

Obviously I have decided to participate in Raquel's #ClassicMovieTag on this blog. Below are the prompts and my responses.

1. What's one classic movie that you recommend to people over and over and over again? 

This probably won't be any surprise to anyone, but I would say, "Seven Samurai." I have repeatedly said that it is my favourite movie of all time and I consider it the greatest film ever made. Its much imitated plot certainly appeals to me. Basically, seven rōnin are hired by a farming village to battle marauders who have been plaguing the village. While Seven Samurai is a long movie (it clocks in at 3 hours 27 minutes), it does not seem like it because of its tightly plotted script. It benefits from great performances by such actors as Takashi Shimura, Toshrio Mifune, and Kokuten Kōdō, as well as the excellent black-and-white cinematography of Asakazu Nakai. Bringing it all together is the direction of Akira Kurosawa. To me there are only few perfect movies and Seven Samurai is one of them.

2. What was the last classic film you saw and what were your thoughts about it? 

The last classic film I saw was Key Largo (1948), which is a film I have seen several times before. While I think Key Largo drags a bit during some of the wordier parts of the film and Lauren Bacall isn't given a whole lot to do, it is still a movie that I thoroughly enjoy. It is enlivened by some strong performances by Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lionel Barrymore, and Claire Trevor. It also features some incredible cinematography by the legendary Karl Freund. It has a truly great climax, lifted from Ernest Hemingway's novel To Have and Have Not. Director Howard Hawks was unable to shoot the book's climax for the movie adaptation of To Have and Have Not, so it was used as the climax of John Huston's adaptation of Maxwell Anderson's play Key Largo.

3. Name a classic movie genre you love and one you dislike. 

Okay, I don't know that it is a genre so much as it is a cinematic style, but I love film noir. Film noir actually encompasses a variety of plots, but my favourite has always been that of essentially good individuals who must face the darkness in our world. Many of my favourite film noirs share this plot in common, including Murder, My Sweet (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), and Mystery Street (1950). That having been said, I do like film noirs with other sorts of plots. In fact, my all-time favourite noir is Out of the Past (1947). As to what it is I like about film noir, it is a number of things. I like the fact that there is a good deal of moral ambiguity in film noir. While in many films from the Forties and Fifties it is clear who the good guys and the bad guys are, this is not always clear in film noir. I have also always loved the cinematography of film noir, which often involves unusual composition, low-key lighting, and plenty of shadows. It is a style ideally suited to black and white. Because characters in film noir often tended to be complex, it allowed many actors to spread their wings in ways that they might not be able to in other sorts of films.

As to a genre I dislike, I really can't say that are any. I will watch any film if it is good. That having been said, while I love the romantic comedies of the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, and Sixties, I don't care for too many romantic comedies made after 1980. To me too many of them seem the same, as if they are all made from a cookie cutter. Take a well-known leading lady, add a bland male character as the love interest, throw in some complications, and then have them get together at the end. That to me is the typical romcom made after 1980. It is a far cry from Cary Grant and Irene Dunne or Doris Day and Rock Hudson! Yes, I am a romantic comedy snob.

Sam Jaffe
4. Name a classic movie star with whom you share a birthday or a hometown. 

Okay, I share my birthday with Mad Men star Jon Hamm, but he isn't a classic movie star. I also share my  birthday with the great character Sam Jaffe. He is one of my favourite character actors and I was so happy to learn that I share my birthday with him. He played a wide variety of roles in his long career and in a variety of genres of film. He was criminal mastermind Doc Riedenschneider in The Asphalt Jungle (1950). He was Professor Jacob Barnhardt in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). He was Simonides in Ben-Hur (1959). Sam Jaffe could play anything from sympathetic roles to downright villainous ones, and he did all of them well. While no famous actors are from my hometown, I can brag that I live about an hour away from the hometowns of Mary Astor (Quincy, Illinois), Walt Disney (Marceline), Cliff Edwards (Hannibal, which is also the hometown of Samuel Clemens and the Unsinkable Molly Brown), and Steve McQueen (Slater). Also, Joan Crawford briefly attended Stephens College in Columbia, so I can say that I have walked in her footsteps! Of course, I also have to mention that Lucille Ball is my 10th cousin one time removed...

5. Give a shout out to a friend or family member who shares your love of classic movies. 

My late best friend Brian was a classic film buff, as was my beloved Vanessa. In fact, most of my current friends are classic film fans. That having been said, I will give a shout out to my friend Paula. She runs the blog Paula's Cinema Club. She also happens to be the co-founder of TCMParty. She and her husband Tim run the theatre Cinema Detroit in Detroit, Michigan, the best arthouse cinema in that city. Paula and I have a good deal in common. Our tastes in movies are fairly similar. I tend to confide in Paula a lot. She is one of the very few people who actually has my phone number. Paula has always been supportive of me, even in my darkest days.

Rita Moreno
6. Name a classic movie star who makes your heart skip a beat or whom you admire greatly.

Well, given Stand and Deliver (1988) was released over thirty years ago, I think my dearest Vanessa Marquez qualifies as a classic movie star. Aside from Vanessa, however, I would have to say Rita Moreno. Unlike many boys who developed crushes on Natalie Wood when they first saw West Side Story, I developed a crush on Rita Moreno. As a boy I was just impressed by how very pretty she is, but as I grew older I would admire her talent as well. She is a remarkable actress who has played a wide variety of roles, from Anita in West Side Story (1961), for which she won the the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, to exotic dancer Dolores Gonzáles in Marlowe (1969). It is a mark of her talent that she is one of only three people to have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy, a Tony, and a Peabody! I also have to point out that Miss Moreno was a pioneering Latina on screen. She refused to play any stereotypical roles, regardless of how it impacted her career. To me Rita Moreno is just about perfect: intelligent, talented, funny, and sexy.

7. Describe one memorable experience watching a classic movie.

Believe it or not, as part of a school trip in third grade we were taken to the local cinema where we were shown To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). I hope my fellow classic film buffs will forgive me for saying that most of us boys were hoping we would get to see Silent Running (1972)! I also have to say that I hope they will forgive me for saying I didn't really appreciate To Kill a Mockingbird at the time. I was only nine years old, so that a lot of the of the movie was lost on me. Of course, here I have to point out that given To Kill a Mockingbird was only ten years old when I saw it, it wasn't yet a classic at the time by my reckoning. I generally don't think of a movie as a classic until it has been around for thirty years (this isn't a hard and fast rule for me, but I think ten years may be too soon to call a film a classic, even To Kill a Mockingbird). That having been said, it is one of my strongest memories of seeing a movie in a theatre. It was not only the first time I saw To Kill a Mockingbird, but the first time I saw a "grown-up" movie in a theatre as well. And for those who are worried that I didn't really appreciate To Kill a Mockingbird when I was only nine years old, it would become one of my all time favourite movies when I saw it again in my twenties and it has remained so ever since.

8. Describe the craziest thing you've done because of your passion for classic movies. 

I would have to say that the craziest thing I have ever done because of my passion for classic movies was to introduce A Hard Day's Night (1964) with Ben Mankiewicz as part of TCM's Fan Favourites series.  Now I am not at all shy and I have no problem addressing crowds, but I have never liked photographs of myself, let alone video of myself. It is why there are so few pictures of me online! I actually had to be talked into it. That having been said, I really enjoyed the experience. Ben is very easy to talk to and I always enjoy talking about A Hard Day's Night or anything related to The Beatles. I also enjoyed live tweeting trivia about A Hard Day's Night as part of  TCMParty when they showed A Hard Day's Night and getting people's reaction to me being on TCM. That having been said, I did not look at the screen the whole time I was on. TCM sent me a DVD of my intro and outro with Ben after it had aired. I have never watched that either. As I said, I really don't like photographs and videos of myself!

9. What's something classic movie related that you love to collect? 

I have collected pinback buttons since I was a teenager. Most of my pinback buttons are dedicated to various rock groups, but several years ago I began collecting pinback buttons related to classic movies and classic television as well. In fact, the prize in my collection has both a rock 'n' roll connection and a classic movie connection. When I was in my twenties I picked up a Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band button released as part of the promotion for the animated classic Yellow Submarine (1968). I only paid about a $1.50 for it. I have no idea what it must be worth now!

10. What's your favourite way to share your passion for classic movies?

I would have to say writing. Come June 4 of this year, I will have been writing in this blog for fifteen years. And while A Shroud of Thoughts is dedicated to pop culture in all its forms, I do write a lot about classic movies on this blog. In fact, it would be through this blog that I would meet my first online classic film friends, including the aforementioned Raquel of Out of the Past and KC of A Classic Film Blog. Prior to this blog I had written articles on B Westerns for the newsletter The Old Cowboy Picture Show. I would later write articles on classic film for the online magazine Silhouette While I don't know that I would consider it writing, I also enjoy tweeting about classic film on Twitter. In fact, I am one of the original members of TCMParty and I still remember my very first TCMParty, live tweeting to the "Thin Man" movies! I am on multiple social media services, and I post about classic film on most of them.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Hold On! (1966)

The late Fifties and early Sixties would see the emergence of what was known as "beat music" in the United Kingdom. Beat music was a subgenre of rock that was guitar oriented and characterised by vocal harmonies and songs featuring musical hooks. Beat music would lead directly to the development of the subgenre known as power pop. Among the beat groups to come about during this period were Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Dave Clark Five, The Kinks, and The Who. The biggest beat group of them all would also become the most successful rock band of all time, The Beatles. It would be The Beatles who would bring beat music to the United States, their arrival beginning what is known as "the British Invasion."

The Beatles would not only conquer the music charts, but movie theatres as well. Their film A Hard Day's Night (1964), directed by Richard Lester, proved successful at the box office and revolutionised the rock music. It would lead to other rock musicals starring British bands, including 1965's Ferry Cross the Mersey (starring Gerry and the Pacemakers) and 1965's Catch Us If You Can (starring The Dave Clark Five).  The success of A Hard Day's Night certainly wasn't lost on the American studios, so that it should have surprised no one when MGM released Hold On! (1966), a pop musical starring the British band Herman's Hermits.

Despite starring a British band, Hold On! is a thoroughly American product. It was produced by Sam Katzman, known for his many low-budget films. It was directed by Arthur Lubin, who directed several Abbott & Costello movies, several Francis the Talking Mule movies, and various TV shows. Other than Herman's Hermits themselves and Bernard Fox, the cast was largely American as well. As to the plot, it is little more than an excuse to string together several performances by Herman's Hermits. Quite simply, when American children want to name NASA's latest Gemini capsule "Herman's Hermits" for good luck, Ed Lindquist of NASA (played by Herbert Anderson) is sent to tag along on the band's tour. Shelley Fabares, then best known as Mary Stone on The Donna Reed Show, played the love interest. Herman's Hermits had previously appeared in the film When the Boys Meet the Girls (1965) starring Harve Presnell and Connie Francis, but in Hold On! they were clearly the stars.

Hold On! actually went through a few titles before receiving its final name. The film was originally going to be titled There's No Place Like Space, but was later retitled A Must to Avoid, which would be Herman's Hermits' next single. MGM then realised that titling a movie A Must to Avoid might not be a wise thing to do, and so it was retitled Hold On! after another song appearing in the movie.

As might be expected, the movie featured several songs by Herman's Hermits. Naturally, a soundtrack album was released and the song "A Must to Avoid" was released as a single. It was the fact that one of the songs from the movie was not released as a single that would change rock history. Songwriters P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri had hoped that "Where Were You When I Needed You" would be released as a follow up single to "A Must to Avoid." When it was not, they recorded it themselves with session musicians using the name "The Grass Roots." When the song proved successful in California, they recruited San Francisco band The Bedouins as the new Grass Roots and the song was re-recorded and re-released. It peaked at no. 28. The Bedouins would have a falling out with P. F. Sloan and Steve Barri, after which another band, The 13th Floor, would be recruited as yet another incarnation of The Grass Roots. This version of The Grass Roots would have their first hit with "Let's Live for Today" in 1967, which would be followed by a string of hits. If Herman's Hermits had released "Where Were You When I Needed You" as a single, then, there probably never would have been The Grass Roots.

Hold On! has not been seen often since its release in 1966. The film made its American broadcast television debut on August 21 1970 on The CBS Friday Night Movies and afterwards would pop up on various local stations. It has since been shown from time to time on TCM. In 2011 it was released on DVD through the Warner Archive.

Hold On! did reasonably well at the box office, although reviews were mixed. Seen today Hold On! is an interesting curio from 1966. Aficionados of the Sixties will be interested to see the various fashions of the era, as well as one of the more successful pop groups of the mid-Sixties in their prime. As to the film itself, it doesn't really stray too far from the formulas of Sam Katzman's other teen movies, which always included some mildly amusing humour, a bit of romance, and plenty of music. For a movie that only runs 85 minutes, the plot of Hold On! does get convoluted at times, but then given the film is primarily an excuse to showcase performances by Herman's Hermits that should not be surprising. Indeed, it is clearly the music that was the primary attraction of Hold On! in the Sixties and it remains so today. The movie featured some of Herman's Hermits' best songs, written by songwriting team of P. F. Sloan and Steve Barri and the songwriting team of Fred Karger, Ben Weisman, and Sid Wayne.  Hold On! is certainly not to everyone's tastes. If one is not a fan of Herman's Hermits or does not enjoy mid-Sixties teen movies, he or she certainly won't care for it. That having been said, while Hold On! is not necessarily the best example of a mid-Sixties pop musical or even a mid-Sixties teen movie, anyone who enjoys these types of movies might well find it amusing.