Sunday, December 31, 2023

Goodbye, 2023

In many ways 2023 was not a good year from me. Earlier this year I had health problems ranging from my blood pressure medication ceasing to lower my blood pressure to problems with thermoregulation, probably due to what I had thought was the flu last December, but I am now convinced was COVID-19. From April into June I was then somewhat miserable. Fortunately, I  have been feeling much better since then, although there was one event this year that put me in a foul mood, not to mention every other Turner Classics Movie fan.

Quite simply, in June, Warner Bros. Discovery seemed intent on gutting TCM, with massive layoffs at the channel. Among those who were laid off were people who had been with Turner Classic Movies for literally years, including Pola Changnon, general manager of TCM (who had been with the channel for 25 years), Charles Tabesh, senior vice president in charge of content and programming (who had been with TCM from the beginning), Genevieve McGillicuddy, vice president of enterprises and strategic partnerships (who organized the annual TCM Classic Film Festival), and Anne Wilson, vice president of studio production. To TCM fans it seemed as if for the first time in the channel's 29 years of existence that it was under threat. The backlash was swift, immediate, and massive. And it wasn't simply TCM fans who were outraged, but celebrities ranging from actor Ryan Reynolds to such legendary directors as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.

Fortunately, the outrage on the part of TCM fans would have some effect. Charlie Tabesh was restored to his post, and Genevieve McGillicuddy returned to Turner Classic Movies as well. Actor Brian Cox, a long time Turner Classic Movies fan, recently said that "the guy who runs Warner Bros. Discovery now" (David Zaslav, CEO of the company) doesn't understand the value of TCM, and added that he will defend it to the death. Sadly, I think Mr. Cox is right about Zaslav not understanding the value of Turner Classic Movies, so that many TCM fans, myself included, are still concerned about the future of the channel.

Of course, 2023 was also a sad year insofar as the many beloved celebrities who have died this year. Sadly, among them was one who was a friend of many classic movie fans, myself included. Bobby Rivers, film critic and celebrity interviewer who had his own show on VH-1, died only a few days ago. I had first started interacting with Bobby through social media around 2012 or 2013, and I remember many wonderful discussions with him on subjects related to classic movies and classic television.  Bobby was an original participant in TCMParty, the group of fans who live tweet movies on Turner Classic Movies using that hashtag and he was friends with many TCM fans, so that he was and still is heavily mourned. Here I want to stress, Bobby wasn't the only well-known person who had taken part in TCMParty to die this year. Film historian, author, editor, and filmmaker Cari Beauchamp died earlier this month. Cari was a close friend with many of my close friends and even a mentor to some of them. Cari was both well-respected and well-loved by TCM fandom, so that her death sent shock waves through the community. Earlier in the year Newton Minow, who was Chairman of the FCC during the Kennedy administration, died at the age of 97. I never knew Mr. Minow, but he has always been one of my heroes. Like many classic movie fans, I have had the privilege of interacting with his daughter Nell Minow on various social media services over the years.

The year 2023 saw the passings of several beloved stars from film and television. To list them all would take the better part of this post and I apologize for leaving some people out, but among them were: Cindy Williams, who starred in American Graffiti (1973) and played Shirley on the classic sitcom Laverne & Shirley; Lisa Loring, the original Wednesday Addams on The Addams Family; Italian sex symbol Gina Lollobrigida; Melinda Dillon of A Christmas Story (1983) fame; the legendary Raquel Welch; Stella Stevens; Richard Belzer of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit fame; legendary producer Walter Mirisch; stuntman and filmmaker Ricou Browning; B-movie producer Bert I. Gordon; legendary actor Topol; Lance Reddick, Charon in the "John Wick" movies and other films; legendary singer and actor Harry Belafonte; George Maharis, forever Buz Murdock on Route 66; Barry Newman, who starred in the movie Vanishing Point (1971) and the TV series Petrocelli; the legendary Glenda Jackson; Alan Arkin, who appeared in films from The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming (1966) to The In-Laws (1979); Bob Barker, host of Truth or Consequences and The Price is Right; Arleen Sorkin, legendary soap opera star who also inspired DC comics character Harley Quinn; David McCaullum, who played Ashley-Pitt  in The Great Escape (1963) and cool Russian agent Illya Kuryakin on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.; Phyllis Coates, popular pinup and the first Lois Lane on the TV series The Adventures of Superman; Mark Goddard, who starred in the shows Johnny Ringo, The Detectives, and Lost in Space; Lara Parker, forever Angelique on Dark Shadows; Richard Roundtree, best known as private eye John Shaft; Richard Moll of Night Court fame; Matthew Perry, forever Chandler Bing on Friends; television director Robert Butler; movie and TV star Marisa Pavan; legendary television producer and writer Norman Lear; legendary actor Ryan O'Neil; Andre Braugher, who appears in such films as Glory (1989) and The Tuskegee Airman (1995) and starred on the TV shows Homicide: Life in the Streets and Brooklyn Nine-Nine; and legendary comedian and folk singer Tom Smothers.

The year 2023 also saw several legendary music talents pass on, including: guitarist Jeff Beck; folk singer and songwriter Gordon Lightfoot; music legend Tina Turner; Ed Ames of the Ames Brothers; legendary crooner Tony Bennett; Robbie Robertson of The Band; Gary Wright, known for his work with Spooky Tooth and his solo career; power pop legend Dwight Twilley; Denny Laine of The Moody Blues and Wings; and The Pogues' front man Shane MacGowan. Several legends in the field of comic books and cartooning also died this year, including: Joe Giella, the legendary artist known for his work at DC Comics during the Silver Age; comic book writer Steve Skeates, known for his work on Aquaman; the legendary Al Jaffee, the longest running contributor to Mad; John Romita Sr., well-known for his work on The Amazing Spider-Man; and comic book artist and writer Keith Giffen, who created Ambush Bug and co-created Rocket Raccoon and Jaime "Blue Beetle" Reyes.

Of course, entertainment news in 2023 was dominated by both the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) going on strike at very nearly the same time. It was the first time that both writers and actors were on strike since 1960. Central to the concerns of both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA were residuals from streaming and the use of artificial intelligence (AI). The writers were concerned that Hollywood might employ AI to write whole scripts. The actors were concerned that AI could be used to replicate their likenesses without any compensation. The WGA's strike began on May 2 and ended on September 27, making it the union's second longest strike, tied with the 1960 strike, after their strike in 1988. In the case of SAG-AFTRA, it was the longest strike in the union's history.

As might be expected, the reactions of studio executives were unreasonable, to say the least. For example, Bob Iger, the CEO of the Walt Disney Company, claimed the actors' demands were "not realistic." I hate to tell Mr. Iger, but from my standpoint as a consumer, the idea that he deserves to be paid $27 million is not realistic. I watch movies and TV shows because of the people who write them, the people who direct them, and the people who act in them, not because of who the CEO of the studio is. Indeed, I agree with John Cleese, who said on Twitter, "I keep reading that film studios are contemplating replacing writers and actors by using Artificial Intelligence to mimic their talents. Surely it would be easier and more efficient to replace executives, since they have no talent at all."  It would certainly save the studios a lot of money, money that could be used to pay directors, writers, and actors.

Another big news story in movie news this year is the idea that "superhero fatigue" has set in after over a decade of superheroes dominating the box office. The fact is that several superhero movies did fail at the box office this year, including Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, The Flash, Blue Beetle, and The Marvels. That having been said, there were some successful superhero movies this year as well. Of the top five highest grossing movies of 2023, two were superhero movies, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and the animated Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. I am undecided as to whether audiences are actually tired of superheroes or if they are being choosier about which superhero movies they want to see at the theatre. Indeed, of the superhero movies released this year there are only two I would have liked to have seen at the theatre Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Blue Beetle (which, sadly, did not do well at the box office despite being a good movie). Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is still in theatres, and so far it seems to be falling short of expectations.

Of course, superheroes aren't faring well on television either. The CW, long-time home to various DC Comics superheroes, has pretty much cancelled all of their superhero shows with the exception of Superman & Lois, whose fourth season will be its last. Streaming service Max cancelled both Titans and Doom Patrol. While The CW and Max were cancelling superhero shows, Disney+ seems to have a full slate of them for next year, including Echo, Ironheart, X-Men '97, Agatha: Darkhold Diaries, Daredevil: Born Again; and Spider-Man: Freshman Year. I guess 2023 was a bad year for those of us who are DC fans, but a bit better for Marvel fans.

Regardless of whether superheroes will continue to be popular, it is certain that Barbie is. Barbie was the big movie this year, raking in a whopping $636 million. I can fully understand why. Aside from being based on an iconic and still popular property, Barbie is also one of the best movies to come out this year. Among the other top grossing films of this year were The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Oppenheimer, The Little Mermaid, Avatar: The Way of Water, and John Wick: Chapter 4. Despite the phenomenal success of Barbie, at the moment it seems a sequel is unlikely. I think that may be just as well, as the film's story is pretty much wrapped up by the end of the movie.

As far as television goes, this year saw The CW continued to do away with superhero properties, as the long-running The Flash ended and it was revealed that the fourth season would be the last for Superman & Lois. One of my favourite show, Reservation Dogs, ended in its run on Hulu after three seasons. Another one of my favourite shows, Doom Patrol, also ended its run. Of the new shows to debut this year, only Lawmen: Bass Reeves really grabbed me. Other than that, my favourite new shows were ones that have been on a while: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Star Trek: Lower Decks, and Our Flag Means Death.

While for others the biggest movie news of the year may have been the  WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, the phenomenal success of Barbie, or the failure of various superhero movies at the box office, for me the biggest news this year was the premier of Ninety Minutes Later at the SAFILM-San Antonio Film Festival in August. Ninety Minutes Later is a documentary on my dearest Vanessa Marquez's life, career, and tragic death. It is directed by Cyndy Fujikawa and produced by Daniel Villareal, one of Vanessa's Stand and Deliver co-stars (he played Chuco in the movie). It has since played at the OC Film Fiesta, the Pembroke Taparelli Arts Festival, the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, and  the Vail Film Festival. I am hoping that a distributor will pick it up. As I see it, the more people who see Ninety Minutes Later, the greater the possibility that Vanessa will finally get justice.

I have no idea what 2024 will bring. I should have another book out next month. And I hope to get another book out later in the year. I am also considering creating a Substack newsletter (I am debating that). As to A Shroud of Thoughts, it will turn 20 on June 4 2024. Regardless, I hope 2024 is a better year for me and I hope it is a better year for you as well.

Friday, December 29, 2023

TCM Celebrates the 100th Anniversary of Columbia Pictures in January

On June 19 1918 brothers Jack and Harry Cohn with their partner Joe Brandt founded Cohn-Brandt-Cohn Film Sales Corporation, better known as CBC. It was on January 10 1924 that the Cohn brothers and Joe Brandt reorganized CBC and renamed it Columbia Pictures Corporation. Next month Turner Classic Movies is celebrating the reorganization of the studio with films from its history each Wednesday. It begins on Wednesday, January 3 2024 at 7:00 PM with one of Columbia's best known movies, It Happened One Night (1934).

Below is the schedule for TCM Spotlight: Columbia Pictures 100th Anniversary. All times are Central. 

Wednesday, January 3
Night One – the 1920s and 1930s
7:00 PM – It Happened One Night (1934)
9:00 PM – "Woman Haters" (1934) (Three Stooges Short)
9:30 PM – The Awful Truth (1937)
11:15 PM – You Can’t Take it With You (1938)  
1:30 AM – Man’s Castle (1933)  
3:00 AM – The Belle of Broadway (1926)  

Wednesday, January 10
Night Two – the 1940s and 1950s

7:00 PM – Gilda (1946)  
9:00 PM – Born Yesterday (1950)  
11:00 PM – "You Natzy Spy" (1940) (Three Stooges Short)
11:30 PM – On the Waterfront (1954)  
1:30 AM – Ride Lonesome (1959)  
3:00 AM – The Caine Mutiny (1954)

Wednesday, January 17
Night Three – the 1960s and 1970s

7:00 PM – Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
11:00 PM – Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)  
1:30 AM – Taxi Driver (1976)  
3:30 AM – Funny Girl (1968)
6:00 AM – The China Syndrome (1979)

Wednesday, January 24
Night Four – the 1980s and 1990s

7:00 PM – Gandhi (1982)  
10:30 PM – Philadelphia (1993) – (TriStar film)
1:00 AM – One False Move (1992)  
3:00 AM – The Last Emperor (1987)  

Wednesday, January 31
Night Five – the 2000s and 2010s

7:00 PM – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) – (Sony Pictures Classics)
9:15 PM – Something’s Gotta Give (2003)
11:30 PM – Punch Drunk Love (2002)  
 1:15 AM – Whiplash (2014)  – (Sony Pictures Classics)
 3:15 AM – Marie Antoinette (2006)

Thursday, December 28, 2023

The Wonderful Bobby Rivers, TV Personality and Friend to Many TCM Fans

This will be one of the most difficult posts for me to write. Bobby Rivers was a celebrity interviewer and film critic. He was a veejay on VH1 in the Eighties and even had his own primetime celebrity talk show on the channel, Watch Bobby Rivers. He later hosted Top 5 on the Food Network. Bobby Rivers was also a huge fan of classic movies, and one of the original members of TCMParty, the group of Turner Classic Movies fans who live tweet movies on the channel using that hashtag. He was a friend and acquaintance to many TCM fans, including myself. Bobby Rivers died on Tuesday, December 26 2023 at the age of 70. His sister Betsy Rivers told The Hollywood Reporter that he had a series of mini-strokes and a recurrence of lung cancer.

Bobby Rivers was born on September 20 1953 in Los Angeles. He was the oldest of three children, with a younger sister Betsy and a younger brother Tony. His parents were both fans of classic movies, and they encouraged a love of classic movies in him. Bobby was still a teenager when he made his first appearance on television. It was on The Movie Game, a daily syndicated game show on which contestants answered questions about movie trivia with the help of two celebrities. Bobby's teammates were comedian Phyllis Diller and Hugh O'Brien (then as now best known as Wyatt Earp on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp). Bobby was both the youngest contestant on The Movie Game and the show's first Black contestant. He won a  Kimball spinet piano.

Bobby graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with a degree in broadcasting. He began his career writing newscasts at radio station WRIT-FM in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He later had a morning show on Milwaukee radio station WQFM (now WLDB). Bobby moved from radio into television, becoming the film critic at ABC affiliate WISN-TV, the first Black film critic in Milwaukee. There he hosted and produced the local talk show More. He also reviewed movies for the syndicated news and entertainment show PM Magazine.

Bobby moved from Milwaukee to New York City where he went to work as an entertainment reporter for WPIX. Afterwards he became a veejay for VH1. On VH1 he was given his own show, Watch Bobby Rivers, on which he interviewed such celebrities as Mel Blanc, Michael Caine, Kirk Douglas, Sally Field, Mel Gibson, Paul McCartney, Marlo Thomas, and yet others. On VH1 he also hosted Sunday Brunch with Bobby Rivers. He moved from VH1 to WNBC, where he served as an entertainment reporter and part of the cast of Weekend Today. He also hosted the short-lived syndicated game show Bedroom Buddies, on which people who were married, engaged, or living together answered questions about their lives.

Bobby moved from WNBC to WNYW where he was an entertainment reporter and a host on Good Day New York. He later served as the entertainment editor on the ABC News/Lifetime weekday magazine Lifetime Live. He then hosted Top 5 on the Food Network and then served as the film critic and entertainment reporter on Whoopi Goldberg's radio show Wake Up with Whoopi. In the late Naughts he appeared as Professor Robert Haige on the In the Know segment of the Onion News Network video podcast.

Bobby did a little acting beyond his appearances on the Onion New Network. He appeared in The Equalizer episode "Making of a Martyr" in 1985. He also appeared in the movie Identity Crisis (1989) and two episodes of The Sopranos, as well as the short subject "Hello Korea Goodbye" (2006).

Since 2011 Bobby maintained his blog Bobby Rivers TV. He also wrote scripts for the intros and outros on Turner Classic Movies. As mentioned earlier, Bobby was one of the original participants in TCMParty, from its earliest years. His last tweet for TCMParty was on December 17 2023, only nine days before his death.

Bobby Rivers was a true pioneer. At the time he was reviewing movies on WISN in Milwaukee, Black film critics were virtually unknown. For that matter,openly gay television personalities were also virtually unknown.  As the host of Watch Bobby Rivers he was one of the first African Americans to host his own show. Bobby paved the way for both Black people and members of the LGBTQ community on television. Of course, Bobby was also very good at what he did. He had an in-depth knowledge of film history and could offer insights into classic movies that others had never considered before. As an interviewer he was able to come up with questions that his subjects might never have been asked previously. Bobby was warm and friendly, and able to put his interview subjects at ease, getting them to open up to him in a way that they might not to someone else.

As might be expected, Bobby supported diversity, often addressing it on his blog. He wrote multiple times about Latino representation in the entertainment industry. He argued for the need for Black faces on Turner Classic Movies in those days before they hired Professor Jacqueline Stewart. He is one of the few bloggers I know who has written about the need for more representation of Native Americans in Hollywood. Bobby grew up during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and so he wanted to make sure the voices of all peoples were heard.

Beyond being a great film critic and celebrity interviewer, Bobby was simply a wonderful person. Bobby had faced both racism and homophobia throughout his life and career. His partner died from AIDS at a point when it was still a stigma. Bobby could easily have been bitter, but he never was. Instead, Bobby was warm and friendly and funny. And he was always supportive, wishing his friends success in whatever they did. He had a real love of classic movies and it was wonderful discussing them with him. He was both intelligent and insightful, and had a way of making one see any given movie in a new light. I remember a wonderful post he wrote on his blog about Black representation in Frank Capra's classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

Bobby was an active part of TCMParty from its earliest days, and along with my dearest Vanessa Marquez and songbird Monica Lewis, he was one of the first celebrities to take part. As a result Bobby was friends with many TCM fans, myself included. I remember discussing Eddie "Rochester" Anderson and Theresa Harris with him, of whom both Bobby and I were huge fans. I also remember Bobby and I telling another fan about how popular Nat King Cole was. Like many of my fellow TCMParty participants, I had many wonderful discussions with Bobby. Bobby was famous. He had interviewed Paul McCartney and had cocktails with Lucille Ball in her home, but as far as Bobby was concerned, he was simply one of us, another classic movie fan. Indeed, Bobby was the perfect gentleman. He was sweet, warm, supportive, intelligent, and insightful, and he possessed an impeccable wit and a great sense of humour. I know many of my fellow TCM fans are very sad at his passing. And I know that I will miss him very, very much.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

The Late Great Tom Smothers

Tom Smothers, one half (with his brother Dick Smothers) of the legendary comedy duo the Smothers Brothers, died yesterday, December 26 2023, at the age of 86. The cause was lung cancer.

Tom Smothers was born on February 2 1937 in in a U.S. Army hospital on Governors Island  in New York City. His father was Major Thomas B. Smothers of the United States Army. The family moved to the Philippines in 1941 when his father was stationed there. During World War II his mother moved the family to Southern California. Sadly, his father died in a Japanese POW camp in 1945. While attending Redondo Union High School in Redondo Beach, California, Tom Smothers was on the gymnastics team and won the state championship on the parallel bars. He attended San Jose State College, where he competed both in gymnastics and pole vaulting.

Tom Smothers and his younger Dick Smothers set out to become folk singers, and played in a group called the Casual Quartet. In 1959 they left that group to form their own act. The two played at the Purple Onion in San Francisco. By 1961 the Smothers Brothers were regulars on The New Steve Allen Show. Although they had set out to become folk musicians, the banter between Tom and Dick Smothers eventually became the focal point of their act. Tom played the scatter-brained brother, something of a male Gracie Allen, while Dick played the straight man. In truth, Tom Smothers was very intelligent and was the driving force behind the act. Their first album, The Smothers Brothers at the Purple Onion, was released in 1961. It was followed by The Two Sides of the Smothers Brothers in 1962. The Smothers Brothers released nine more albums in the Sixties, that sold very well. Their biggest selling album was Curb Your Tongue, Knave! from 1964.

The continued popularity of the Smothers Brothers would insure that they would be frequent guests on television. They appeared on such talk shows, comedy sketch shows, game shows, and variety shows in the Sixties as Tonight Starring Jack Paar, The Steve Allen Playhouse, The Mike Douglas Show, Hootenany, The Judy Garland Show. The Garry Moore Show, I've Got a Secret, The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, The Hollywood Palace, The Jack Paar Program, The Jack Benny Program, Password, Hollywood Talent Scouts, Gypsy, The Andy Williams Show, The Val Doonican Show, The Eamon Andrews Show, What's My Line, Pat Boone in Hollywood, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Dee Time, Laugh-In, Celebrity Billiards, The Rosey Grier Show, 60 Minutes. The Jonathan Winters Show, Della, The Joey Bishop Show, Laugh-In, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Andy Williams Show, The David Frost Show, The Irv Kupcinet Show, The Dean Martin Show, and Playboy After Dark. The Smothers Brothers also guest starred on the sitcom The Danny Thomas Show and the mystery series Burke's Law.

Given the popularity of the Smothers Brothers in the Sixties, it was inevitable that they would have their own television show. Their first TV series was the fantasy comedy The Smothers Brothers Show, which aired on CBS from 1965 to 1966. On the show Tom played an apprentice angel who returns to his brother Dick and is charged with helping others. Of course, Tom usually made a mess that Dick would have to straightened out. The Smothers Brothers started strong in the ratings, but soon faltered and was cancelled at the end of the 1965-1966 season. Tom Smothers blamed the failure of the series on the fact that the Smothers Brothers lacked creative control over the show and it did not play to their strengths.

It was then on February 5 1967 that The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour debuted on CBS. Unlike The Smothers Brothers Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was a comedy and variety show. The show began as a hipper version of the typical variety show, with such musical guests as Buffalo Springfield, Cream, Donovan, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and The Who. It was not long before The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour evolved into a show that referenced the youth counterculture and addressed political topics of importance to young people. The socially relevant humour made The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour very successful, so successful that it was the first show to challenge the top-rated Bonanza in the ratings in years. The socially relevant humour also brought the Smothers Brothers into conflict with CBS. Ultimately CBS cancelled The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour while it was still popular in 1969. The Smothers Brothers sued CBS for breach of contract and ultimately won. Following the cancellation of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the Smothers Brothers appeared on the summer replacement series The Smothers Brothers Summer Show on ABC. In 1969 Tom Smothers played acoustic guitar on John Lennon's single "Give Peace a Chance."

Tom Smothers began the Seventies hosting his own syndicated show without his brother, Tom Smothers' Organic Prime Time Space Ride. Later in the decade the Smothers Brothers starred in their own short-lived variety show on NBC titled The Smothers Brothers Show. Tom Smothers guest starred on the shows Love, American Style. He provided voices for the animated specials The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas and Betty Boop for President. He was a guest on the talk shows, variety shows, and game shows The Glenn Campbell Goodtime Hour,. The Flip Wilson Show, The Dick Cavett Show, The Julie Andrews Hour, NBC Follies, The Carol Burnett Show, Cher, Dinah!, The Sonny and Cher Show,  The Merv Griffin Show, and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. At the end of the decade the Smothers Brothers guest starred in their own TV specials, The Tom and Dick Smothers Special I and The Tom and Dick Comedy Special II. Tom Smothers appeared in the movies Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972), Silver Bears (1977), A Pleasure Doing Business (1979), and There Goes the Bride (1980).

In the Eighties the Smothers Brothers hosted a new, but short-lived incarnation of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour that aired on CBS. At the start of the decade they starred in the short-lived adventure comedy series Fitz and Bones (Dick Smothers was Fitz, while Tom Smothers was Bones). Tom Smothers guest starred on The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Hotel, Tales of the Unexpected, Benson, and Cinemax Comedy Experiment. He was a voice on the animated special The Great Bear Scare. He appeared on such variety shows, talk shows, and games shows as Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters, The Glenn Campbell Music Show, Saturday Night Live, The New Hollywood Squares, Dolly, Super Dave, and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He appeared in the movies Pandemonium (1982) and Speed Zone (1989).

In the Nineties Tom Smothers guest starred on the TV shows Dream On; Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist; Suddenly Susan; and Maggie. He appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, The Martin Short Show, and Hollywood Squares. He appeared as himself in the movie The Vegas Connection (1999).

In the Naughts he guest starred as himself on the sitcom Life with Bonnie and the animated series The Simpsons, as well as on the series The Norm Show and The Wonderful World of Disney. He appeared on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. He appeared in the movie The Informant! (2009). His last appearance was this year, on CBS Sunday Morning.

Ever since childhood I have thought of the Smothers Brothers as one of the funniest comedy teams of all time. And Tom Smothers was one of the best gag men in the business. The character he played was not particularly bright, and had a sibling rivalry with his brother Dick, always throwing out his catchphrase, "Mom always liked him best." Of course, Dick Smothers was always the perfect straight man, the perfect foil, to his brother Tom. The two were a perfect team. Of course, in reality Tom Smothers was not only very intelligent, but a comic genius. Indeed, Tom Smothers was such an entertainer that he even brought his skill at the yo-yo into the act. As the Yo-Yo Man he would perform numerous tricks with the yo-yo. He was so good that the Smothers Brothers even released an instructional video, Yo-Yo Man.

Of course, Tom Smothers was not only funny. He was also revolutionary. The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was the first variety show to address civil rights, the Vietnam War, the counterculture, drugs, and many political topics. It broke new ground on television and paved the way for such shows as All in the Family and Maude. He fought many battles with CBS' Broadcast and Standards department in the years The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was on the air. He was nothing if not outspoken. A truly funny man and a champion for free speech, Tom Smothers was a very remarkable human being.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Richard Franklin Passes On

Richard Franklin, who played Captain Mike Yates on Doctor Who, and had recurring roles on the TV shows Crossroads and Emmerdale Farm, died yesterday, December 25 2023, at the age of 87.

Richard Franklin was born on January 15 1936 in Marleybone, London. His father was renowned surgeon Richard Hampton Franklin, CBE. His mother was Helen Margaret,  daughter of Sir Henry Dixon Kimber, 2nd Baronet. He attended Westminster School. He received a Master of Arts degree in Modern History at Christ Church at the University of Oxford. His National Service was in the Royal Green Jackets (Rifle Brigade and he served as a captain in Queen Victoria's Rifles. He worked at the Hobson and Grey advertising agency as an assistant account executive, assistant producer, and scriptwriter for three years before going into acting.  He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).

It was following his graduation from RADA that he spent six years in repertory theatre, spending time at the Century Theatre in Snibston, Ravenstone, the Birmingham Rep, and at the Bristol Old Vic. Afterwards he appeared in a number of productions on the West End in London.

Richard Franklin made his television debut in an episode of Dixon of Dock Green in 1966. In the late Sixties he guest starred on the shows The Saint, The Doctors, and From a Bird's Eye View. He appeared in the mini-series Little Women. He was a regular on the soap opera Crossroads.

In the Seventies Richard Franklin played Captain Mike Yates, a British adjutant of UNIT,  on Doctor Who. He guest starred on the shows The Pathfinders and Blake's 7. In the Eighties he was a regular on Emmerdale Farm. He appeared in the mini-series The Borgias. He appeared in the TV movie Waving to a Train. In the Nineties he reprised his role as Mike Yates in the thirtieth anniversary Doctor Who special Dimensions in Time that was also a crossover with EastEnders and was  produced for the charity Children in Need. It was historic as the final appearance of Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor. He also appeared in the mini-series The Gambling Man. He guest starred on the show Harry and Heartbeat.

In the Naughts Richard Franklin appeared in the movies Feedback (2004), Chemical Wedding (2008) and The First Days of Spring (2009). In the Teens he appeared as Richard Wagner in Twilight of the Gods (2013) and one of the Death Star engineers in Star Wars movie Rouge One.

Richard Franklin was a very talented actor. He was remarkable as Mike Yates on Doctor Who, the cool and efficient British officer working with UNIT. Although he worked for UNIT and was never actually a companion of The Doctor, the character is so beloved by fans and worked with The Doctor so often that he is often counted as one of The Doctor's companions. Of course, he was also a regular on Emmerdale Farm, playing Denis Rigg, the villains businessman who terrorizes the villagers of Beckindale. In the film Twilight of the Gods (2013), he played the ghost of composer Richard Wagner, who haunts philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche while he is in Turin Lunatic Asylum. Richard Franklin was a remarkable talent who could play a wide variety of roles, from the heroic Mike Yates to the villainous Denis Rigg.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Merry Christmas 2023

Here at A Shroud of Thoughts, we know that some people appreciate some cheesecake with their candy canes and eggnog. Here then are this year's Christmas pinups.

First up is Virginia Mayo, who is waiting for Santa on the roof with some presents.

Next is Cyd Charisse, who is calling to wish people "Merry Christmas."

Yvonne De Carlo made a new friend for Christmas.

The Supremes are spending the holidays listening to records.

Olga San Juan has grown to giant size to deliver presents.

And Yvonne Craig has a present from an admirer!

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 24, 2023

The Bing Crosby Show: Bing Crosby's first "Christmas" Television Special

Perhaps no other celebrity was associated as much with Christmas as Bing Crosby. Among his string of hits were several Christmas songs, including "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," and, the biggest one of them all, "White Christmas." He began a long tradition of hosting Christmas themed radio programs in 1935 when he co-hosted the Christmas edition of The Kraft Music Hall with Paul Whiteman. Afterwards he would host a Christmas edition of a regularly scheduled program or a Christmas special on radio until 1962. Curiously, Bing Crosby would be a bit of a latecomer when it came to hosting Christmas-themed programs on television. His first Christmas television special would not be until 1961. Even then, The Bing Crosby Show, also known informally as The Big Crosby Christmas Show, barely touched upon the holiday.

The Bing Crosby Show was recorded on November 12 1961 at the Associated-Rediffusion Television Studio 5 in Wembley, London. It was shot while Bing Crosby was making the movie The Road to Hong Kong (1962) in Britain with Bob Hope.  It was directed by Peter Croft, a British director who had directed such British TV shows as Here and Now and Rush Hour, and would go onto direct episodes of Ready, Steady, Go!; Sexton Blake, and The Black Arrow. The guests on The Bing Crosby Show were almost exclusively British. Among them are names that are still recognizable to people world-wide today. Singer Shirley Bassey was just a few years away from world-wide fame with her rendition of the theme song to the James Bond movie Goldfinger (1964). Comedian and actor Terry-Thomas had already appeared in such films as Tom Thumb (1958), I'm All Right Jack (1959), and Make Mine Mink (1960). In an uncredited role as a bobby was Ron Moody, who had already appeared in an uncredited role in Make Mine Mink and would go onto appear in such films as Summer Holiday (1963) and The Mouse on the Moon (1963), as well as TV shows from The Avengers to Gunsmoke. Bob Hope had a cameo in The Bing Crosby Show. Miles Malleson had a career going back to the Thirties, and had appeared in such films as Brewster's Millions (1935), The 39 Steps (1935), The Thief of Bagdad (1940), Dead of Night (1946), and The Brides of Dracula (1960). While he was an American citizen, he was born in Eltham, London, his family immigrating to the United States when he was about five years old.

The other guests on The Bing Crosby Show may be recognizable to connoisseurs of British film and television. Dick Hills and Sid Green were British comedy writers who had written the British TV series  The Strange World of Gurney Slade and Winning Widows, and would go onto work with the comedy team of Morecambe and Wise. Miriam Karlin was a British actress who starred on the British sitcom The Rag Trade and had appeared in the film The Entertainer (1960). Dave King was an English comedian, actor , and singer who had an uncredited role in The Road to Hong Kong, and would go onto play Clifford Duckworth on the British soap opera Coronation Street. Lennie Mayme was an actor who would become a TV director, directing such shows as Vendetta, Z Cars, The Troubleshooters, and Doomwatch. Marion Ryan was a popular British singer who appeared frequently on British television. Two rather obscure British vocal groups were also on the show, The Buskers and The Happy Wanderers.

The idea behind The Bing Crosby Show was that Bing Crosby was in England researching his family tree. Of course, this was primarily an excuse for appearances by British actors and singers. While there is some acknowledgement of Christmas at the start of the special, it is largely forgotten until the very end. In fact, Bing Crosby would sing only one Christmas song in the entire special. The special began with Bing Crosby performing "Great Day!," "That's Amore," and "Learn to Croon." Afterwards it would shift to a sketch in a tea shop, where Mr. Crosby, Marion Ryan, and Dave King performed such tea-themed songs as "Tea for Two" and " When I Take Sugar in My Tea." During the special Bing Crosby would find himself arrested for performing on the street without a licence by a policeman played by Ron Moody. There was then a courtroom sketch in which he performed Fats Waller's "My Fate is in Your Hands." Later Shirley Bassey performed "Lucky Day (This is My)," "I'm Shooting High," and 'As I Love You." Towards the end of the special there would be a medley of such songs as "Make Yourself at Home", "Any Old Iron," and "Knees Up Mother Brown." Bing's performance of "Knees Up Mother Brown" was interrupted by a cameo by Bob Hope in drag as Bing Crosby's long-lost Aunt May. The Bing Crosby Show ended with Bing singing the only Christmas song in the special, "White Christmas."

The Bing Crosby Show aired on the American Broadcasting Company on December 11 1961. The December 13 1961 review of the special in Variety was somewhat mixed, with the critic writing "The first two of Bing Crosby specials for ABC-TV may have been thin and tired in theme and some of its comedy but the hour managed to present some easy-going and bright musical moments." Jack Gould in The New York Times on December 12 1961 gave a more negative review, writing, "It was time last night for Bing Crosby's occasional television special on channel 7; this one was taped in England and used a number of British artists in an outing that was to prove very thin."

The Bing Crosby Show would not air in Britain until February 27 1963, when it aired on ITV. The reason for this was an ongoing dispute between ITV and the Equity Union. The special was then delayed until after the dispute was settled. This could possibly explain why, despite airing in the United States in December, The Bing Crosby Show features only one Christmas song, the aforementioned "White Christmas." They realized it wouldn't air in Britain until later.

While American critics may not have been impressed by Bing Crosby's initial Christmas television special, he would continue to appear in his own Christmas specials or host the Christmas editions of regularly scheduled programs until 1977. Although it was not done on purpose, Bing Crosby's first Christmas special, The Bing Crosby Show, and his final Christmas special Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas, bookend each other rather well. Both specials were filmed in England and feature almost entirely British guests. Ron Moody appeared in both specials, playing a policeman in The Bing Crosby Show and multiple roles (including Bing Crosby's cousin Sir Percy Crosby and Charles Dickens) in Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas. Of course, at the time no one expected Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas to be Bing Crosby's last Christmas special. He died on October 13 1977 of a massive heart attack, only a little over a month since he had filmed the special.

The Bing Crosby Show is currently unavailable on streaming, not even YouTube. It was released on DVD in November 2010 as part of the set Bing Crosby: The Television Specials--Volume 2--The Christmas Specials. It was also included in the Time-Life DVD set The Best of the Bing Crosby Specials in 2018. Festival Films has also released the special on DVD. Since it first aired The Bing Crosby Show has not aired regularly, although the Nostalgia Channel showed a shortened version of the special in November 1995. Portions of the special have appeared on yet other DVDs, as well as special aired on television over the years.

I rather suspect many modern viewers, accustomed to the later Bing Crosby specials filled with Christmas songs, would be disappointed by The Bing Crosby Show. Regardless, it was Bing Crosby's first Christmas special of many. It would lead to his regular appearances on television during the holiday season, whether as the host of his own special or the host of a regularly scheduled show such as The Hollywood Palace.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

A Brief History of the Artificial Christmas Tree

Artificial Christmas trees have been around for decades. What is more, many Americans prefer using artificial Christmas trees to the real thing. A recent article by CNN stated that this year 77% of Americans who will display a Christmas tree this year will choose an artificial one rather than a real tree, according to a survey by the American Christmas Tree Association. People may continue to debate the merits of real trees over artificial ones, but one thing is certain. Artificial Christmas trees are here to stay.

The earliest artificial Christmas trees were feather Christmas trees. They originated in Germany in the 1880s and 1890s. when deforestation was becoming a problem. These feather trees were made with goose feathers that would be dyed green and then attached to branches made of wire. The wire branches were then attached to a dole, that would serve as the trunk of the "tree." The feather Christmas tree would be brought to the United States by German immigrants. They proved popular for a time, to the point that by the 1920s feather Christmas tree could be ordered from the Sears Roebuck Catalog and were even sold at department stores. Feather Christmas tress varied in size from two inches to thirty inches high. The feather trees sold by Sears sometimes included hand-blown glass ornaments and still later lights. Today many feather Christmas trees are valuable antiques.

The popularity of feather Christmas trees would fade over time, perhaps because they did not look exactly like real trees. They would become popular again in the Fifties for a time and then once more in the Eighties. Of course, it was in the Fifties that that saw the emergence of another sort of artificial tree. It is frequently claimed that a company called the Addis Brush Company introduced the "brush tree" in the 1930s. It appears that this is not true. According to research conducted by the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Delaware, there never was an Addis Brush Company in the United States, and hence no patents for artificial Christmas trees were ever assigned to them. There is a company called Addis Housewares in the United Kingdom. Founded in 1870, Addis Housewares is credited with introducing the first modern toothbrush and or much fof their history manufactured other brushes as well. Correspondence between the Hagley Museum and Addis Housewares indicated that the company did not make artificial Christmas trees in the 1930s. In fact, they would not make artificial trees until the 1970s and then only for a brief time. What is more, they were sold under the name of a subsidiary, not Addis.

It would appear that the credit for the earliest brush Christmas trees should instead go to American Brush Company. American Brush Company would founded in 1910 in Portland, Oregon. The company manufactured  paint brushes and janitorial supplies. It was in the 1950s that American Brush Company began making brushes for something other than painting or cleaning. According to an article in The New York Times, in the late Fifties there was a rather odd fad in design whereby " designers were using millions of small multicoloured brushes, which when assembled in department store windows, looked, in his words, 'like miniature pastel waves'." Of course, like most fads, this eventually came to an end.

It was then that American Brush Company decided to change the machines used to make these brushes to make artificial Christmas trees instead. Their original artificial Christmas trees were made of PVC and did not look much like real trees. This, combined with the late Fifties/early Sixties fad for aluminium Christmas trees, meant that American Brush Company did not sell many of their early artificial Christmas trees. A senior machinist named Si Spiegel, was sent to close the factory that made artificial Christmas trees, but instead reported back that American Brush Company could make money with the product. As a result, one of his bosses gave Si Spiegel his own division, American Tree and Wreath, which would manufacture artificial Christmas trees and wreathes. Here it must be noted that Si Spiegel is an altogether remarkable man. He was a B-17 pilot with 849th Bomb Squadron of the 490th Bomb Group during World War II. At one point he and his crew crashed in Poland, then occupied by the Soviets, and had to make a daring escape. Si Spiegel is Jewish, so he never celebrated Christmas.

Regardless, he wanted to improve the artificial trees that American Brush Company was making, even bringing in real trees so that American Brush could make their trees look more realistic. Eventually he succeeded in making artificial Christmas trees that looked much more like the real thing. By the mid-Seventies they were making 800,000 trees a year. Of course, since then the artificial Christmas tree has become much more popular.

Of course, the Christmas trees made of PVC were not the only artificial Christmas trees to emerge in the 1950s. It was in 1955 that Modern Coatings, Inc. received a patent for an aluminium Christmas tree.  Their trees were expensive, costing $80 in the mid-Fifties, which would be $920 now. In 1958 the toys sales manager of Aluminum Specialty Company, Tom Gannon, saw one of the aluminium trees made by Modern Coatings in a Ben Franklin Store in Chicago. Aluminum Specialty made pots, pans, and toys. They were already making aluminum Christmas ornaments. Tom Gannon then bought the tree and returned to the headquarters of Aluminum Specialty Company in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

Using the Modern Coatings tree that Tom Gannon had bought, the engineers at Aluminum Specialty were able to figure out how to make an aluminum tree that was much cheaper. In fact, it would cost less that $12. Introduced at the American Toy Fair in March 1959, Aluminum Specialty's tree proved to bet a hit. By 1964 they were making about $150,00 aluminium Christmas trees. Unfortunately, the popularity of the aluminium Christmas tree would prove to be short-lived, largely because of a classic Christmas TV special. To large degree A Charlie Brown Christmas was a protest against the commercialization of Christmas, and in the special the aluminium Christmas tree was used as a symbol of that commercialization. Rather than get an aluminium tree, Charlie Brown chooses to get a rather scraggly real tree. Sales for aluminium Christmas trees dropped precipitously after A Charlie Brown Christmas had aired. The heyday of the aluminium Christmas tree was over by 1967. Once viewed as a symbol of commercialism and the epitome of bad taste, aluminium Christmas trees would come to be regarded by some with nostalgia.

Since the 1950s artificial Christmas trees have continued to evolve. The first patent for a fibre-optic tree was filed in 1973 by Albert V. Sadaca and Bernard Paulfus. Despite this, fibre optic trees would not become popular until the Naughts. It was in the early 1990s that Boto Company, then the largest manufacturer of artificial Christmas trees, began making pre-lit Christmas trees, which were sold at Target stores.

There are concerns about the environmental impact of Christmas trees made of PVC, and there is still debates on whether real trees are superior to artificial ones. Regardless, artificial Christmas trees have become a part of the American landscape during the holiday season, and they don't seem likely to disappear any time soon.

Friday, December 22, 2023

The 20th Anniversary of Love Actually (2003)

For the most part the big name classic Christmas movies emerged from Hollywood. Christmas in Connecticut (1944), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and yet others are all American. One of the major exceptions is Scrooge (1951), also known as A Christmas Carol (1951), starring Alastair Sim, which was produced by George Minter in the United Kingdom. Another exception is Love Actually (2003). Since its release it has very nearly attained classic status, if it already hasn't. Whether it can be considered a classic or not, it has become for many one of their favourite Christmas movies. It premiered on November 6 2003 in New York City, making this its 20th year.

Love Actually (2003) begins six weeks before Christmas and runs through the entire holiday season. With the exception of one subplot that takes place in part in France and Portugal and another that partially takes place in the United States, the movie is set in London. Love Actually involves ten different, interconnected stories. It is often termed a romantic comedy, which is not quite accurate given it addresses not only romantic love, but friendship, love of family, and so on. Among the stories are washed up rock star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) trying to make a comeback with a Christmas themed cover of The Troggs' "Love is All Around ("Christmas is All Around")"; the recently elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (Hugh Grant) and the mutual attraction between him and a member of his household staff, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon); schoolboy Sam's (Thomas Sangster) crush on a classmate (Olive Olson) and his stepfather Daniel's (Liam Neeson) effort to help him win her heart; Mark (Andrew Lincoln) and his crush on his best friend's (Chiwetel Ejiofor) new bride (Keira Knightley); American expatriate Sarah (Laura Linney) and her brother Michael (Michael Fitzgerald), who is institutionalized with a mental disorder; and so on.

Love Actually marked the first time that Richard Curtis directed a feature film. He had co-created the classic television series Blackadder with Rowan Atkinson and written the screenplays for the hit movies Four Wedding and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999), and Bridget Jones's Diary (2001). Love Actually emerged from two different ideas for films. One would have centred on the newly elected prime minister who falls in love with one of his household staff. The other focused on a British author writing at a French cottage who falls for his housekeeper. Both of these plots would become stories in Love Actually. Richard Curtis gave up on both ideas as separate films, because, as he said in a Vulture article,  "... they are just turning out to be a shape I know." He then decided to write a film about love and what it means. He drew inspiration from Robert Altman, whose films often dealt with multiple stories, as well as Woody Allen for the same reason, and the films Pulp Fiction (1994) and Smoke (1995), to write a movie with multiple stories about love. Initially, Love Actually was not set during the holiday season, but Richard Curtis loved Christmas movies and so he decided that he would make it a Christmas movie. At the time he had no idea that it would become one of those Christmas movies that people watch over and over again.

Originally Love Actually included fourteen different storylines. This would have made the film too long, so four of them were cut (two of which had been filmed). One short storyline involved a poster in the office of Harry (Alan Rickman) of two women in Africa. The storyline would have had the two women talking about their daughters' love lives. Another story involved Harry and Karen's (Emma Thompson) son getting into trouble at school, after which we learn the headmistress of his school is taking care of her terminally ill partner. One scene that Richard Curtis regretted cutting involved Karen addressing the death of the wife of her friend Daniel.

The casting of Love Actually was fairly straightforward and involved many actors with whom Richard Curtis had worked with in film and television before. He wanted Hugh Grant as the prime minister and Emma Thompson as his sister Karen from the very beginning. Richard Curtis had worked with Hugh Grant on Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones's Diary. The part of Natalie was written specifically for Martin McCutcheon, and the character was even initially called "Martine." Richard Curtis had two actors in mind for ageing rock star Billy Mack, but he couldn't make up his mind which one to ask. He finally asked casting director Mary Selway to find someone he would never have thought to ask, and so Bill Nighy was cast in the role. Of course, Richard Curtis had co-created Blackadder with Rowan Atkinson, who plays an annoying department store clerk in Love Actually, and the two had also worked together on everything from Mr. Bean to Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Central to Love Actually is its soundtrack, which features classic songs and covers of classic songs, everything from Otis Redding's version of "White Christmas" to The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." All important to the movie is Billy Mack's Christmas themed cover of The Troggs' "Love is All Around," retitled "Christmas is All Around." "Christmas is All Around" serves as a leitmotif in Love Actually, popping in the movie from time to time. It was Wet Wet Wet's cover of "Love is All Around" that would lead to the creation of "Christmas is All Around" for Love Actually. Richard Curtis had written the screenplay for Four Weddings and a Funeral, in which Wet Wet Wet's version is featured prominently. For Love Actually, which he directed and wrote the screenplay for, Mr Curtis thought it would be funny to start the film by making the audience listen to essentially the same song again. Of course, since "Love is All Around" was changed into a Christmas song, some of the lyrics were altered. For instance, the lines "So if you really love me/Come on and let it show" were changed to "So if you really love Christmas/Come on and let it snow".

As mentioned earlier, most of the film is set in London, and it made use of some well-known landmarks in the city. Among these were Trafalgar Square; Grosvenor Chapel on South Audley Street in Mayfair, Westminster; Lambeth Bridge, the Tate Modern art gallery, Selfridge's department store, Heathrow Airport, and more. The interiors of what is 10 Downing Street in Love Actually were filmed at Shepperton Studios in Surrey, where classic movies from The Third Man (1949) to Superman (1978) had been filmed. Other film locations included Marseille, France; Vidauban, France; and Aix-En-Provence, France.

An unfinished version of Love Actually was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 7 2003. Love Actually then premiered in New York City on November 6 2003. It went into limited release in the United States on November 7 2003 and then into wide release on November 14 2003 in the United States. It premiered in London on November 16 2003 and went into wide release in the Untied Kingdom on November 21 2023. Love Actually received mixed reviews from critics. Love Actually received a largely positive review from Roger Ebert, who gave the movie three and a half stars and noted, "The movie's only flaw is also a virtue: It's jammed with characters, stories, warmth, and laughs, until at times Curtis seems to be working from a checklist of obligatory movie love situations and doesn't want to leave anything out." Writing for the BBC, Nev Pierce said of the film, "warm, bittersweet and hilarious, this is lovely, actually. Prepare to be smitten." A. O. Scott in The New York Times was largely hostile to the movie, saying, " is more like a record label's greatest-hits compilation or a very special sitcom clip-reel show than an actual movie." Peter Travers in The Rolling Stone gave Love Actually only two stars out of four.

While critics were mixed about Love Actually, audiences seemed to love the film. It made $244.9 million at the box office world-wide. The movie had come to be regarded as a holiday classic as early as 2013, with Emma Green writing an article titled "I Will Not Be Ashamed of Loving Love Actually" for the December 10 2013 issue of The Atlantic. A CNN story from 2016 asked, "Is Love Actually a new Christmas classic?"

The continued popularity of Love Actually would lead to a sequel of sorts in the form of a short television promotional film for Red Nose Day entitled "Red Nose Day Actually." The short was written and directed by Richard Curtis, with most of the original cast returning. The short aired in the United Kingdom on March 24 2017 and in the United States on May 24 2017.

For its 20th anniversary this year, Love Actually was re-released to theatres in the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands,  United States, Canada, Austria, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and South Korea. This theatrical re-release also included a new 10-minute introduction. It was also re-released to home video in a 4K restoration world-wide.

 Love Actually has proven to have considerable longevity. For many it has become a part of their Christmas movie-watching tradition, alongside such classics as It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. In the United States it can be found on multiple cable channels every December. It is also available on multiple streaming services. Love Actually will probably always have its share of detractors, but it will also probably always have its loyal fans who will watch it every holiday season.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

The 55th Birthday of My Dearest Vanessa Marquez

Today my dearest friend Vanessa Marquez would have turned 55. Vanessa and I were in nearly constant contact for years, through social media, phone calls, and text messages. With Vanessa I felt that I could be myself. I told her things I would never tell anyone else, and she confided in me as well. I worried about her when she was sick and she worried about me. In the end, Vanessa meant more to me than anyone else save for my father and my siblings. It is for that reason that December 21 is a bittersweet day. On the one hand, it is a day for me to celebrate as it marks the anniversary of the birth of the one person I love more than any other. On the other hand, as I cannot wish her, "Happy birthday," as I once did, it serves as a reminder that Vanessa Marquez is no longer with us.

Of course, Vanessa Marquez was not only my most beloved friend, she was also a talented actress. She made her film debut in the classic Stand and Deliver (1988), and it was a most impressive debut. She had a recurring role on Wiseguy, and was a regular in the first season of the sketch comedy show Culture Clash. She appeared in such movies as Twenty Bucks (1993) and Father Hood (1993), and guest starred on such shows as Seinfeld, Nurses, and Melrose Place. Aside from Ana Delgado in Stand and Deliver (1988), her most famous role may have been Nurse Wendy Goldman on ER. She appeared in 27 episodes of the hit show in its first three seasons.

While Vanessa displayed a good deal of talent throughout her career, she was also something of a trailblazer with regards to Latinas in Hollywood. When Vanessa's career began in the Eighties, Latinas, particularly Chicanas like Vanessa, were rarely seen in film and on television. When they were, they were often stereotypes. As late as the Eighties and Nineties,the highly sexualized, hot-tempered Latina stereotype was still commonly seen in movies and on television shows. Starting with Ana in Stand and Deliver (1988), Vanessa Marquez broke with that stereotype in the roles she played in films and on television. As her friend Edward E. Haynes, a production designer on the TV series Culture Clash, said of her, "In the world where there was such little representation for people of colour, she always represented the strong, educated, and centred Latina character." What is more, Vanessa possessed considerable talent. In a recent article in the San Antonio Current,  her Stand and Deliver (1988) co-star Daniel Villarreal said of Vanessa, "The first time I met Vanessa during the casting of Stand and Deliver, I knew the movie couldn't be made without her," and "She was a special human being. She was vulnerable but very powerful."

Certainly Ana Delgado in Stand and Deliver (1988) was an example of the "strong, educated, and centred Latina character" that Vanessa Marquez would play, and her very first at that. Ana was the timid and soft-spoken, but scholarly daughter of a restaurateur who excels at mathematics and wants to go to medical school. Despite this, her father wants her to go to work in his restaurant, just as her siblings do.  He even insists that she drop out of her classes so she can work in the restaurant. That Ana returns to her math class shows that she apparently did stand up to her father and insisted on getting an education. The character of Ana broke with previous portrayals of Latinas on screen. She was not a Mexican spitfire or chola. She was instead a quiet, intelligent student who wanted to make a better life for herself.

What makes Vanessa's performance as Ana all the more impressive is that, as mentioned above, this was her very first professional acting job. She had never appeared on screen before, not even on television or in commercials. Making this all the more impressive is that Ana was the only one of Jaime Escalante's students in the movie based on an actual person. While the other students in Stand and Deliver (1988) were composites of the various students Jaime Escalante had taught through the years, Ana was based on Leticia Rodriguez, the daughter of the owner of the restaurant El Farolito. The major difference between Ana Delgado and Leticia Rodriguez is that while Ana wanted to major in medicine, Leticia Rodriguez became an electrical engineer for Honeywell Corp.

Nurse Wendy Goldman on ER was another intelligent, strong Latina character that Vanessa played. While Wendy usually appeared in humorous subplots on the show, there was no doubt that she was both intelligent and competent. She corrected Dr. Lewis in the episode Luck of the Draw when the doctor tells her to give her patient 350 milligrams of dopamine, telling Dr. Lewis, "I think you mean micrograms." In the episode "House of Cards" it is Wendy who figures out that a drug addict needs a central line, stating, "He hasn't any veins left," and goes to get Dr. Lewis to perform the procedure. In addition to being very intelligent, Wendy was also compassionate, and there are several instances throughout the first three seasons in which Wendy comforts patients and shows concern for her co-workers. While Wendy does have a temper (she yelled at desk clerk Jerry more than once), like Ana in Stand and Deliver (1988) she was a far cry from the stereotypical Latinas who had appeared in movies and on television before the Eighties.

While Vanessa played a nurse on ER, in the BET television movie Fire & Ice (2001) she played Wanda Hernandez, a security technician at a firm owned by Holly Aimes (Lark Voorhies) and Pam Moore (Tempestt Bledsoe). While to a degree Wanda serves as comic relief (and possibly eye candy as well) in Fire & Ice, there is no doubt that she is both intelligent and competent at her job. She is also a bit of a romantic, and along with Pam roots for the lead characters of Holly and Michael Williams (Kadeem Hardison) to get together. As recently as the Sixties and Seventies, it would have been unthinkable in a movie or TV show that a technician at a security firm would be a Latina (or that a security firm would be owned by two Black women, for that matter). Fire & Ice (2001) was certainly a mark of how far television had come with regards to diversity.

Vanessa Marquez played a variety of roles on Culture Clash, some of which were intelligent Latinas. Notably in a parody of the game show Jeopardy, she played an exceptionally smart contestant. She also played a poet who recites a rather uncomfortable (at least for men) poem about castration. In the episode "The One After the Earthquake" of the TV show Nurses, she played Angelica, a high school senior who wants to become a nurse. Fittingly enough, her next role would be Wendy Goldman on ER. On Wiseguy she played Conseulo "Connie Burns," the scholarly niece of lead character Michael Santana (Steven Bauer). Her time in the Seinfeld episode "The Cheever Letters" is brief, but she played the receptionist at the Cuban diplomatic mission at the United Nations, a position of some responsibility.

Of course, Vanessa played other roles beyond intelligent, scholarly Latinas. Even then she gave remarkable performances and the characters were not stereotypes. In the television movie Locked Up: A Mother's Rage she played Yo-Yo, a pregnant prison inmate convicted of killing her boyfriend when in all probability it was self-defence. Vanessa was remarkable in the role, particularly given she had never been pregnant nor was she ever in jail. In Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence (1992) she played a pharmacy clerk. In Twenty Bucks (1993), she played one of her best roles, that of teenager Melanie. In the movie Melanie's under-aged boyfriend wants to get wine for their dinner. To this ends she flirts with two guys in an attempt to get them to buy them the wine. In each of these cases Vanessa's characters were not stereotypes, and she played all of them well.

So far I have only covered Vanessa's career on film and in television. Vanessa also acted on stage, where she also played characters who defied stereotypes. She played multiple roles in Jose Rivera's play Street of the Sun, and she so impressed the playwright that he named a character for her in his play Sonnets for an Old Century. In the play August 29 Vanessa played the militant Lucy. Vanessa also appeared in such plays as Demon Wine, Women and Wallace, Anna in the Tropics, and yet others.

In playing Latina characters that were not stereotypes, Vanessa Marquez would have an impact. During her lifetime Vanessa received letters from people who had gone into mathematics or the sciences because they had been inspired by the character of Ana Delgado in Stand and Deliver (1988). I have to think that there may have been individuals who became nurses all because they saw Vanessa as Wendy Goldman on ER. Her performances on television, in movies and on stage certainly inspired people. Since her death I have heard from various people who were touched by one or more of her performances. In a time when Latinas, particularly Chicanas, were rarely seen on television or in films and, when they were seen were generally stereotypes, Vanessa Marquez was playing intelligent, strong-willed, well-developed Latina characters. In this respect, she was something of a pioneer.

Of course, for me Vanessa was not simply a well-known, talented, and pioneering actress, but the one person who meant more to me than anyone else. Vanessa was intelligent, warm, sweet, loving, and beautiful, and she possessed a great sense of humour. She certainly had her problems, but I could never have found a better friend than her. On this day, her birthday, then, I find myself missing her more than usual. Vanessa Marquez was very special, both as an actress and simply as a human being.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

TCM Remembers 2023

Yesterday Turner Classic Movies came out with their 2023 edition of TCM Remembers. As usual, it is bittersweet to watch. On the one hand, it is wonderful to see so many honoured in an in memorial reel. On the other hand, it is a reminder of how many we have lost in the past year. One certainly cannot watch without a few tears unless one simply isn't human.

For me the tears started early, once they hit Cindy Williams. She starred in the classic Laverne & Shirley and appeared in one of my favourite movies, American Graffiti (1973). I happen to know she was an absolutely wonderful person as well. We also lost many of my other favourites this year, including Alan Arkin, Richard Roundtree, David McCallum, George Maharis, Tony Bennett, Jim Brown, Norman Lear, Shirley Ann Field, Raquel Welch, Harry Belafonte, and so many others. My only objection to this year's TCM Remembers is the inclusion of Kenneth Anger. The less said about him the better.

The 2023 edition of TCM Remembers is the second one to include someone I know. Author, film historian, and documentarian Cari Beauchamp was an acquaintance rather than a friend, but she was a close friend and even a mentor to many of my close friends. She was not only one of the best film historians of all time, but a remarkable human being as well. As to the first time someone I knew was included in TCM Remembers, that was 2018 when my beloved Vanessa Marquez was included

Anyway, for those who haven't seen it, here is this year's TCM Remembers.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

The 30th Anniversary of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Years ago my friend Brian and I decided that there was only one movie that could be watched at both Halloween and Christmas. That movie was the stop-motion animation film The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). The movie was produced and created by Tim Burton, and directed by Henry Selick. While most of the movie is set at Christmas, The Nightmare Before Christmas deals with the mythology of both movies, making it perfect viewing in both the months of October and December. It is perhaps for that reason that since its release it has become regarded as a classic. The Nightmare Before Christmas premiered on October 9 1993 at the New York Film Festival.

In The Nightmare Before Christmas, each holiday has its own world that can be entered through a doorway in a tree. In the case of Halloween, that world is Halloween Town, the leader of which is Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King While the residents of Halloween Town love Jack, he is bored with doing the same thing year in and year out, and wants to try something new. It is while he is wandering through the woods that he stumbles upon the tree with the entrance to Christmas Town. Jack finds himself fascinated by Christmas Town and decides to take over the holiday of Christmas that year. Unfortunately, Jack and the citizens of Halloween Town don't quite grasp how to celebrate Christmas.

The origins of The Nightmare Before Christmas go back to Tim Burton's childhood. Tim Burton was lonely as a child growing up in Burbank, California. For that reason holidays were a special time for him. As he said in an October 10 1993 Los Angeles Times article, "Anytime there was Christmas or Halloween, you’d go to Thrifty’s and buy stuff and it was great. It gave you some sort of texture all of a sudden that wasn’t there before."

It was after Tim Burton had finished the stop-motion animation short "Vincent" in 1982 and he was still working at Walt Disney Feature Animation that he wrote a poem entitled "The Nightmare Before Christmas." The poem drew inspiration from his favourite animated Christmas television special from his childhood, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, as well as other classic Christmas TV specials, and the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas," better known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." Tim Burton's plan at the time was to adapt the poem as television special with narration by Vincent Price. Tim Burton created storyboards for his planned television special, and with designer and sculptor Rick Heinrichs sculpted character models. Unfortunately, Disney deemed the project "too weird" and shelved it.

Fortunately, Tim Burton's career took off in the late Eighties and early Nineties, seeing success with the films Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985), Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), and Edward Scissorhands (1990). And Tim Burton never forgot about his "Nightmare Before Christmas" project. Tim Burton made some inquiries about "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and learned that Disney still owned it. Fortunately, with Mr. Burton's success, the studio was now interested in the project.

One major hurdle Tim Burton had to overcome was that he did have other commitments. Indeed, at that point he was working on the sequel to Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992). He was also concerned that Disney would not give him the creative freedom he wanted. A solution was found in the form of a former co-worker at Disney. Henry Selick. Mr. Selick had worked in various capacities on the films Pete's Dragon (1977), Twice Upon a Time (1983), and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). He had also directed the stop-motion and watercolour animated short "Seepage" (1982), as well Pilsbury commercials, MTV channel ID spots, and work on MTV's show Liquid Television. Henry Selick was signed as the director of the feature film The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The screenplay for The Nightmare Before Christmas would not be created without some difficulties. Tim Burton approached author and screenwriter Michael McDowell, who had co-written the screenplay for Mr. Burton's movie Beetlejuice. Ultimately, Tim Burton and Michael McDowell would have creative differences. It was then that Tim Burton decided that The Nightmare Before Christmas should be a musical. For the lyrics and music he went to Danny Elfman, who had scored Tim Burton's movies Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman (1989). Tim Burton and Danny Elfman created a rough storyline for The Nightmare Before Christmas. Eventually Caroline Thompson, who wrote the screenplay for Tim Burton's film Edward Scissorhands, wrote the screenplay for the movie.

The Nightmare Before Christmas began filming in July 1991 and ultimately took over three years to complete. The animation crew for the movie consisted of 120 animators. The crew had to construct 227 puppets for the film. The puppet for Jack Skellington himself had around 400 heads, so that nearly any emotion could be expressed. A total of 109,440 frames were taken for The Nightmare Before Christmas. In animating The Nightmare Before Christmas, a great deal was owed to stop-motion animators Ladislas Starevich, George Pal, and Ray Harryhausen. Inspiration was also taken from such illustrators as Charles Addams,  Étienne Delessert, Edward Gorey, Gahan Wilson, and yet others. For the look of Halloween Town, the filmmakers drew upon German Expressionism, namely The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). The look of Christmas Town was inspired by the work of Dr. Seuss, who wrote and illustrated the Christmas classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas!. In contrast to Halloween Town and Christmas Town, the real world was plainer and simpler.

Danny Elfman provided the singing voice of Jack Skellington, but it turned out that his speaking voice was not quite up to his singing. Chris Sarandon was then cast as Jack's speaking voice. Sally, the rag doll and Jack's love interest, was voiced by Catharine O'Hara, who had worked with Tim Burton on Beetlejuice. Glenn Shadix, who had also appeared in Beetlejuice, voiced the Mayor of Halloween Town. Paul Reubens, Pee-Wee Herman himself, played Lock, one of the trick-or-treaters who is a henchman of the villain Oogie Boogie. Joe Ranft, a fellow veteran of Disney, voiced Igor, Dr. Finkelstein's assistant. As to bogeyman Oogie Boogie and mad scientist Dr. Finklestein, they were voice by singer Ken Page and William Hickey respectively. Ken Page was a veteran of Broadway and was the original Lion in The Wiz. William Hickey had a career going back to the Fifties and had appeared in such films as Prizzi's Honor (1985) and The Name of the Rose (1986). He was well-known for his raspy voice.

Originally it was planned that The Nightmare Before Christmas would be released under Walt Disney Feature Animation. The studio eventually decided the movie would be too "dark and scary for kids," and so it was released under Touchstone Pictures instead. It was marketed as Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. The Nightmare Before Christmas premiered on the opening day of the New York Film Festival. It went into limited release on October 13 1993 and on October 29 1993 it went into wide release.

The Nightmare Before Christmas received overwhelmingly positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film a thumbs up and wrote, "One of the many pleasures of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas is that there is not a single recognizable landscape within it. Everything looks strange and haunting. Even Santa Claus would be difficult to recognize without his red-and-white uniform."  Todd McCarthy in Variety also gave the film a good review, noting,"If it were a normal holiday animated film, The Nightmare Before Christmas would be an entertaining, amusing, darker-than-usual offering indicating that Disney was willing to deviate slightly from its tried-and-true family-fare formula. But the dazzling techniques employed here create a striking look that's never been seen in such a sustained form, making this a unique curio that will appeal to kids and film enthusiasts alike." The Nightmare Before Christmas was also nominated for the Oscar for Best Effects, Visual Effects.

The Nightmare Before Christmas did modestly well at the box office, earning $50 million in the United States when it was first released. With a budget of $24 million, this meant that it made a modest profit. It has since made more money through re-releases in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2020, and 2023. Of course, it has also made money through home video. It was first released by Touchstone Home Video on VHS on September 30 1994. It was released on DVD on December 2 1997. A special edition DVD was released October 3 2000. Since then it has been released on various other home media, including 4K Blu-ray on August 22 2023 in anticipation of its thirtieth anniversary.

Of course, the popularity of The Nightmare Before Christmas has meant there has been a good deal of merchandise made ever since its initial release. There have been collectable card games, video games, action figures, and other toys and games. A pop-up book was published upon the movie's release in 1993. There has since been another pop up book, calendars, a novelization, comic books, and even a cookbook. As might be expected, both Halloween and Christmas decorations inspired by The Nightmare Before Christmas have been manufactured.

The Nightmare Before Christmas became a cult film not long after its initial release. It has since gone on to become regarded as a classic. In 2008 it was ranked at no. 1 on Rotten Tomatoes' "Top 25 Best Christmas Movies" list. In 2020 USA Today placed The Nightmare Before Christmas at no. 4 on its list of the "25 Best Christmas Movies of All Time." This year Buzzfeed included it at no. 22 in their list of "The 50 Best Christmas Movies Ever, Ranked." Variety also included it in its list of "The 45 Best Christmas Movies of All Time." Confirming its status as a classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas was inducted into the the National Film Registry this year for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."

As to why The Nightmare Before Christmas has remained so popular through the years, much of it goes back to what my friend Brian and I agreed upon years ago: it is the one movie one can watch at either Halloween or Christmas. This makes The Nightmare Before Christmas utterly unique. It is also why the film appeals to kids and film enthusiasts alike, as Todd McCarthy pointed out in his 1993 review in Variety. Indeed, I know many horror movie fans who do not particularly care for typical holiday fare, but they love The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Of course, much of the appeal of The Nightmare Before Christmas goes well beyond the fact that it is both a Halloween and a Christmas movie. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review from 1993, there " not a single recognizable landscape within it." While one can see the influences from everyone from Charles Addams to Dr. Seuss in its production design, it looks different from any other film before or since.

Another reason that The Nightmare Before Christmas is so highly regarded is its stop-motion animation. At the time of its release, most people were probably only knew stop-motion animation from the many Rankin/Bass holiday specials or Ray Harryhausen movies. While showing viewers that stop-motion animation could be used for more than television specials or visual effects in live-action movies, The Nightmare Before Christmas also introduced many innovations to stop-motion animation. Among these the three-dimensional sets that were lit the same way that live-action movies are. The film was shot much as a live-action movie would be, with the same sort of camera angles used in live-action. The camera in The Nightmare Before Christmas also moves much as it would in live-action movies. Even the puppets in The Nightmare Before Christmas were more detailed than those used in previous stop-motion projects. While The Nightmare Before Christmas owes a good deal to George Pal, Ray Harryhausen, and Rankin/Bass, the film took stop-motion animation further than anything before it. Director Henry Selick was responsible for much of the film's revolutionary stop-motion animation. A veteran of stop-motion animation, he would later direct such stop-motion animated films as James and the Giant Peach (1996) and Coraline (2009).

Ultimately, what makes The Nightmare Before Christmas so beloved is that it has a compelling story with well-developed characters. If the film had been nothing more than a technical wonder, it would not have become a cult film and then a classic. The characters of Jack Skellington, Sally, Doctor Finklestein, and Oogie Boogie may well seem more real to most viewers than many characters in live-action movies. It is because of its story and its characters that The Nightmare Before Christmas has a life all its own.

The Nightmare Before Christmas proved to be a popular film from its initial release. Its popularity has only grown in the years since, to the point that it would become regarded as a classic. I have no doubt that people will still be watching The Nightmare Before Christmas, on both Halloween and Christmas, for many years to come.