Saturday, June 22, 2019

The 50th Anniversary of Judy Garland's Death

It was fifty years ago today that legendary movie star Judy Garland died. Miss Garland's husband, Mickey Deans, found her dead in the bathroom of their house at Cadogan Lane in Belgravia, London. The cause of her death would be ruled a "an incautious self-overdosage" of barbiturates by Coroner Gavin Thurston. He stressed that there was no evidence for suicide and that the overdose was unintentional. Judy Garland was only 47 years old.

For me Judy Garland's death would be significant as the first celebrity death I can remember. I was six years old at the time and, like many (perhaps most) people in my generation I had already seen The Wizard of Oz (1939) multiple times. Of course, at the time, Miss Garland's death puzzled me. At that point I was only familiar with Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale. I had yet to see her in any other roles. It is for that reason that I was under the impression that she was still only fifteen to sixteen years old. I asked my mother how someone so young could die, and she simply explained that The Wizard of Oz was made many years ago and Judy Garland was much older now. I guess Mom didn't want to explain to me that Dorothy Gale had died of a drug overdose or that 47 was still a terribly young age at which to die.

Of course, much of the reason that Judy Garland's death had such an impact on me is that she was the first classic movie star to whom I was ever exposed and The Wizard of Oz was the first movie I would ever see that was a classic at the time I first saw it. Beginning in the late Fifties, The Wizard of Oz aired every year on broadcast network television. This was a tradition that would last into the late Nineties. As a result, I was not alone in The Wizard of Oz being the first classic film I ever saw. It was also the first classic movie ever seen by many younger Baby Boomers, many Gen Xers, and many Gen Yers. While I can't speak for the Boomers or Gen Yers, I am guessing it is the rare Gen Xer who wasn't drawn to Judy Garland's performance as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.

As I grew older I would see Miss Garland in films other than The Wizard of Oz. In the days before cable television and Turner Classic Movies, many local television stations would show movies on the weekend and other times. As a result I would see many of Miss Garland's movies before I reached adulthood. Given the frequency with which the local TV stations showed the "Andy Hardy" movies, I probably saw Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938), Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940), and Life Begins for Andy Hardy (1941) while I was still very young. I know that I saw Babes in Arms (1939), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Easter Parade (1948), and Ziegfeld Girl (1941) before I became an adult. Judy Garland was then not only the first classic movie star to whom I was ever exposed, she would also become one of my favourites while I was still very young.

I would not be the only one for whom Judy Garland would number among his favourites. Miss Garland has maintained a following to this day. In fact, she is recognised by many people who might not recognise any other classic movie stars beyond such big names as Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe.While much of this is due to having starred in The Wizard of Oz, it seems to me that the general public outside of classic movie fans are aware of her other movies as well. I know people who aren't necessarily classic movie buffs, but who are aware of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and A Star is Born (1954) nonetheless. While her status as a gay icon is well known, I believe her appeal goes well beyond the LGBTQ community. I know for a fact that I am not the only cisgender, heterosexual male who is a Judy Garland fan. Quite simply, love for Judy Garland cuts cross the lines of gender, sexual orientation, age, race, and religion. Judy Garland fans come in a wide array of people.

Of course, beyond being the first classic movie star of whom I was aware, Judy Garland would have an enormous impact on my life in another way as well. Quite simply, the first classic movie my darling Vanessa Marquez ever saw was The Wizard of Oz, which she saw when she was only three or four years old. While Vanessa often joked that she wanted to be an actress as soon as she left the womb, it was The Wizard of Oz and Judy Garland that really made her want to become an actress. Indeed, Judy Garland would remain one of Vanessa's favourite actresses for the rest of her life. Had Vanessa never become an actress and chose some other profession instead, it is quite possible that I would never have met her. In the end, I largely owe finding the best friend I ever had and the love of my life to The Wizard of Oz and Judy Garland.

While I don't remember a lot about Judy Garland's death in 1969, even at the time I knew that it was major news. I seem to recall it was the lead story on our local evening newscast (I can't recall if we were watching KOMU or KRCG that night). I know for a fact that it was a front page headline on such  major newspapers as The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and many others. It is a mark of just how popular Judy Garland remains that the anniversary of her death has been observed by such media outlets as The Independent, The Los Angeles Times, PBS, Time magazine, and many others.

What is more, I have seen more social media posts pertaining to Judy Garland today than I believe I ever have. I read that many fans have left memorials at Miss Garland's grave in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery today, and Judy Garland's daughter, Lorna Luft, even left a very sweet letter for fans there. I cannot think of many stars whose death would be so observed fifty years afterwards. Miss Garland remains one of the best loved movie stars of all time.  Judy Garland was a superstar in her lifetime. She remains a superstar fifty years after her death.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Rear Window (1954)

(This post is part of the Hotter'nell Blgoathon hosted by MovieMovieBlogBlog II)

There are those individuals whose favourite season of the year is summer. For them summer means going on picnics, fun days at the beach, long Sunday drives, and so on. I don't number among those people. For me summer means heat, humidity, sweat, and long days spent in air conditioning awaiting the arrival of autumn. Summer is by far my least favourite time of year. That fact is probably much of the reason Alfred Hitchcock's classic Rear Window (1954) appeals so much to me. Heat and humidity play a central role in Rear Window. It is one of the few movies that presents how truly miserable summer can be.

Rear Window centres upon photographer L. B. "Jeff" Jefferies, who is confined to his Greenwich Village apartment while recovering from a broken leg. Across a courtyard from the rear window of his apartment is another apartment complex. Because New York City is in the middle of an unbearable heat wave, nearly everyone leaves their windows open. Confined to a wheelchair and having only occasional visits from his socialite girlfriend Lisa (played by Grace Kelly) and his nurse Stella (played by Thelma Ritter) for company, Jeff has nothing better to do than watch his neighbours across the courtyard. Unfortunately for Jeff, he becomes convinced that a murder has occurred in one of the apartments across from his.

Rear Window was based on the short story "It Had to Be Murder" by Cornell Woolrich. The story was first published in the February 1942 issue of Dime Detective. Like Rear Window, "It Had to Be Murder" centres on a man confined to his apartment with a broken leg, who watches his neighbours' apartments from his rear window. And like the movie, in "It Had to Be Murder" the main character becomes convinced that a murder has occurred. According to Frances Nivens in First You Dream, Then You Die, a biography of Cornell Woolrich, Mr. Woolrich had been inspired to write the story after two little girls had spied on him in his apartment.

Producer and songwriter Buddy DeSylva bought the rights to "It Had to Be Murder" not long after it was published. The rights would later be sold to Joshua Logan and Leland Hayward, Joshua Logan planning to direct a film based on the story before he directed the film version of his hit play Mr. Roberts. Unfortunately for Joshua Logan, his agent, the legendary Lew Wasserman, sold the rights to "It Had to Be Murder" right from under him to another one of his clients, Alfred Hitchcock.

To write the script for Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock hired John Michael Hayes, who had a considerable resume in radio, including such shows as Escape, The Adventures of Sam Spade, Inner Sanctum Mysteries, and Suspense (a show which Hitchcock himself helped launch). Mr. Hayes would go onto work with Alfred Hitchcock on the films To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

The screenplay for Rear Window would run into some problems with Joseph Breen of the Production Code Administration (PCA). He objected to everything from sexiness of Miss Torso (one of Jeff's neighbours across the courtyard) to the implication that Jeff and Lisa were having sex (implied when she mentions that she is spending the night). Fortunately, Joseph Breen retired as Rear Window went into production. His place as the head of the PCA was taken by Geoffrey Shurlock, who was considerably more liberal than Mr. Breen ever had been. Mr. Shurlock had no objections to Rear Window.

In addition to the leads, Alfred Hitchcock cast Raymond Burr in the all-important role of the film's villain, Lars Thorwald. Aside from Mr. Burr's considerable experience playing bad guys on screen, he was also cast for his tall, stout build, which resembled that of producer David O. Selznick. Hitchcock had long harboured a grudge against Selznick, believing Selznick had interfered overly much in the films he made for him (which included Rebecca, Saboteur, Spellbound, Notorious, The Paradine Case, and Under Capricorn). As a bit of revenge, then, Alfred Hitchcock made Raymond Burr look as much like David O. Selznick as possible, giving the actor grey, curly hair and the same sort of glasses that the producer wore. Hitchcock even went so far to instruct Mr. Burr on Selznick's posture, ways he moved, and mannerisms, down to how he held a telephone receiver.

Given the plot of Rear Window, the sets in the film would play an important role, so much so that Jeff's apartment and the various other apartments can very nearly be considered characters themselves. Although the film was set in New York City, it was shot almost entirely at Paramount Studios. It took six weeks for set designers Hal Pereira and Joseph MacMillan Johnson to build the set for Rear Window. Ultimately it proved to be the largest set of its type ever built at Paramount. The set used a sophisticated lighting system meant to simulate natural lighting during both the movie's day and night scenes. The set also had a huge drainage system, a necessity during the rain scene in the film. Although Franz Waxman is credited with the score for Rear Window, it is limited only to the film's opening and closing credits. To keep the movie as realistic as possible, the only sounds in Rear Window are those one might hear in real life (songs on radios and so on).

Edith Head designed the costumes for Rear Window. She had previously worked with Alfred Hitchcock on his film Notorious (1946). She would work on many more of Hitchcock's films through the Seventies, including To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, Vertigo, and The Birds.

Rear Window premiered on August 4 1954, at the Rivoli Theatre in New York City. Proceeds of the premiere went towards the American–Korean Foundation. It received its wide release on September 1 1954. Rear Window received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics upon its release. William Brogdon of Variety wrote, "Hitchcock combines technical and artistic skills in a manner that makes this an unusually good piece of murder mystery entertainment." Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, "The boorish but fascinating pastime of peeking into other people's homes—a thing that New York apartment dwellers have a slight disposition to do—is used by Director Alfred Hitchcock to impel a tense and exciting exercise in his new melodrama, Rear Window, which opened last night at the Rivoli." Audiences as well as critics enjoyed Rear Window upon its initial release. It was the fourth highest grossing film of 1954. Since then Rear Window has come to be regarded as one of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest films. In fact, it is one of the few films with a 100% rating  at review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.

Rear Window remains my one of my favourite Alfred Hitchcock films, and my favourite that he made with Jimmy Stewart (yes, I prefer it to Vertigo). Much has been made of how Rear Window addresses the theme of voyeurism, but for me a theme equally present in Rear Window is that of confinement and claustrophobia. After all, Jeff really can't go much of anywhere. He has a broken leg and is pretty much confined to his apartment. Because of this he is both restless and bored, and with nothing better to do he takes to watching his neighbours across the courtyard. The fact that New York City is in the middle of a heat wave only makes matters worse. While I have never had a broken leg nor have I been involuntarily confined for a long time, I can identify with Jeff to a degree. During the height of summer, when it is overly hot and humid, it is not unusual for me to remain inside for most of the time. Quite simply, I feel as if it is too hot and muggy to do anything. Fortunately, I have television, the internet, and plenty of books to keep me occupied, so I don't have to resort to watching my neighbours.

Much of the reason that Alfred Hitchcock made Rear Window is that he wanted to make "a purely cinematic film (as he told François Truffaut)." Arguably, Rear Window is the most cinematic film that Hitchcock ever made. Indeed, the movie's theme of voyeurism can not only be applied to the act of watching one's neighbours, but watching movies as well. That the film also manages to examine the themes of voyeurism and confinement while being a very entertaining suspense thriller is a mark of Alfred Hitchcock's skill as a director. While I won't say that Rear Window is the greatest film that Hitchcock ever made, it certainly numbers among them.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

50 Years Ago Today David Bowie Recorded "Space Oddity"

It was fifty years ago today, at Trident Studios in London, that David Bowie recorded "Space Oddity." It would be his first hit single, peaking at no. 5 on the UK singles chart. To this day it remains one of his best known songs.

"Space Oddity" takes its title from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and it was clearly meant to capitalise on the interest in space travel that existed throughout the Sixties. The song centres on astronaut Major Tom, who experiences some sort of strange event during his space flight. "Space Oddity" would be released on July 11 1969, although the BBC put off playing it until the crew of Apollo 11 made it safely home. It seems likely that "Space Oddity" benefited greatly from the success of the first manned mission to the moon.

Here it must be pointed out that the version of "Space Oddity" recorded on June 20 1969 was not the first version of the song to be recorded. Earlier, on February 2 1969, David Bowie recorded the first version of "Space Oddity" for his promotional film Love You Till Tuesday. This version would not be commercially available until 1984, when Love You Til Tuesday was released on videocassette, at which point a soundtrack album for the film was also released.

In between the two versions of "Space Oddity," David Bowie would have a falling out with Deram, his record label of the time. He then signed a deal with Mercury Records for one album (with an option for two more). On June 20 1969, then, a new version of "Space Oddity" was recorded for David Bowie's first album with Mercury, which was simply titled David Bowie. The song would then be edited for release as a single (both monophonic and stereophonic versions) in various countries, including the United States.

Strangely enough, while "Space Oddity" performed well in Britain, it did not do so well in the United States. Upon its initial release in 1969, it stalled at 124 on the Billboard singles chart. Following the relative success of David Bowie's albums The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Aladdin Sane in the United States, "Space Oddity" would reach no. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 when it was re-released in 1973.

Here, without further ado, is "Space Oddity" by David Bowie.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

How Guy Williams Almost Joined the Cast of Bonanza

Today when most people think of the Cartwrights on the classic Western TV show Bonanza, they are inclined to think of Ben (Lorne Greene) and his three sons: Adam (Pernell Roberts), Hoss (Dan Blocker), and Little Joe (Michael Landon). What they often forget is that in the show's fifth season viewers were introduced to yet another Cartwright, Ben's nephew Will. Played by Guy Williams, Will was meant to be a replacement for eldest son Adam should Pernell Roberts decide to leave the show.

It has never been a secret that Pernell Roberts was not particularly happy starring on Bonanza. He was a stage actor who had played everything from Shakespeare to Eugene O'Neill. As a stage actor he was also accustomed to going from role to role, never remaining with one for too long. Not only did Mr. Roberts think Bonanza was beneath him, but he didn't particularly care for being stuck in the same role year after year. There was then a strong possibility that Pernell Roberts might leave in the show's fifth season.

It was then in the fifth season that a possible exit for Pernell Roberts and the character of Will was created. It was in the episode "The Waiting Game" that Adam met widow Laura Drayton (Kathie Browne), who had a young daughter. Over a few episodes love would blossom between Laura and Adam.  Quite simply, if Pernell Roberts decided to leave Bonanza, Adam could simply marry Laura and they would move away.

Of course, this would leave only three Cartwrights. It was then decided that another Cartwright should be introduced to the show should Pernell Roberts decide to leave. This was not the first time another "Cartwright" had been considered. The fourth season episode "The First Born" introduced Little Joe's older half brother Clay Stafford, the son of Ben's third wife Marie. Clay was played by Barry Coe, who had previously been the star of the short-lived show Follow the Sun. As it turned out, the character did not work out and only appeared for only one episode. As to Adam's possible replacement in the fifth season, Will Cartwright would last a little longer.

Will Cartwight was played by Guy Williams, then as now known for playing the title role in the Walt Disney TV series Zorro. Will was the son of Ben's brother John and hence Ben's nephew. He was introduced in the episode "Return to Honour" and would spend three more episodes becoming a part of the Cartwright family on the Ponderosa. Unfortunately for both actor Guy Williams and the character of Will, Pernell Roberts would decide to stay on Bonanza. The character of Will then became redundant.

What was meant to be Adam's exit from the series then became Will's exit from the series. In the episode "Triangle" Will and Laura fell in love and in the end the two of them left for San Francisco. Will was never seen again, or even referred to. As to Adam, in the sixth season Pernell Roberts finally decided to leave Bonanza. This time around no effort was made to introduce a replacement for Adam. In the seventh season it was simply mentioned that Adam had gone off to sea. Ultimately the seventh season would be remarkable as the only time that Bonanza only had three characters. It was in the eighth season that Candy (David Canary), the new foreman of the Ponderosa, was introduced as a lead character.

Of course, if Pernell Roberts had departed from Bonanza in its fifth season and Guy Williams had replaced him, it would have had a far-reaching impact on American television history. With regards to Bonanza, not only would Adam have been gone from the show a season earlier, but it seems likely that David Canary would never have joined the show as Candy. Those familiar with television history will also realise that it would have had impact beyond Bonanza. Quite simply, Guy Williams's very next role was that of Prof. John Robinson on Lost in Space. If Guy Williams had replaced Pernell Roberts on Bonanza as Will Cartwright, then Lost in Space would have had an entirely different lead actor.

I understand that many fans at the time of Bonanza's fifth season resented the character of Will. Quite simply, many fans did not like the idea of someone replacing Adam. As I was a baby at the time I don't remember this at all, but having seen the entire run of Bonanza I have to confess that I always liked the character of Will. I think he would have been a fine addition to the cast of Bonanza. Of course, here I have to point out that I was always a fan of Guy Williams (to this day I watch the old TV show Zorro) and I was never particularly a fan of the character of Adam. I think even if I had been older at the time, I would have been fine with Will Cartwright taking the place of Adam. That having been said, it would have changed American television history.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Makin' Up a Mess of Murder: The Banana Splits Turn Evil in New Syfy Movie

These are not your parents' Banana Splits!
The Banana Splits Adventure Hour debuted when I was five years old on NBC. The show was historic as Hanna-Barbera's first time blending both live-action and animation.  It was hosted by the bubblegum pop band of the title, The Banana Splits, in live action segments. The Banana Splits were all anthropomorphic animals: guitarist Fleagle (a dog), drummer Bingo (an ape), bassist Drooper (a lion), and keyboardist Snorky (an elephant). The Banana Splits would introduce the various segments of the show, which included two animated segments and one live action segment for most of its run. The Banana Splits performed catchy, hook-ridden bubble gum pop songs and took part in various sketches in between the various other segments. Picture a cross between The Monkees and Rowan and Martin's Laugh In and you have The Banana Splits Adventure Hour.

I have to admit that I was a big fan of The Banana Splits Adventure Hour when I was five and six. To this day the show's theme song, "The Tra La La Song (One Banana, Two Banana)," will pop into my head at unexpected times and I can still remember some of the show's catchphrases ("Hold the bus!"). One can then imagine my shock when the trailer for the Syfy film The Banana Splits Movie came out last Thursday. Not only are these not The Banana Splits of my childhood. They are downright homicidal. Quite simply, The Banana Splits Movie is a horror movie.

I am sure that I am not the only member of my generation who found the trailer for The Banana Splits Movie shocking. The Banana Splits Adventure Hour proved very popular upon its debut on September 7 1968. And there is little wonder that it should have proven successful. The costumes and sets were designed by Sid and Marty Krofft in their first venture into Saturday morning. The voices of the characters were provided by truly big names: Paul Winchell, Daws Butler, and Allan Melvin. Their songs were produced by top session musicians, including Al Kooper, Gene Pitney, Jimmy Radcliffe, and Barry White. In its second season The Banana Splits Adventure Hour would succumb in the ratings to Scooby Doo, Where Are You? and The Archie Comedy Hour, but it would remain in syndication throughout the Seventies. It would later run on the Cartoon Network and Boomerang.

Despite the show's enduring popularity, it is clear from Syfy's synopsis alone that this is not The Banana Splits of Gen Xers' childhoods. The synopsis reads, "A boy named Harley and his family (brother Austin, mother Beth, and father Mitch) attend a taping of The Banana Splits TV show, which is supposed to be a fun-filled birthday for young Harley and business as usual for Rebecca, the producer of the series. But things take an unexpected turn — and the body count quickly rises. Can Harley, his mom, and their new pals safely escape?"

If the synopsis isn't enough to freak long-fans of The Banana Splits out, the trailer is more than enough to do so. Drooper dispatches someone with a mallet. It appears Fleagle kills someone in a variation of the magic trick of sawing someone in half. The Banana Splits intimidate children with fire. By the way, it should come as no surprise that The Banana Splits aren't guys in suits, but instead killer robots. As if all of this wasn't already creepy enough, there is a warped version of "The Tra La La Song (One Banana Two Banana)" playing through much of the trailer. The Banana Splits Movie would seem to owe a bit to the video game series Five Nights at Freddy's, in which a security guard must do battle with Chuck E. Cheese-type animatronic robots gone rouge. Of course, both The Banana Splits Movie and Five Nights at Freddy's owe a good deal to Westworld.

I have to admit that as someone who remembers The Banana Splits Adventure Hour from his childhood I found the trailer for The Banana Splits Movie disturbing. The Banana Splits always seemed so nice and friendly and fun that it is unsettling to see them committing mayhem on people. I think it would have been different if they had used characters from a children's show I always found creepy. Even as a child I could easily have seen H.R. Pufnstuf committing mass murder (I never watched that show because it was so creepy). I'm sure many of my younger, British friends could say the same thing about Mr. Noseybonk on Jigsaw. But seeing The Banana Splits, whom I loved as a child, committing mass murder is a bit unsettling.

Of course, I guess people like me who find the trailer to The Banana Splits Movie disturbing can always take solace in that these are not the "real" Banana Splits. First, from the fashions in the trailer I am guessing that the movie is set in a later time than 1968, so it's not The Banana Splits I watched as child. Second, The Banana Splits Adventure Hour was never filmed in front of a live studio audience, another clue that these aren't the original Banana Splits. Third, it is an established fact that The Banana Splits were guys in suits (Jeff Winkless, Terence H. Winkless, Dan Winkless, and others), with voices provided by top voice actors. We know that they weren't robots. Indeed, we don't have the technology for killer robots even now, so we didn't in 1968 either. It is then not "really" Fleagle, Bingo, Drooper, and Snorky murdering people, merely robots in their image.

As bizarre as The Banana Splits Movie sounds, it is not the first off-the-wall take on the Furry Four. In 2016 DC Comics launched Hanna-Barbera Beyond, a line of comic books that takes classic Hanna-Barbera characters into edgier territory. As part of this line DC Comics put out The Banana Splits/Suicide Squad Special, in which the rock band The Banana Splits are mistaken for metahumans and recruited by government agent Amanda Waller to rescue the Suicide Squad. Of course, in this instance The Banana Splits are heroes, which is a bit more in keeping with the original characters in my mind...

Regardless, I have to admit that I will watch The Banana Splits Movie. I am not one of those people who opposes reboots, even when they are as bizarre as this one is. While I found the trailer disturbing, the movie won't ruin my childhood and I will still have fond memories of The Banana Splits Adventure Hour. And I do like B horror movies, even when the killers are beloved childhood characters. I am certainly not going to stay up at night worrying that Drooper might come after me with a mallet. That having been said, someone really ought to make an H. R. Pufnstuf horror movie. That would be truly frightening!