Saturday, August 19, 2023

The 50th Anniversary of Enter the Dragon

It was fifty years ago today, on August 19 1973, that Enter the Dragon was released in the United States. Coming out only a little under a month following the death of its star, Bruce Lee, Ultimately Enter the Dragon would gross an estimated $400 million worldwide. It may well still be the most famous martial arts movie ever made.

It was in 1973 that the United States was swept up in a kung fu craze. That year King Boxer (retitled Five Fingers of Death for its American release) topped the box office in the spring of that year. Soon other Hong Kong kung fu movies were also topping the box office charts, so that on the box office chart for May 16 1973 in Variety no less three kung fu movies were at the top of the chart. At no. 1 on the chart was The Big Boss (retitled Fists of Fury in the United States), starring Bruce Lee, who was then probably best known as Kato on the TV series The Green Hornet.

While the king fu craze began in 1973, work on what would become Enter the Dragon had begun earlier. Producer Fred Weintraub was convinced that there was a market for martial arts films made in the United States. He persuaded Warner Bros. to finance a martial arts films and also brought in Bruce Lee's production company, Concord. Warner Bros. signed a deal with Golden Harvest to distribute the film. Golden Harvest had been founded in 1970 and had begun to rival the Shaw Brothers in producing kung fu movies. Enter the Dragon would be the first kung fu movie in history to be produced by a Hollywood studio.

Michael Allin, who would later work on the movies Truck Turner (1974) and Flash Gordon (1980), was hired to write the screenplay for what was initially called Blood and Steel. Robert Clouse was hired to direct the film. He had earlier Darker Than Amber (1970) and Dreams of Glass (1970). As to casting, Robert Clouse had wanted Rod Taylor to play the character of Roper, a down on his luck gambler and martial artist. It was Bruce Lee who decided against Rod Taylor playing Roper, thinking that he was too tall for the role. It was then that John Saxon was cast as Roper. John Saxon was already trained in the martial arts, having a black belt in Judo and Shotokan Karate.  In the role of Williams Rockne Tarkington, who had guest starred on such TV shows as The Andy Griffith Show and Tarzan, was originally cast. It was only days before production was set to start that he dropped out of the movie. Jim Kelly was then cast in the role. He was trained in Okinawan karate and had won several karate championships. Williams in Enter the Dragon would be his breakout role and would soon become an action star.

Enter the Dragon was shot on location in Hong Kong. The opening scenes were shot on Baker Street in Hong Kong. Other scenes were shot at Aberdeen Harbour in Aberdeen, Hong Kong and at Tai Tam Bay in Hong Kong.  Several scenes were shot at Golden Harvest Studio. Some shooting was done in Los Angeles as well. By Hollywood standards Enter the Dragon was a B-movie. It cost only $850,000 to make.

While Enter the Dragon only had a production budget of $850,000, its marketing budget was over $1 million. The movie was heavily publicized months before its release, with such major publications as Esquire, Newsweek, Time, and The Wall Street Journal covering the movie. Its promotion kit included photos, cards, a flip book, a comic book, t-shirts, posters, and more.

Sadly, Bruce Lee would never see the premiere of Enter the Dragon. It was on July 20 1973 that he died of brain oedema at the age of 32. The world premiere of Enter the Dragon in Hong Kong was six days later, on July 26 1973. The North American premiere of Enter the Dragon was on August 17 1973 in New York City. Once the film expanded to the rest of the country in September, it topped Variety's box office chart for two weeks and stayed in the top ten of the box office charts for the next four weeks. It was in October, in its eighth week of release in the United States, that it once more went to number one. Ultimately, it grossed  $25,000,000 in its initial American release.

While Enter the Dragon was a success at the box office, it initially received mixed reviews. According to Variety at the time, there was only one favourable review and four unfavourable reviews of the film among New York City critics. There were critics who recognized that Enter the Dragon was something special, as both Variety and The New York Times gave it favourable reviews.

As proven by the box office, audiences certainly loved Enter the Dragon. It seems possible that much of this was due to the death of Bruce Lee, already a popular star with fans of king fu cinema in the United States. Just as James Dean's death may well have spurred the success of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), it seems possible that Bruce Lee's death spurred the success of Enter the Dragon. It also seems possible that the kung fu craze, although it had faded somewhat from its height earlier in the year, also helped Enter the Dragon at the box office. Ultimately, it would seem that most of its success was due to audiences recognizing something that some critics did not. Quite simply, Enter the Dragon was a good movie.

Enter the Dragon was a blend of various genres, combining kung fu with tropes from spy movies and even the concurrent Blaxploitation movies. This made it seem starkly original at the time. Its script featured plenty of action, giving Bruce Lee and the other stars plenty of chances to show off their skills in the martial arts. Even the actors' performances were solid, particularly that of John Saxon as Roper. Enter the Dragon stood out even from other kung fu movies of the time, let alone other action movies of the time.

Enter the Dragon would have a lasting influence. While Bruce Lee was already well known in the United States at the time of its release, Enter the Dragon insured he would be remembered as a star. It would have an impact not only on further kung fu movies, but action movies in general. Movies from the two Kill Bill movies to The Matrix to the John Wick movies show its influence upon them. It would even have an influence on anime. Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama was a huge fan of Enter the Dragon. If many action heroes from Batman to John Wick utilize a blend of martial arts, much of it is due to Enter the Dragon.

Friday, August 18, 2023

"Chicano Power" by Thee Midniters

Thee Midniters were a rock band who were notable as one of the earliest Chicano rock bands.  Thee Midniters formed in East Los Angeles in the mid-Sixties. Their members were from the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles and the City of Montebello in Los Angeles County. They were influenced by  British Invasion bands, surf music, and the rhythm and blues artists of the era, as well as traditional Mexican music. As to the unusual spelling of their name, they adopted the spelling "Thee Midniters" to avoid being sued by an earlier R&B group, The Midnighters from the 1950s and early 1960s, now best known for launching the career of Hank Ballard.

Thee Midniters recorded several singles from 1965 to 1967. Their cover of "Land of a Thousand Dances"peaked at no. 67 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no 27 on the Canadian singles chart. They were particularly notable for recording songs with Chicano themes. Their fourth single was the instrumental "Whittier Blvd.," named for one of the main thoroughfares in East Los Angeles. Their penultimate single was "The Ballad of Cesar Chavez," dedicated to the Mexican American labour leader. Their final single was "Chicano Power." If it was not the first rock song in which the word "Chicano" appeared in the title, it was definitely among the first.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Why Vanessa Marquez Deserves a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Two weeks from today, on August 30 2023, it will have been five years since the death of my beloved Vanessa Marquez.  Vanessa was an actress best known for playing Ana Delgado in the classic movie Stand and Deliver (1988) and Nurse Wendy Goldman on the classic television series ER. I have long thought that Vanessa Marquez deserves a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and I think it is now time to try to get her one.

I am sure most of you know what the Hollywood Walk of Fame is, but for those who don't, it is s series of five-pointed terrazzo and brass stars in the sidewalks along fifteen blocks of Hollywood Boulevard and three blocks of Vine Street in Hollywood, California. While the Hollywood Walk of Fame is best known for the stars featuring the names of actors, there are also stars for directors, producers, musicians, and others involved in the entertainment industry. The stars are awarded for achievements in the entertainment industry in one of six categories: Motion Pictures, Television, Radio, Recording, Live Theatre/Performance, and Sports Entertainment. Vanessa worked in three of those categories: Motion Pictures, Television, and Live Theatre/Performance.

Of course, there are other criteria that must be fulfilled for someone to get a star along the  Hollywood Walk of Fame. One is professional achievement. I think there can be no doubt that Vanessa Marquez fulfilled this. Indeed, she was a pioneering Chicana actress. She was one of the stars of Stand and Deliver (1988), in which she played high school student Ana Delgado. At the time of the release of Stand and Deliver, most Chicanas on screen were often highly sexualized and often cholas. Often they were played by actresses who weren't even of Mexican American descent. As a quiet, studious, and intelligent girl, Ana was a sharp contrast to these earlier stereotypes. At the time Vanessa was on ER she was one of the few Latinas in a recurring role on television. She also appeared in the cult films Twenty Bucks (1993) and Blood In Blood Out (1993), as well as the TV shows Wiseguy and Culture Clash.

Another criterion necessary to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is longevity. That is, one has to have worked in the entertainment industry for at least five years.  Vanessa's film and television career lasted 13 years, from Stand and Deliver in 1988 to the TV movie Fire & Ice in 2001. Her last stage credit was Anna in the Topics in 2010. In the case of deceased actors there is a waiting period of two years. It has been five years since Vanessa's death.

Finally, to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame one must have made contributions to the community.  She worked with the United Farm Workers, and knew both Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. On December 7 1989 Vanessa took part in a rally and then a march protesting the exposure of farmers to pesticides used on grapes alongside Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Martin Sheen. She also did work on behalf of Amnesty International. When Jamie Escalante, the teacher upon whose life Stand and Deliver was based, developed cancer, Vanessa was relentless in helping raise money to help pay for his medical bills. Later in life she volunteered at the Pasadena Humane Society's animal shelter. As if her contributions to film and television were not enough, Vanessa made a number of contributions to her community.

While the criteria to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame does  not included how beloved an actor is, Vanessa Marquez was very much a beloved actress. Since her death I have encountered some of her fans, who not only cite her performances in Stand and Deliver and ER, but also in such projects as the TV show Culture Clash and the movies Twenty Bucks and Blood In Blood Out. A petition launched by her Stand and Deliver co-star Lydia Nicole to include Vanessa Marquez in the SAG Awards and Academy Awards on-air In Memoriam segments reached 12,000 signatures. A large number of people loved Vanessa. For them she was not just another actress. She was a star.

Vanessa Marquez certainly meets all of the criteria in order to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The one hurdle to Vanessa getting a star on the Walk of Fame is that a  star ceremony costs $75,000, a price that is subject to change (you have to know it won't go down). Most of that money goes to creating and installing the star, as well as maintaining the Walk of Fame itself. $75,000 is a lot of money, but I have a feeling it could be raised with a good deal of hard work. If Vanessa has as many fans as I think she does, I am sure many people would donate money towards getting her a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Vanessa Marquez was an extremely talented actress who cared for her fellow human beings. She gave a number of remarkable performances, many of which were cited in the reviews of the movies and stage plays in which she appeared. As one of the few well-known Chicana actresses in Hollywood in the Nineties, she was certainly a pioneer. While I know many will say I am biased, I think Vanessa more than deserves a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Monday, August 14, 2023

The 100th Anniversary of Alice Ghostley's Birth

Chances are good that if you are a person of a certain age, you are familiar with character actress Alice Ghostley. A short list of the shows on which she played semi-regular or regular character includes Captain Nice, Mayberry R.F.D., Bewitched, and Designing Women. What is more, she made a large number of guest appearances on television, everything from Car 54, Where Are You? to The Golden Girls. Alice Ghostley was born 100 years ago today, on August 14 1923, in Studio City, California.

Alice Ghostley's career dates to the earliest days of American broadcast television, making her television debut on an episode of Lights Out in 1951. She made guest appearances on television shows throughout the Fifties and the early Sixties. She was one of the ugly stepsisters in the 1957 television production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, and she was a regular on Jackie Gleason's American Scene Magazine from 1962 to 1964. It was in 1967 that she appeared in her first regular role on sitcom, the short-lived Captain Nice.

Captain Nice starred William Daniels (later of St. Elsewhere and Boy Meets World), who played mild mannered police chemist Carter Nash, who discovers a formula that grants him superpowers. Alice Ghostley played Carter's domineering mother, who pressures him into using his new discovery to fight crime. Poor Carter wasn't the only one henpecked by Mrs. Nash, as she henpecked his father (played by Byron Foulger), who usually took refuge behind a newspaper. Alice Ghostley was totally convincing in the role, which was made all the more remarkable by the fact that she was hardly old enough to be William Daniels's mother (she was only four years older than William Daniels).

Alice Ghostley's next major role was that of the witch Esmerelda on Bewitched. Esmerelada was a sharp contrast to Mrs. Nash on Captain Nice. She was hired by the witch Sam (Elizabeth Montgomery) and her mortal husband Darrin  as a maid and a babysitter for their children Tabitha and Adam. Esmerelda was extremely timid, and apt to fade from view when she was nervous. She was very inept when it came to witchcraft, and her sneezes could come with unexpected results.

Debuting as Esmerelda on Bewitched in 1969, her time in the role over lapped with he time as Cousin Alice on Mayberry R.F.D, on which she debuted in 1970. For those unfamiliar with the show, Mayberry R.F.D. was essentially The Andy Griffith Show without Andy Griffith. Sheriff Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) and his son Opie (Ron Howard) were replaced by farmer Sam Jones (Ken Berry) and his son Mike (Buddy Foster). The rest of the cast of The Andy Griffith Show remained with Mayberry R.F.D., including Frances Bavier as Aunt Bea, who went from being Andy's housekeeper to being Sam's housekeeper. It was following the second season that Frances Bavier retired. She was replaced by Alice Ghostley as Sam's Cousin Alice. Alice had served many years in the United States Army, and reached the rank of Sergeant. When she was discharged from the Army, she visited Sam in Mayberry and wound up staying on as his housekeeper. In many ways Alice was handier to have around that Aunt Bea ever was. Not only could she cook and clean, but she could even repair a car.

Bewitched and Mayberry R.F.D. weren't the only classic sitcoms on which Alice Ghostley appeared. She also had a recurring role as Bernice Clifton on Designing Women. Bernice was the best friend of the Sugarbaker sisters' mother, and more than a little eccentric. While she lived in a retirement community, she spent much of her time at the Sugarbaker's interior design firm. Among her eccentricities were sending the Sugarbakers health tips, claiming to have had wild encounters with various men, and entering the various individuals of Sugabaker & Associates in contests. Alice Ghostley was nominated for the 1992 Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her role as Bernice.

It is rare for many actors to have regular or semi-regular roles on multiple shows, but Alice Ghostley actually had even more recurring roles on shows than Captain Nice, Bewitched, Mayberry R.F.D., and Designing Women. She also had recurring roles on Temperatures Rising, Small Wonder, Evening Shade, and the soap opera Passions. She also appeared in such feature films as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), The Graduate (1967), With Six You Get Eggroll (1968), and others. She was extremely prolific as an actress, probably because she was just so very good. As can be seen in the roles mentioned above, she could play a wide variety of characters. She could be a timid soul like Esmerelda, or domineering wife and mother like Mrs. Nash. She could be an efficient housekeeper and handyman like Cousin Alice or an eccentric like Bernice. If Alice Ghostley played such a large variety of roles, it was probably because she was just very good.