Friday, June 19, 2020

The Late Great Dame Vera Lynn

Dame Vera Lynn, who buoyed the spirits of Britain during World War II with her songs, died yesterday, December 18 2020, at the age of 103.

Dame Vera Lynn was born Vera Margaret Welch on March 20 1917 in East Ham, Essex. Her father was a plumber and her mother was a dressmaker. She was only seven years old when she began performing. For her stage name, when she was eleven she took her grandmother Margaret Lynn's maiden name. She made her debut on radio with the Joe Loss Orchestra in 1935. She also appeared on the Joe Loss Orchestra's records. In 1936 her first solo record, "Up the Wooden Hill to Bedfordshire," was released by Crown Records. The Crown label would become part of Decca Records in 1938. She moved form the Joe Loss Orchestra to Charlie Kurtz's band. In 1937 she moved onto Bert Ambrose & His Orchestra. For much of this period she also worked as an administrative assistant to the head of a shipping management company in the East End of London. It was in 1937 that Dame Vera had her first hits with "The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot" and "Red Sails in the Sunset."

It was in 1939 that Dame Vera Lynn's signature song, "We'll Meet Again," was released. Not only did the song become a huge hit, but it also became an anthem of hope for the United Kingdom during World War II. It was during the Phoney War (the eight month period at the start of World War II when very little was happening) that British servicemen named Vera Lynn as their favourite performer in a poll conducted by the Daily Express. She was afterwards known as "the Forces' Sweetheart." It was in 1940 that she became a solo act, making her debut as such in Conventry.

It was in 1941 that Dame Vera Lynn received her own radio show, Sincerely Yours. The show proved enormously popular, attracting 20% of the British population and receiving 2000 requests a week, and resonated with Britain's troops abroad. Unfortunately, some blamed sentimental popular music following losses in Southeast Asia and North Africa, claiming that such music was bad for the troops' morale. In 1942 Sincerely Yours was then cancelled 18 months, although Dame Vera Lynn's popularity with the British and their military guaranteed she would return to radio.

Regardless of the cancellation of her radio show, Dame Vera Lynn continued to perform songs requested by servicemen and visited new mothers in hospitals to send messages to their husbands overseas. She joined the e Entertainments National Service Association and entertained the troops abroad, even British guerillas in Japanese-occupied Burma. Her second major hit, "The White Cliffs of Dover," was released in 1943. During the war years, Dame Vera appeared in the movies We'll Meet Again (1943), Rhythm Serenade (1943), and One Exciting Night (1944).

Although Dame Vera Lynn would remain identified with World War II, her career would continue strong after the war. She would become one of the earliest British artists to have hits on the Billboard singles chart. She hit no. 9 on the chart with "You Can't Be True Dear" in 1949. In 1953 she became the first British artist to have a number one record in the United States with "Auf Wiederseh'n, Sweetheart," also a top ten hit in Britain. Her first album, Sincerely Yours, was released in 1949. Throughout the Fifties Dame Vera Lynn continued to have hits, including "Forget-Me-Not," "The Horning Waltz," "My Son, My Son," and "A House with Love in It." She would also hit the Billboard chart in the United States with "Yours (Quiéreme Mucho)," "If You Love Me (Really Love Me)," and "My Son, My Son."

With the arrival of rock 'n' roll, Dame Vera Lynn would no longer have much in the way of hit singles, although she continued to release albums on a regular basis. She would ultimately release over twenty studio albums. Dame Vera retired in the early Nineties, but it would not last long. To mark the 50th anniversary of VE Day she performed outside of Buckingham Palace. She then began performing again. In 2005 she performed at a concert in Trafalgar Square marking the 60th anniversary of VE Day. It was in 2009 that she became the oldest person to have a number 1 album on the UK album chart when her compilation album, We'll Meet Again: The Very Best of Vera Lynn, hit no. 1. In 2010 her final studio album, Unforgettable, was released.  A new compilation album, Vera Lynn 100, was released just three days before her 100th birthday in 2017. She became the first centenarian to have a hit album.

It was in 1975 that Dame Vera Lynn was knighted in the Queen's Birthday Honours. She had also been awarded the War Medal 1939-1945 and the Burma Star. Dame Vera Lynn was devoted to various charities. In 1954 she founded the Stars Organisation for Spastics, originally part of the cerebral palsy charity the National Spastics Society, which was later renamed Scope. In 1976 she founded the Vera Lynn Charity Breast Cancer Research Trust. In 2001 she became president of The Dame Vera Lynn Trust for Children with Cerebral Palsy. She was a patron of the Forces Literary Organisation Worldwide for ALL, the Dover War Memorial Project, and Projects to Support Refugees from Burma/Help 4 Forgotten Allies.

Americans may find it difficult to fully know the importance of Dame Vera Lynn. She was not simply the first British artist to have a number one record in the United States. It is with good reason that in 2000 she was named the Briton who best exemplified the spirit of the 20th Century. Dame Vera Lynn brought hope to the United Kingdom during their darkest hours. Her songs during World War II not only comforted and buoyed the British at home, but their armed forces fighting abroad. Dame Vera Lynn devoted herself to keeping up the troop's morales, even travelling to entertain them in war-torn areas. Dame Vera Lynn was still there for the British on her 103rd birthday, when she once more issued a message of hope for the United Kingdom amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. So strong was the hope that Dame Vera Lynn gave the British that when Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II addressed the United Kingdom while it was under lockdown, she evoked Dame Vera's signature song, "We'll Meet Again."

There can be little argument that Dame Vera Lynn's songs were overly sentimental, but she delivered them with such sincerity and honesty that all but the greatest cynics could not be moved. Furthermore, she sang with perfect pitch and perfect English enunciation. If Dame Vera Lynn's appeal has lasted for over eighty years, it was because she was not only gifted with a remarkable voice and remarkable talent, but because she had that rare ability to bring hope even when it seemed as if there were none.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Late, Great Denny O'Neil

Legendary comic book writer Denny O'Neil, who also worked under his given name of Dennis O'Neil, died on June 11 2020 at the age of 81. The cause was cardiopulmonary arrest. Mr. O'Neil was best known for returning Batman to his roots as the Dark Knight and bringing social relevance to comic books through Green Lantern/Green Arrow.

Dennis O'Neil was born on May 3 1939 in St. Louis, Missouri. His father ran a grocery store, while his other was a housewife. Like most children of the era, young Denny O'Neil read comic books. He listened to such radio shows as Adventures of Superman and Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. He attended St. Louis University and received a Bachelor of Science in 1961. After graduating from college he enlisted in the United States Navy and took pat in the blockade of Cuba that took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Following his service, Mr. O'Neil returned to St. Louis where he worked as a substitute teacher for a year. He then took a job with a newspaper in Cape Girardeau, Missouri as a reporter. There he worked on a bi-weekly column on youth. Noticing the increasing popularity of comic books, he wrote some articles on the medium for the column. These articles came to the attention of comic book superfan and an editor at Marvel Comics Roy Thomas, whose parents subscribed to the newspaper. Roy Thomas asked Mr. O'Neil to take the Marvel writing test, which consisted of adding dialogue to four pages from the Fantastic Four Annual (illustrated by Jack Kirby). Stan Lee then offered him a job at Marvel Comics.

At Marvel Comics, Mr. O'Neil worked on such titles as Daredevil, Strange Tales (featuring Doctor Strange), Millie the Model, Rawhide Kid, and The Two-Gun Kid, Chamber of Darkness, and X-Men. It was on The Uncanny X-Men that he first worked with artist Neal Adams, with whom he would work on Green Lantern/ Green Arrow and Batman. It was Messrs. O'Neil and Adams who returned Professor Xavier to the pages of The Uncanny X-Men no. 65 (February 1970) , after the character had been killed off in The Uncanny X-Men no. 42 (March 1968).

Dennis O'Neil then took a job with Charlton Comics, using the pen name Sergius O'Shaugnessy. He worked under editor Dick Giordano. At Charlton, he worked on the titles Thunderbolt, Abbott and Costello, and Space Adventures. Mr. O'Neil worked at Charlton Comics for about a year when Dick Giordano was hired by National Periodical Publications (now known as DC Comics). Mr. Giordano took several of Charlton's writers with him, including Denny O'Neil. Among his earliest work at DC was on the title Beware the Creeper, featuring the character The Creeper created by artist Steve Ditko. Denny O'Neil then worked on Wonder Woman, on which he made the controversial decision to strip Wonder Woman of her powers, cut her off from Paradise Island (home of the Amazons), and turn her into an international adventurer. Stripping Wonder Woman of her powers would prove very unpopular with the character's fans.

Fortunately, Mr O'Neil found more success at Justice League of America. He began introducing stories with social and political themes. Following  introduction of the character's new costume, designed by Neal Adams, Brave and the Bold no. 85 (September 1969), he also revamped The Green Arrow as a liberal, socially aware crusader on behalf of the underprivileged. He also worked on such titles as Bat Lash, Green Lantern, and Showcase.

It was in 1970 that Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams returned Batman to his roots as the Dark Knight following the camp approach that had come about with the classic 1966 TV show. Robin was sent off to college, so that Batman once more operated solo. He introduced archvillain Ra's al Ghul and his daughter Talia. He revived the villain Two-Face, who had been absent from comic books since 1954. After the character had become a practical joking clown, it was also Dennis O'Neil who returned The Joker to being a homicidal psychopath. It was during this period that Bruce Wayne also moved out of Wayne Manor and into the penthouse of the Wayne Foundation Building. Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams's retooling of Batman as something closer to the original Dark Knight would have a lasting impact on the character. Without Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, there might not have been Frank Miller's graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns (which Mr. O'Neil edited), Tim Burton's two Batman movies, or "The Dark Knight Trilogy."

While Denny O'Neil's work on Batman would prove to be influential, so too would his work on Green Lantern. It was with Green Lantern vol. 2, no. 76 (April 1970) that Mr. O'Neil teamed Green Lantern up with Green Arrow, with the later character providing a liberal point of view and a voice for the underprivileged.  It would be the first American comic book to significantly deal with the social issues of the day. Through the next several issues, Green Lantern tackled such issues as racism, pollution, income inequality, and overpopulation. Perhaps the most memorable storyline occurred in Green Lantern vol. 2 no 85 (August 1971) and vol. 2 no. 86 (October 1971), in which Green Arrow discovers his former sidekick, Speedy, has become addicted to heroin. Unfortunately, sales for Green Lantern were poor and the title was cancelled with vol. 2 no. 89 (April 1972). Green Lantern would continue as a back-up feature with The Flash no. 217 (September 1972).

Although not as well remembered as his retooling of Batman, Denny O'Neil was also involved in a revamp of Superman. Kryptonite was entirely eliminated from Earth and Superman's powers were decreased. Much of Superman's mythos was also eliminated, including  the villains Mr. Mxyzptlk, Bizarro, and Titano, as well as Superman's dog Krypto. This reboot of Superman lasted only briefly. It began with Superman no. 233 (January 1971). Superman no. 243 (October) saw the return of a more traditional Superman.

Denny O'Neil continued to work on both Batman and Green Lantern for several years. From 1972 to 1975 he had a notable run on The Shadow, featuring the pulp character of the same name. He also wrote the four issues of the short-lived Justice Inc., based on the pulp character The Avenger. In the Seventies at DC, Mr. O'Neil worked on such titles as Adventure Comics, All-Star Western, The Joker, Shazam!, Superman, Sword of Sorcery, Richard Dragon Kung Fu Fighter, Tarzan, Time Warp, and Weird Worlds.

In 1980 Dennis O'Neil returned to Marvel Comics. He worked on The Amazing Spider-Man for a year. Afterwards he worked on Iron Man for four years. Among the most significant storylines he wrote for Iron Man was one in which Tony Stark must come to grips with his alcoholism. He also wrote Daredevil for two years. At Marvel he also worked on such titles as Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, the Dominic Fortune back-up feature in The Hulk, Moon Knight, and Power Man and Iron Fist.

In 1986 Dennis O'Neil returned to DC Comics as the editor of the Batman titles. He continued as their editor until 2000. He wrote The Question as well as Green Arrow. As might be expected, he continued to write Batman stories from time to time. He worked on such titles as Azrael, JLA, and Nightwing.

In addition to his work in comic books, Dennis O'Neil also wrote several novels, including The Bite of Monsters (1971) and Dragon's Fists – Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Master (with Jim Berry, 1974), as well as novels based featuring Batman and Green Lantern. Over the years he also wrote several stories and novellas published in such magazines as Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fantastic Stories, and Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction. Dennis O'Neil also did some work in television, writing episodes of Logan's Run, Superboy, and Batman: The Animated Series.

Few writers have ever had the impact that Denny O'Neil had comic books. With Neal Adams, he returned Batman to the Dark Knight he originally was. There have very few incarnations of Batman in various media that have not been influenced by Mr. O'Neil's interpretation of Batman. The character of Ra's al Ghul, created by Mr. O'Neil, would become a permanent part of the Batman mythos. He also reintroduced Two-Face, who had been absent from comic books for over a decade. Through Green Lantern/Green Arrow he introduced social relevance into comic books, taking what had been considered a medium for children for much of the Sixties into more adult territory.  It would be Denny O'Neil who would set the stage for everything from The Dark Knight Returns to the various Batman movies.

Here I also have to say that Denny O'Neil may have had more of an influence on me than an other comic book writer save Bill Finger and Gardner Fox. The first comic book I ever read was Batman no. 234 (August 1971). Although I didn't realise it at the time, it was a historic issue. The main story, "Half an Evil," marked the first appearance of Two-Face in 17 years. A fan of the classic TV series Batman, I found the darker character written by Denny O'Neil much more appealing. I have been a fan of the Dark Knight ever since. My second favourite superhero is Green Lantern (although these days I prefer Alan Scott to Hal Jordan), and I have no doubt that much of this is because of Denny O'Neil's work with the character. If I became an avid reader of comic books (which led me to become a writer), I owe much of it to Dennis O'Neil.

Monday, June 15, 2020

The Apartment Premiered 60 Years Ago Today

It was sixty years ago today that The Apartment (1960) premiered at the Astor and Plaza theatres in New York City. The movie proved to be a hit at the box office. It also won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director (for Billy Wilder), Best Original Screenplay (for Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond), Best Art Direction – Black-and-White (for Alexandre Trauner and Edward G. Boyle), and Best Film Editing (for Daniel Mandell). It was also nominated for the Oscars for Best Actor (for Jack Lemmon), Best Actress (for Shirley MacLaine), Best Supporting Actor (for Jack Kruschen), Best Cinematography – Black-and-White (for Jack LaShelle), and Best Sound (for Gordon E. Sawyer).

I am not sure when I first saw The Apartment, but I know I was still young at the time. It has since become not only my favourite Billy Wilder movie, but my second favourite movie of all time (after Seven Samurai). As to why it is my second favourite movie of all time, much of it is because I consider it nearly perfect. Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's screenplay is very sophisticated, equally comedy and drama, and is filled with complex characters. Indeed, even characters that only appear briefly on screen are fully realized human beings rather than cardboard cut-outs. Of course, even the best screenplay won't save a movie if the cast's performances are bad, but fortunately everyone in The Apartment turns in bravura performances. I honestly believe Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Jack Kruschen all deserved to win the Oscars for which they were nominated. Everything about the movie, from Billy Wilder's direction to Jack LaShelle's cinematography to Adolph Deutsch's score, is extraordinary.

I also have to admit that the story appeals to me. It is essentially the story of C. C. Baxter in his journey from a bit of a pushover (particularly when it comes to his superiors at Consolidated Life) to a mensch. When I was younger I think I was a bit like C. C. Baxter, but with a few more limits to my behaviour (I don't think I would let anyone borrow my house) so I can identify with the character. I also have to admit that the developing relationship between Baxter and Fran Kubelik has always held great appeal to me. People can describe movies such as An Affair to Remember and Titanic as romantic all they want. To me the most romantic movie of them all is The Apartment.

Of course, as much as I love The Apartment, it hasn't always been the easiest movie for me to watch. After I went through a bad break-up in the early Nineties, I couldn't watch it for six months. Ever since Vanessa's death in August 2018, I find that I cannot watch the movie without breaking down sobbing. We both loved the movie and, I have to confess, I thought of Vanessa as my Miss Kubelik.

Over the years I have written a lot about The Apartment, perhaps more than any other film. I won't post every single blog entry I have made dealing with The Apartment as there have been many, but here are three of them for you to read on its 60th anniversary.

"Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960)"
"Jack Lemmon in The Apartment (1960)"
"Why The Apartment (1960) is a Christmas Movie"