Saturday, December 4, 2021

Hans Conried: Scene Stealer in Radio, in Movies, & On Television

(This post is a part of the 10th Annual What a Character Blogathon hosted by Paula's Cinema Club, Outspoken & Freckled, and Once Upon a Screen.)

Like most character actors, Hans Conried had a bit of a niche. That is, he may be best known for playing pretentious intellectuals. Despite this, what may be his best known characters were not pretentious intellectuals. He was Uncle Tonoose on the classic sitcom Make Room for Daddy/The Danny Thomas Show. He was Snidely Whiplash on Dudley Do-Right and yet other characters on Jay Ward's cartoons. He played hapless pilot Wrongway Feldman on Gilligan's Island twice. Hans Conried was a versatile actor who may have been best known for playing pretentious intellectuals, but he played a whole host of other character types as well.

Hans Conried was born on April 15 1917 in Baltimore. He was raised in both Baltimore and New York City. He studied acting at Columbia University with the goal of becoming a serious actor who played Shakespeare. He appeared on stage before going into radio, where he first made a considerable mark. He was a regular on the radio sitcom My Friend Irma, playing Professor Kropotkin, the upstairs neighbour of Irma and her family. His performance as Professor Kropotkin demonstrated one of his talents as an actor. Quite simply, he was a master of dialects. As Professor Kropotkin he spoke with a Russian accent. Through the years he would play characters who spoke with other accents, from East European to Mediterranean. Mr. Conried would also appear regularly on other classic radio shows. He was a psychiatrist that George often consulted on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. He also appeared regularly on The Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy Show, Ceiling Unlimited, The Judy Canova Show, Life with Luigi, My Favourite Husband, The Alan Young Show, and yet others. He guest starred on many radio shows, including Hallmark Playhouse, The Jack Carson Show, The Dinah Shore Show, Lights Out, and many more. His last performance on radio was on CBS Radio Mystery Theatre in the Seventies.

Hans Conried moved from radio into movies. He made his movie debut in a small part in Dramatic School in 1939, but he would play bit parts in movies (often uncredited) until 1942. It was in 1942 that he appeared in his first major role in Blondie's Blessed Event. In Blondie's Blessed Event, Hans Conried plays George Wickley, a down-and-out playwright that Dagwood (Arthur Lake) had met at a hotel at a architect's convention. George moves in with Dagwood and Blondie (Penny Singleton) and quickly takes over their household. Hans Conried easily steals every scene that he is in, and he is easily the best part of Blondie's Blessed Event.

Hans Conried's career in film and radio would be interrupted by military service during World War II. In September 1944 he enlisted in the United States Army. At Fort Knox he trained to be a tank crewman until it was determined he was too tall for such. He was then trained as a heavy mortar crewman. He served in the Philippines until fellow actor Jack Kruschen (another master of dialects) was able to have him transferred to the Armed Forces Network.

Hans Conried resumed his movie career playing Karl, a hotel waiter who also happens to be a Communist, in The Senator is Indiscreet. While Hans Conried would appear in several movies, his biggest impact may have been as the voices of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook in the classic Disney movie Peter Pan (1953). That same year he played what may be his most notable movie role aside from the two in Peter Pan: Dr. Terwilliker, the imperious piano teacher of the title in The 5,000 fingers of Dr. T. (1953). That very same year he played Professor Amos Pomfritt  the meddlesome English instructor in The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953). While Hans Conried primarily appeared in television following the Fifties, he continued appearing in movies into the Seventies. He played Professor Whatley in The Shaggy D.A. (1976) and Dr. Barnes in Oh, God! Book II (1980), his final film role.

Hans Conried appeared in the medium of television very early, making his TV debut in 1949 in an episode of Oboler Comedy Theatre. It was in 1955 that he would appear in one of his most famous roles, that of Uncle Tonoose on Make Room for Daddy/The Danny Thomas Show. Uncle Tonoose was Danny's brash, over-the-top, highly traditional uncle and the patriarch of the family. Uncle Tonoose may well have been the most popular character on the show and it is safe to say his appearances were highly anticipated by viewers. Hans Conried would reprise his role as Uncle Tonoose in the sequel to Make Room for Daddy/The Danny Thomas Show, Make Room for Granddaddy in 1970 and 1971.

Aside from Uncle Tonoose, it is possible that Hans Conried's most famous television character was Snidely Whiplash, the moustache twirling villain on the "Dudley Do-Right" segment of Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show. Hans Conried would do a good deal of voice work for Jay Ward beyond Snidely Whiplash. He was the host and narrator of Jay Ward's show Fractured Flickers. On Hoppity Hooper he was the voice of Waldo P. Wigglesworth, the title character's friend, a fox who sold patent medicines and often engaged in confidence schemes. He served as the narrator on the pilot episode of George of the Jungle. Hans Conried did other voice work beyond Jay Ward's animated series. He did voices for characters on various episodes of Disneyland. As Boris Karloff died, he served as both the narrator and the voice of the Grinch in the TV special Halloween is Grinch Night. Later he was Dr. Dred on the 1980s cartoon Drak Pack and provided various voices for Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.

Among Hans Conried's most famous roles is one he only played twice. Hans Conried played the role of Wrongway Feldman on the Gilligan's Island episodes "Wrongway Feldman" and "The Return of Wrongway Feldman." Wrongway Feldman was a World War I fighter pilot who tried to fly around the world in his plane The Spirit of the Bronx. The problem is that Wrongway, true to this name, has a terrible sense of direction. The first time he crashed on the island, he left in hopes of getting help for the castaways. He later returned, only to leave again and crash on what he described as a strange island (that sounded suspiciously like Hawaii). In the Disneyland episode "Davy Crockett and the Alamo," he made another notable appearance, playing the conman Thimblerig. Hans Conried would make many other notable guest appearances through the years on such shows as I Love Lucy; The Red Skelton Show; Have Gun--Will Travel; Mister Ed; Hogan's Heroes; Love, American Style; Kolchak: The Night Stalker; and yet others.

Hans Conried continued acting until his death in 1982 at age 64 from a major heart attack.

Hans Conried was certainly a great character actor. Over the years he played many intellectual types, from Professor Kropotkin to Dr. Terwilliker  in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. to Professor Pomfritt in The Affairs of Dobie Gillis to a number of guest appearances on television shows. Mr. Conried was nothing if not versatile, however, so that he played a number of different sorts of roles. He was as convincing as the brash Uncle Tonoose as he was as the clueless Wrongway Feldman. He could be Victorian melodrama Snidely Whiplash, but then he could also be the hapless playwright George Wickley. What is more, he was a master of accents and dialects, so that over the years he played everything from Nazi officers to Russians. Regardless of the role, Hans Conried played all of them well, to the point that he very nearly stole every scene in which he ever appeared. Hans Conried could easily dominate every scene he was in, even against such heavyweights as Danny Thomas and Lucille Ball. He was utterly unique, and is safe to say there will never be another like him.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Godspeed Arlene Dahl

Arlene Dahl, who appeared in several movies for MGM, died on November 29 2021 at the age of 96.

Arlene Dahl was born on August 11 1925 in Minneapolis. She took part in school plays at Margaret Fuller Elementary School and Washburn High School. Growing up she took both elocution lessons and dance lessons. Following high school Miss Dahl worked as a model for department stores and took part in a local drama group. She attended the University of Minnesota for a brief time.

Arlene Dahl moved to New York City where she signed with the Walter Thornton Modelling Agency. In 1945 she made her Broadway debut in Mr. Strauss Goes to Boston. It was in 1946 that she became the Rheingold Beer Girl. Arlene Dahl made her film debut in 1947 in an uncredited role in Life with Father. Her first major role came with her next movie, My Wild Irish Rose (1947). The movie brought her to the attention of MGM, who signed her to a contract. For the remainder of the Forties she appeared in the movies The Bride Goes Wild (1947), A Southern Yankee (1948), Reign of Terror (1949), Scene of the Crime (1949), Ambush (1950), The Outriders (1950), Three Little Words (1950), and Watch the Birdie (1950).

In the Fifties Arlene Dahl appeared in the films Inside Straight (1951), No Questions Asked (1951), Caribbean (1952), Desert Legion (1953), Jamaica Run (1953), Sangaree (1953), Here Come the Girls (1953), The Diamond Queen (1954), Woman's World (1954), Bengal Brigade (1954), Slightly Scarlet (1956), Wicked as They Come (1956), Fortune is a Woman (1957), and Journey to he Centre of the Earth (1959). She made her television debut in an episode of Lux Video Theatre. During the Fifties she appeared on the shows The Ford Television Theatre, Opening Night, and Riverboat. She appeared on Broadway in Cyrano de Bergerac. She also wrote a beauty column syndicated in newspapers and in 1954 she founded Arlene Dahl Enterprises, which specialized in cosmetics and lingerie.

In the Sixties Arlene Dahl appeared in the films Kisses for My President  (1964), Les poneyttes (1968), Les chemins de Katmandou (1969), Land Raiders (1969), and Du blé en liasses (1969). She appeared in the television shows Burke's Law, Bob Hope Presents Chrysler Theatre and Laugh-In. In 1967 she became a vice president at the advertising agency Kenyon and Eckhardt. In 1970 she began work at Sears Roebuck as the director of their beauty products.

In the Seventies she appeared on Broadway in Applause. She guest starred on the shows Love, American Style and Jigsaw John. In the Eighties Miss Dahl had a recurring role on the soap opera One Life to Live. She guest starred on the shows Fantasy Island and The Love Boat. In the Nineties she guest starred on the soap opera All My Children and she guest starred on the show Renegade and Air America. She appeared in the movie Night of the Warrior (1991).

Arlene Dahl also wrote books on beauty and even on astrology.

Arlene Dahl once said that her old films were "such an embarrassment." That was not necessarily true, as Miss Dahl was a fairly good actress. In Slightly Scarlet she played an ex-con, Dorothy, who was not only a kleptomaniac, but also a psychopath. In Fortune is a Woman she played a housewife who is implicated in insurance fraud. In Journey to the Centre of the Earth she played the backer of the expedition to the centre of the Earth. Arlene Dahl always lit up the screen, even when the movies in which she appeared might not have been that remarkable.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Godspeed Stephen Sondheim

Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim died on November 26 2021 at the age of 91. Among his works are the lyrics for West Side Story, and the music and lyrics for such musicals as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Sweeney Todd.

Stephen Sondheim was born on March 22 29130 in New York City. He was ten years old when he became friends with Oscar Hammerstein II's son James Hammerstein. He also became close friends with Oscar Hammerstein II himself, who became something of a surrogate father. Oscar Hammerstein II also became his mentor and taught Stephen Sondhiem about how to construct a musical by having him write four musicals, which included a musical based on a play he admired, a musical based on a play he liked but he thought was flawed, a musical based on a novel or short story, and an original musical.  Stephen Sondhheim attended Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Stephen Sondheim began his career in entertainment not in musical theatre, but in television. He wrote nine episodes of the classic sitcom Topper from 1953 to 1954. He would later write the episode "In Early Winter" for the anthology show Rendezvous. He wrote the music and lyrics for the musical Saturday Night. It was planned for the 1954-1955 Broadway season, but in the end it would not be staged until 1997 in London. It finally found its way to Broadway in 2000.

His first major success came in 1957 with West Side Story, for which he wrote the lyrics (Leonard Bernstein wrote the music). He had another success with Gypsy in 1959, for which he wrote the lyrics and Jule Styne wrote the music. In 1962 he had success with the first musical for which he wrote both the lyrics and music, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum. He followed it with Anyone Can Whistle in 1964. He wrote the lyrics for 1965's Do I Hear a Waltz?, for which Richard Rodgers wrote the music. Every musical upon which he worked afterwards he wrote both the lyrics and music for: Evening Primrose (1966), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), The Frogs (1974), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Into the Woods (1987), Assassins (1990), Passion (1994), and Road Show (2008).

In addition to his work in musical theatre, Stephen Sondheim also composed songs for the movies Reds (1981)and  Dick Tracy (1990).

Arguably Stephen Sondheim revolutionized American musical theatre. Quite simply, he brought it into the modern era. His musicals often tackled subject matter that had not been tackled on Broadway before. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was inspired by Roman Playwright Plautus and was set in ancient Rome. A Little Night Music was Ingmar Bergman's movie Smiles on a Summer Night (1955). Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was based on the play Sweeney Todd by Christopher Bond, whose origins can be traced all the way back to the play A String of Pearls or The Fiend of Fleet Street. It dealt with a murderous barber whose accomplice then uses his victims' bodies for meat for her pies. Into the Woods as a mash-up of various fairy tales. Stephen Sondheim pushed the envelope with regards to subject matter in American musical theatre.

Of course, Stephen Sondheim's revolution did not end with the subject matter of his musicals. His songs were a dramatic contrast to what had come before them on Broadway. He dis not embrace the romanticism that flowed through much of American musical theatre in the 20th Century, but instead his lyrics reflected real life. His lyrics were complicated, much as the characters in his musicals were, and could reflect defiance, sadness, confusion, and any number of other human emotions or conditions.

In the end Stephen Sondheim changed American musical theatre forever. An argument can be made that he virtually invented the concept musical. He certainly broadened the scope of what a Brodway musical could be.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Film Noir Style: The Killer 1940s by Kimberly Truhler

Kimberly Truhler is a film historian and fashion historian who has worked with Turner Classic Movies, the BBC, Christie's,  the National Film Registry, and yet others. She is an expert on costume design in film and how it intersects with fashion. If you know Kimberly (as I do), you realize that she knows the subjects of costume design and fashion very, very well. It is for that reason that I was looking forward to the publication of her book, Film Noir Style: The Killer 1940s. I was not disappointed.

In Film Noir Style: The Killer 1940s Kimberly examines the role of costume designers in the films noirs of the Forties and the lasting impact they sometimes had on the world of fashion. The book is divided into four sections: "Before the War 1940-1941," "The War Years 1942- 1945," "The Year of Transition 1946," and "The Post-War Years 1947-1950." Within those sections are essays on some of the greatest noirs ever made: The Maltese Falcon, Murder, My Sweet, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Out of the Past, and others. Because film, costume design, and fashion do not happen in a vacuum, Kimberly addresses much of the history of the Forties and how it impacted film, costume, design, and fashion, from World War II to the Red Scare. As might be expected, she discusses the costume designers who helped shaped the film noir movement, including Bonnie Cashin, Edith Head, Irene, Oleg Cassini, and others.

Kimberly's writing is concise, so that she is able to convey a good deal of information in a short period of time, while at the same time remaining immensely readable. She explains the creation and construction of the clothing used in film noir in such a way that it is easy for someone unfamiliar with costume design to understand. Complimenting Kimberly's prose are dozens of photos from the various films discussed, as well as photos from the era. Film Noir Style: The Killer 1940s also has a very pleasing layout, so that the photos do not detract from the prose.

My only real caveat with Film Noir Style: The Killer 1940s is that I do wish she had discussed the costumes of Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley) in Murder, My Sweet. The costumes of "Big League Blonde" Helen Grayle may be bolder than the more modest costumes worn by Ann, but I have always thought Ann's costumes were impressive in and of themselves. They certainly often a sharp contrast to Helen's costumes and helped define Ann's character in opposition to that of Helen. That having been said, this is a very small quibble and it certainly didn't distract from my enjoyment of Film Noir: The Killer 1940s. There is simply so much to love about this book.

Kimberly not only has a deep understanding of film, fashion, and costume design, but of the film noir movement itself. Fans of film noir will certainly appreciate how she traces the evolution of film noir and how its costume design continues to have an impact. I am certainly looking forward to any follow-up Kimberly might write on the noirs of the 1950s.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Twenty Years Ago Today George Harrison Died

It was twenty years ago today that George Harrison died after a prolonged battle with cancer. He was only 58. After John, George was always my favourite Beatle. That having been said, in many ways I felt closer to George than I did John. Having been born on February 25, he was a Pisces like me. What is more, he was the only Beatle who had been to the United States prior to their historic appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. His older sister Louise lived in Illinois and Missouri until relatively recently, so that it was not unusual to see her interviewed by the local television stations. Of course, I also loved George's songs,and he probably wrote more of my favourite Beatles songs than anyone except John.

George Harrison was born on February 25 1943 in Liverpool. He developed an interest in music when he was very young, and his father bought him his first guitar, in 1956. He met Paul McCartney on the bus to the Liverpool Institute, which they both attended. The two soon learned they both loved music. Paul McCartney was part of John Lennon's skiffle group The Quarrymen, the group that would evolve into The Beatles. George Harrison auditioned for The Quarrymen, but John Lennon thought the 15 year old George was too young. George auditioned for The Quarrymen a second time and impressed John by playing the lead guitar for Bill Justis's instrumental "Raunchy." Afterwards George played with The Quarrymen from time to time and eventually became a full-time member. George Harrison remained with the group as they went through various names until they settled on The Beatles.

George Harrison would become an integral part o The Beatles' success, both as their lead guitarist and a songwriter. As a songwriter George wrote such songs for The Beatles as "Think for Yourself," "Taxman," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Something," and "I Me Mine." Although he was arguably a songwriter equal to both John Lennon and Paul McCartney, John and Paul generally restricted George to two to three songs per album. It was perhaps for that reason that George became the first Beatles to release a solo album, Wonderwall Music in 1968. On November 27 1970 his album All Things Must Pass was released. A triple album, All Things Must Pass featured songs George had written for The Beatles that had been rejected. The album received widespread critical acclaim and hit no. 1 in both the United Kingdom and the United States.

It was not long after The Beatles' break-up that George Harrison also organized the Concert for Bangladesh. The charity event, held on August 1 1971, raised money for refugees during the Bangladesh Liberation War. George Harrison would have a very successful solo career. Living in a Material World, his follow-up to All Things Must Pass, also hit no. 1 on the Billboard album chart. His fourth studio solo album, Dark Horse, went to no. 4 on the Billboard album chart. While his following albums would not do as well, George Harrison was still fairly successful as a recording artist.

It was in 1988 that George Harrison joined Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, and Tom Petty in the supergroup The Travelling Wilburys,. The Travelling Wilburys released two albums, both of which were fairly successful. His song, "Handle with Care," served as The Travelling Wilburys' debut single. In 1994 George Harrison reunited with fellow Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr for The Beatles Anthology. This included the recording to two new Beatles songs using two tracks of John Lennon songs featuring only John's vocals and piano: "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love."

In addition to his music career, George Harrison served as executive producer on such movies as Life of Brian (1979), Time Bandits (1981), Withnail & I (1987), and Nuns on the Run (1990).

Like the rest of The Beatles, George Harrison had an enormous impact on my life. I am not sure when I became aware of The Beatles. It may have been hearing them on the radio or, more likely, The Beatles animated cartoon that aired on ABC in the mid to late Sixties. Either way, they became a part of my life and have remained my favourite rock group ever since. As my second favourite Beatle, George Harrison had a bit more impact on me than either Paul or Ringo. It is not unusual for my second favourite or even my favourite song from any given Beatles album to have been written by George Harrison. Indeed, after John Lennon's "In My Life," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is my favourite Beatles song. For me November 29 2001 was then a day filled with tears. George Harrison meant a lot to me, and he still does.