Thursday, December 30, 2004

Winter Songs

With the traditional Yuletide (or Twelve Days of Christmas if you're Christian) coming near their end, I thought it might be a good idea to discuss "winter songs." What is a winter song? Well, that is a term I use for songs about various aspects of winter that make no references to Yuletide, Christmas, or the holiday. In other words, they are more or less about winter.

I first took notice of this genre in 1999 when I realised that "Winter Wonderland" makes no mention of the holidays whatsoever. Instead, it is a song about two lovers walking and frolicking in the snow. The lyrics refer to sleigh bells, snow, building a snowman, and relaxing by a fire, but no references are made to Yule, Christmas, or any of the trappings thereof. For all extents and purposes, "Winter Wonderland" could be played anytime during the winter. At any rate, it is one of the great standards. It was written by the team of lyricist Dick Smith and composer Felix Bernhard, who wrote the song in 1934. It was a hit for Guy Lombardo that year. It would be in 1946, however, that the song would come into its own. Both Perry Como and the Andrew Sisters released versions of the tune that year, establisihing it as one of the great songs played during the holidays.

Of course, "Winter Wonderland" was not the first winter song. I am not sure what was--it was probably written long ago--but one of the oldest that is still played is "Jingle Bells." The song, so identified with the Yuletide, makes no reference. This is perhaps with good reason--it was first written for Thanksgiving! The song was written by minister James Pierpoint in 1857 for a Thanksgiving programme at the church in Boston where he preached. It was so popular that its performance was repeated at the Christmas programme and it has been linked to that season ever since. "Jingle Bells" makes no mention whatsoever of the Yuletide, but merely describes a ride in an one horse open sleigh through the snow. In fact, its original title was "One Horse Open Sleigh"

It might be tempting to say that "Sleigh Ride," which covers the same subject, is also a "winter song," but I am not so sure that it is. While the song simpy describes a sleigh ride for the most part, it also has references to pumpkin pies (a favourite in some parts at the holidays) and Currier and Ives (well known for their Yuletide prints).

While "Sleigh Ride" maybe as much a Christmas carol as a winter song, the same cannot be said for "Let It Snow." Like "Winter Wonderland," "Let It Snow" is essentially a love song. The song is essentially about two lovers snuggled together inside as it snows. No reference is made to the Yuletide or any other holiday. The song was written by lyricist Sammy Kahn and composer Jule Styne in 1945. It was a huge hit for Bing Crosby.

Love seems to be the one them running through most winter songs. It is definitely the theme of "Baby, It's Cold Outside." The song was written as a duet by Frank Loesser in 1949 for the movie "Neptune's Daughter." There it was sung by Margaret Whiting and Johnny Mercer. Quite simply, the song is a conversation between two lovers, one of who is begging the other to stay, and not entirely because of the cold weather. At no point is the Yuletide mentioned and the song could easly be played in January or February.

As blantant as he protagonist of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is in his intentions, the protagonist of "I Love the Winter Weather" is even more so. Written by Ted Shapiro in 1941, the song is simply loving winter weather because it allows two people to stay warm togehter! The song has been a hit for Fats Waller, Lena Horne, Benny Goodman and many others.

I am sure that there are more winter songs aout there, but these appear to be the most famous. Interestingly, with the exception of "Jingle Bells," every one of them is a love song. This presents an interesting contrast to summer songs, which seem to be more often about having fun (going to the beach, whatever). I suppose that is proof that winter is the most romantic season of them all.

Of course, what I find curious is that none of these songs are generally played at anytime other than the Yuletide. This strikes me as odd as all of them simply deal with winter and winter imagery. Not one of them mentions Yule, Christmas, or anything of the sort. Realistically, there is no reason that they can't be played at anytime between December and March. I suppose that in the United States our image of the Yuletide is so tied up with snow and winter that any song that refers to such is automatically a Christmas carol. A shame in some ways, as "Winter Wonderland" and "Let It Snow" are beautiful tunes that should be played more often.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Great Jerry Orbach

One of my favourite actors had pased on. Tuesday night Jerry Orbach died of prostate cancer at age 69. He is best known as Detective Lennie Briscoe on Law and Order, but he was also a song and dance man who dominated Broadway for decades. In fact, Orbach's first appearance on television was tied to his career on the stage. He appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show singing "Her Face" from Carnival! in 1961.

Jerry Orbach was born in the city that made him a star, New York (the Bronx, to be exact) in 1935. His father was a performer in vaudeville and his mother a singer on radio. In 1955, after a stint at Northwestern University, Orbach began his career on the stage in New York. He was part of the original cast of The Fantasticks, playing the narrator.

The Fantasticks led to more major roles on Broadway. Orbach appeared in Carnival!, Promises, Promises, Chicago, and 42nd Street. He won a Tony Award for his performance as Baxter in Promises, Promises (based on the classic movie The Apartment).

Beyond his successful career on Broadway, Orbach also appeared in motion pictures. playing roles in F/X, the 1985 version of Brewster's Millions, and Crimes and Misdemeanours. He did a good deal of voice work for animated films, his most famous being the work he did in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. He was the voice of Lumiere the Candlestick in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, complete with a vocal part in the movie's show stopper "Be Our Guest."

Of course, Orbach's greatest claim to fame is perhaps his role as Lennie Briscoe on Law and Order. Orbach was on the series for 12 years, longer than any other cast member of the series and one of the longest runs for any actor in prime time television. Orbach had a secondary role as Briscoe in the new spinoff, Law & Order: Trial by Jury. Although best known on television for Law and Order, Orbach also starred in the 1987 series The Law and Harry McGraw, playing the private detective of the title. He had previously played McGraw in several episodes of Murder She Wrote.

I am truly saddened by Orbach's passing. In recent years, Law and Order is one of the few series I have watched regularly and Detective Briscoe was always my favourite character. I also watched The Law and Harry McGraw and enjoyed Orbach's performance there. He was a versatile actor, capable of both humour and drama. And as he proved on Law and Order, he could bring humour to the most serious of situations. I regret to say that I have only seen a few clips of his performances on Broadway, but he seems to have had a remarkable voice. It is a shame that Orbach's career came about just as the Hollywood musical was on the way out--he could have been a great star of movie musicals. Regardless, he was a great actor and created one of the greatest characters on television. Given his success on Broadway, it would seem that Jerry Orbach will be remembered for a long time to come.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

The Odd Things One Learns in a Library

A while back at the library I was at work looking at our copy of Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, one of my favourite novels. In the new afterword to the 1999 Avon Books hardcover edition of the book, Bradbury tells an interesting story. There he discusses his encounters with circuses and carnivals, both on film and in real life. Bradbury then mentions that he and his wife were invited by Gene Kelly to a showing of Invitation to the Dance. The carnvial sequence in the movie) struck a particular chord with Bradbury. He told his wife walking home from the film, "I'd give my right arm to write a screenplay for Gene Kelly." His wife told him she was certain that in his files he had something dealing with carnivals or circuses.

The two of them looked through his files and found an unfinished story entitled "The Black Ferris" that had been meant for The Dark Carnival (Bradbury's first anthology and his first book). Bradbury wrote an 80 page screenplay and sent it to Gene Kelly. Gene Kelly loved the screenplay and wanted to both produce and direct it. Unfortunately, he had difficulty getting backing for the project. Gene Kelly sent the script back to Bradbury. Bradbury then re-wrote the screenplay as a novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which was published in 1962. Gene Kelly was then responsible for what many consider Ray Bradbury's greatest work!

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Yuletide Ends Too Soon

I have complained in this blog about merchants starting Christmas too soon. Now I am going to complain about it ending too soon. It seems to me that the American holiday season is a bit askew. It begins with Thanksgiving and, for all extents and purposes, now ends with Christmas Day. That does not seem right to me.

At least in much of Northern Europe and North America, the holiday season owes much to the pre-Christian, Germanic festival of Yule. Yule may well be one of the earliest Germanic holidays ever mentioned. Latin writer Procopius refers to a festival to celebrate the return of the sun held by the people of Thule (presumably Scandinava) on the first day of winter. Bede refers to the festival of Geol (modern English Yule) in his De Temporum Ratione. In Icelandic sources we are told that Yule lasted 12 days.

I don't know if Christianity followed the Germanic peoples' celebration of Yule in making the celebration of Christmas last twelve days, but properly it lasts twelve days nonetheless. Traditonally, Christmas began on the evening of December 24 (Chritmas Eve) and lasted until Twelfth Day (January 6). I am not quite sure when people stopped celebrating Christmas as a twelve day festival. I seem to remember references to Twelfth Night and the Twelve Days of Christmas in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. That means the Twelve Days of Christmas were still being celebrated as late as the mid-19th century, at least in England.

To a degree, I think remnants of the twelve day celebration persisted here in the United States. I know when I was growing up that we would not take down our Yule tree or our lights until January 1. The same held true for nearly everyone in Randolph County. Oh, one would not hear any Christmas carols after December 25, except in the odd commercial. And one would not see any holiday themed movies on television with a few rare exceptions. But the trappings of the Yuletide remained until New Year's Day.

In the few decades I have been alive, this seems to have changed. I have noticed that many people take down their lights and their trees the day after Christmas. This leads me to believe that many feel the holiays are over with December 26. Indeed, this may be well be the case nationwide. I just heard a commercial on television a while ago stating, "The holidays may be over..." Hello?! It's not even New Year's Day yet!

Granted I am biased, but I would like to see the Yuletide celebrated for twelve days throughout American society. Rather than being the end of the celebration, December 25 would be the beginning (or middle, depending on one's preferences). New Year's would simply be an extension of the holidays. Unfortunately, I doubt that this is going to come about any time soon.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Yuletide Songs

Today is Christmas Eve. Since I am not Christian, that doesn't really hold too much significance for me. But December 24 is a very significant date to me in another way, it is the birthday of a lovely young lady very dear to my heart. We usually get to chat on her birthday, but today being what it is, she has been tied up with family. I am hoping we will get talk later tonight, otherwise I am going to be pretty blue. We've never missed chatting on her birthday.

Anyhow, while I don't celebrate Christmas, I do have a keen appreciation for Yuletide songs. Obviously the more religious songs hold little meaning for me, although I can appreciate the artistry that went into the writing of "Silent Night" or "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." But I do love many of the more secular Yuletide carols. Like many people I have a warm spot in my heart for the standards. I have loved "White Christmas" ever since I was child, particularly the original Bing Crosby version. I remember that my mom would call me into the room any time it was playing. I also love "Silver Bells" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"--it is perhaps notable that all three songs come from movies. I don't think "The Christmas Song" was from a motion picture, but I love it all the same.

Of course, I also have a weakness for the more light hearted carols, those about the jolly old elf himself. "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Up on the Rooftop," "Here Comes Santa Claus," I love all of them. I also love "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers," I suppose because of the fancy of toys come to life.

As much as I like many of the older songs, I particularly like the songs of the rock 'n' roll era. Everyone has heard ""Jingle Bell Rock" and "Rocking Around the Christmas Tree," but Yuletide rock goes much deeper than that. I don't know what the first holiday rock song was, but Chuck Berry's "Run, Run Rudolph" is one of the best. Performed in the usual Chuck Berry style, it is a straight rock song that just happens to be about Santa and his reindeer. I also love Tom Petty's "Christmas All Over Again"--it just seems to capture the season. Of course, to me there are two Yuletide songs that stand above the rest. The first is "Happy Christmas" (War is Over) by John Lennon. To me it is perhaps the only song that captures the idea of Yuletide as a time of reflection, which it is for many. It also captures the joy of the season in a way that many other songs don't. But as for the all time, greatest holiday song of them all, that would "Christmas" (Baby Please Come Home) by Darlene Love. It is basically a love song in which someone longs for her loved one to be with her on the holiday. The song is great because it turns the old Yuletide cliches on their head--the snow coming down and the bells ringing are not signs of joy, but reminders of what has been lost. I don't think any song can't quite match its originality or its power.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Yuletide Movies

I'm not Christian, although I do celebrate the Yuletide. And I have always enjoyed movies associated with the season. Tonight I watched The Santa Clause again. As far as recent movies with a Yuletide theme, it is one of my favourites. It has a very original premise, not to mention one of the most striking images of the North Pole on screen. Of course, The Santa Clause seems to be the exception to the rule. Most Yuletide movies released these days seem to fall far short of the mark. One need look no further than the wretched 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street to see how bad recent holiday movies can be.

Of holiday movies, I think it is safe to say that they don't make them like they used to. In fact, I would say that the Golden Age of Yuletide films took place in the mid to late Forties. It is amazing how many of the holiday classics were released in this era: Holiday Inn (1942), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and Holiday Affair (1949). I suppose that with World War II, people needed more Yuletide cheer than they do now.

Of course, the holiday classic is It's a Wonderful Life. Contrary to popular belief, the movie was not a total flop at the box office, although it was far from a smash hit. It was even nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year. Regardless, it did not become the monolithic Yuletide classic until a clerical error allowed the film to fall into public domain. When that happened, television stations across the United States were able to show the movie as often as they liked during the holiday season. As a result a lot of people discovered just what a wonderful movie it is. As I see it, It's a Wonderful Life is essentially a film about spiritual death and rebirth. Businessman George Bailey loses his will to live, only to be shown how much impact he has really had on people's lives. As a result he regains his will to live again. It is one of the most inspiring films ever made and, no doubt, Frank Capra's best film.

Miracle on 34th Street is nearly tied with It's a Wonderful Life when it comes to holiday classics. The movie has a deceivingly simple premise--a man who may or may not be Kriss Kringle visits New York and winds up working as Santa Claus at Macys. It is through this premise that the film lampoons the commercialisation of the holidays, corporate greed, and pop psychology, while at the same time addressing the importance of belief, faith, and charity. It is also one of the most inspiring movies of all time and remains a classic to this day. It has been remade many times, but none of the remakes (especially the dreadful 1994 version) have ever matched it, let alone surpassed it.

Beyond these two movies, it is debateable as to what the third greatest holiday film of all time may be. After all, there are several worthy candidates. One is a contemporary of both It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street--The Bishop's Wife. The Bishop's Wife features David Niven as a bishop who has lost his way while seeking to build a new cathedral. Into his life comes an angel, played by Cary Grant, who not only saves Niven's marriage, but restores his faith. The Bishop's Wife is also an inspiring movie, although a bit more blatantly Christian in tone than either It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street. The performances by its three leads (David Niven, Cary Grant, and Loretta Young) are priceless.

Another great holiday movie is the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, also known as Scrooge. Featuring Alastair Sim as Ebeneezer Scrooge, it is the quintesential version of Charles Dickens' novel. The film features an accurate recreation of Victorian London, stellar performances (Sim as Scrooge, Michael Dolan as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and so on), and a script that is largely faithful to Dicken's work.

Of course, another great film is the musical version of the tale, Scrooge from 1970. Albert Finney makes an excellent Scrooge, alternately cranky, pitiable, and tragic. The rest of the cast is great as well--the late Sir Alec Guiness as Marley's Ghost, Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Michael Medwin as Fred. The score by Leslie Bricusse is one of the best of any musical from the late Sixties or early Seventies, "Thank You Very Much" and "Happiness" are among the best songs.

When it comes to musicals, perhaps the holiday musical is Holiday Inn. The movie focuses on an inn of the same name that is open only on holidays. Because of this, the plot doesn't simply focus on the Yuletide, but virtually every holiday on the calendar. Its primary attraction is the Irving Berlin score, performed by Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Virginia Dale, and Marjorie Reynolds. The movie may well be best known for the great, classic, Yuletide song "White Christmas," although it includes other great songs as well--"Happy Holiday," "You're Easy to Dance With," and "Easter Parade."

Like most musicals of its era, Holiday Inn was a romance, but to me the romantic movie for the season is The Apartment. I have already discussed it here, so I won't discuss it further. But I will discuss another Yuletide romance, A Holiday Affair. The movie features the beautiful Janet Leigh as widow Connie Ennis, into whose life enters free spirit Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum). Naturally, Mason complicates Connie's life, not to mention brings up some uncomfortable feelings. The movie is remarkable in its even handed approach to the characters--neither of the rivals for Connie's hand, Mason and Carl Davis (Wendell Corey), are portrayed in a bad light. It is also very funny, with a hilarious scene with Harry Morgan (later of M*A*S*H) as a police captain. Although not as well known as many holiday classics, it is a must see.

Of course, when it comes to comedy, A Christmas Story is the Yuletide movie. Its premise is simple. Ralphie wants the Daisy Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action BB Gun for Christmas and tries to figure out how to convince his parents to get it. The film captures the flavour of childhood in the pre-World War II era quite nicely, with several hilarious setpieces (among them, the famous scene of Flick getting his tongue stuck to a pole and a somewhat frightening trip to see Santa). It flopped at the box office when first released, but throughout the years it has grown in popualarity until it nearly matches It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street in its status as a holiday classic.

These are only a few of the holiday films I consider truly great. There are many others, among them Meet Me in St. Louis (from which "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" came), The Lemon Drop Kid (in which "Silver Bells" made its debut), and The Lion in Winter (Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine fight it out through the holidays). Indeed, for me these movies are as much a part of the Yuletide as "Jingle Bells" or eggnog. It just wouldn't be Yule without them.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Queen with Paul Rodgers?

I read a few days ago that Queen is planning their first tour in 18 years. I also read that they have replaced the late Freddie Mercury with Paul Rodgers, the former front man of both Free and Bad Company. While I am happy to see Queen on tour again, I am not so sure about Paul Rodgers replacing Freddie Mercury.

As a fan of Queen since the mid-Seventies, I have three problems with the inclusion of Paul Rodgers. The first is that I don't think Rodgers has nearly the vocal range that Mercury did. It is inconcievable to me that he could sing "Bohemian Rhapsody" or any of Mercury's other songs with any sort of finesse. It is hard for me to see how Rodgers is going to manage to fill Mercury's shoes. I just can't see it.

The other problem I can see is that Rodgers and Queen would seem to me to be at different ends of the musical spectrum. Most of the groups to which Rodgers belonged, Free and Bad Company in particular, have been AOR bands. On the other hand, Queen was a group that defied classification. Their songs ranged from the hard rock of "Tie Your Mother Down" to the folk sound of "39" to the over the top "Bohemian Rhapsody." Rodgers becoming part of Queen then seems to me something akin to Robin Zander of Cheap Trick becomeing part of Pantera.

Finally, for me Queen is and always will be John Deacon, Brian May, Freddie Mercury, and Roger Taylor. They are one of those bands like The Beatles or Led Zeppelin in which the membership simply cannot vary. In my humble opinion, replace one of the members of Queen and, well, they cease to be Queen. I would be a lot more comfortable with the situation if they were touring under the name Deacon, May, Rodgers, and Taylor or something of the sort.

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against Paul Rodgers. For his particular genre of music he is a fine singer. And I am a fan of Free, Bad Company, and The Firm (the band Rodgers formed with Jimmy Page). But I just cannot see him as a part of Queen and especially not as a replacement for Freddie Mercury. When it comes right down to it, it just doesn't seem right.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

The Assassination Bureau...Limited

A few days ago I watched The Assassination Bureau again, this time on DVD. For those of you who don't know, The Assassination Bureau was one of those offbeat comedies released in the late Sixties. It was directed by Basil Dearden, whose best known movie (besides The Assassination Bureau) here in the United States may have been 1966's Khartoum. Its screenplay was written by Michael Relph, who also Man in the Moon and The League of Gentleman. It was based on an unfinished novel by Jack London, later finished by Robert Fish.

The Assassination Bureau centres on Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed), the suave, educated head of the Assassination Bureau Limited, an organisaition of killers who will take the job of assassinating anyone--provided there is a moral basis for doing so. The plot is put in motion when reproter Miss Winter (Diana Rigg) makes an offer that Ivan cannot refuse--a contract put out on himself! Ivan concludes that this will help rid the organisation of any incompetents and as a result finds himself on the run from his own Assassination Bureau.

The Assassination Bureau is set in the Edwardian Era, at a time when women's suffrage and European politics were still hot issues of the day. The movie makes maximum use of the period, with sumptuous sets and very well done costumes. Both Reed and Rigg give fine performances. Indeed, it looks like they had a very good time making the picture. As to the plot, it is fairly well thought out, save for one thing. I still have to wonder at Miss Winter's motivation for putting a hit out on Ivan. Granted, it would be the story of the decade, but then it seems to me that it would also be illegal... Regardless, The Assassination Bureau is a good deal of fun. The film possesses that wry, British sense of humour found in many films of the decade. Some of the most hilarious scenes even venture into the area of black comedy. The action scenes are also well done, with some solid fight scenes. Indeed, the climax aboard a zeppelin is priceless.

The Assassination Bureau is hardly a well known film and I assume most people have never heard of it. Regardless, I highly recommend it. Don't simply rent the DVD, but go out and buy it. This is a movie one will want to keep.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Another Rant Against Reality TV

When did reality become T.V.

What ever happened to sitcoms, game shows...

("1985" by Bowling for Soup)

I have become convinced that this cycle towards so-called reality television is the nadir of broadcast history. The other day I was watching the news and I saw an ad for a show called The Will. The concept of The Will is that a family of potential heirs will compete for the head of the household's fortune. Yes, that's right. It is a show in which family members will backstab each other just to get included in a parent's will. Now I am aware that this probably does happen in real life (not in my family, but it probably does in others), but at least it does not get broadcast.

What is worse is that The Will is only the latest in a long line of exploitative reality shows. The Biggest Loser appeared to have a somewhat noble premise. It followed a group of people as they sought to lose weight. Unfortunately, it was executed with the typical exploitation of most reality shows. In one episode they exposed the poor folks to a mountain of treats--something like exposing a recovering achoholic to a beer truck. In another the poor folks were forced to make cupcakes or some other treat that they were expressly forbidden to eat. Now I am not overweight and I don't love eating that much, but I have been addicted to cigarettes. To expose these poor people to the very temptations they are trying to overcome is nothing short of sadistic in my opinion.

The Biggest Loser aired on NBC, which also showed The 25 Million Dollar Hoax. The premise of this show was that a young woman had to convince her family that she had won a sweepstakes--the catch is that she could share any of the "winnings" with her family. If she pulled off the hoax, the family actually won a fortune. Maybe I am just old fashioned, but I cannot accept a show that encourages someone to deceive their family. Furthermore, I cannot accept a show in which relationships are strained because of a hoax.

As if these shows were not bad enough, they are only more in a long line of reality series that emphasise sadism or immoral behaviour. Temptation Island, Are You Hot?, The Ultimate Love Test...the list just goes on and on. In fact, the number of reality shows which do not engage in sadism, encouraging people to immorality, et. al., can probably be counted on one hand.

The good thing is that it seems to me that the reality cycle might well be ending. This season will see more reality shows air than any other. Usually a cycle peaks not long before it ends. It happened with the Westerns cycle of the Fifties and the spy cycle of the Sixties. If the reality cycle goes the way of most cycles, then, we might see very few to no reality shows on the air in the 2007-2008 season. I do hope that I am right.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Father Christmas Letters

I just finished reading The Father Christmas Letters by J. R. R. Tolkien, not that it is a very long read. It is a collection of letters that Tolkien wrote to his children as "Father Christmas." They show, even before he wrote The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, the great creativity of the man.

As an Englishman, Tolkien reiles very little on the mythos created for Santa Claus by Clement C. Moore. There are references to reindeer and there are elves, but the Father Christmas of his letters is largely his creation. Father Christmas is the son of Grandfather Yule and is approximately 2000 years old. He is assisted in his duties by the North Polar Bear and the Snow Elves. Father Christmas' workshops and storage areas are under constant threat by Goblins. Father Christmas utilises Gnomes, sworn enemies of the Goblins, to drive them away from time to time. In his letters to his children, Tolkien created an entire cast of characters at the North Pole, from the Cave Bear to Father Christmas's secretary, the elf Ilbereth. Interestingly enough, Tengwar makes an appearance in the letters in message Ilbereth writes to the children!

The Father Christmas Letters are an absolute delight to read, showing the more whimisical side of Professor Tolkien. I would recommend it to anyone, particularly those with children, who would no dobut enjoy having the letters read to them.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

My Current Favourite Rock Groups

Like most people, my musical tastes have changed throughout my life. I have gone through my various phases. Like many I listened to New Wave and electropop in the Eighties. And I listened to alternative in the Nineties. But for much of my life there has been some consistency in my musical tastes. I have been a fan of the British Invasion since I was a baby. I have been fan of heavy metal since I first heard Black Sabbth and Led Zeppelin as a child. And I have been a fan of power pop since I first heard Cheap Trick's "Surrender" on the radio in the late Seventies (no surprise that I would be fan--power pop can be traced to the British Invasion bands...). It should be no wonder that my favourite groups of late tend to be either heavy metal or power pop.

For the past eight years among my favourite bands has been Fountains of Wayne. Founding members Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood met at Williams College in Massachusetts, where they discovered that they shared a love of the British Invasion bands. They went through a number of short lived bands and as Pinnwheel finally released an album. Unfortunately, legal difficulties prevented the album from every being released. Schlesinger joined indie-pop band Ivy, Collingwood joined Boston country band The Mercy Buckets. In 1996 they reunited and formed Fountains of Wayne. In the meantime, Schlesinger gained fame as the man who wrote the title tune for Tom Hanks' movie That Thing You Do. The song "That Thing You Do" was supposed to be the hit of the one hit Wonders, the fictional band of the movie. To Schlesinger's credit, the song sounds like something from 1964. It is also one of the most listenable songs of the late Nineties.

It is through That Thing You Do that I discovered Fountains of Wayne. With a sound reminiscent of The Beatles, The Who, and The Zombies, Fountains of Wayne were definitely power pop and thus they were right up my alley. Their sound brings to mind such British Invasion bands as The Beatles and The Zombies and such classic power pop acts as Cheap Trick and E'Nuff Z'Nuff. Beyond that, Fountains of Wayne are blessed with an incredible sense of humour that shows up in their songs. "The Valley of Malls," from Utopia Parkway, is an attack on Yuppies and their spending habits. Their bigget hit, "Stacy's Mom," from Welcome Interstate Managers, is a paen to teenage lust. Not only do the Fountains of Wayne have great riffs, they also have a great sense of humour.

Another favourite band of mine at the moment is Bowling for Soup. Like Fountains of Wayne, they are also power pop. And like Fountains of Wayne, they also have a sense of humour. Bowling for Soup was founded by Witchita Falls, Texas native Jaret Reddick in 1994 with the simple goal of creating a band that was, well, happy. They released an EP in 1997 on Denton, TX based FFROE. In 1998 they released their first full length album, Rock On Honorable Ones. They became very popular in the Dallas area. In fact, I discovered Bowling for Soup through my brother, who lives in Denton County. Their popularity in Texas led them to signing with a major label, Jive/Silvertone. It was on that label that they released Let's Do It for Johnny; however, it was their second album on Jive/Silvertone, Drunk Enough to Dance, that brought them to the attention of many. It was on that album they scored their first real hit, "Girl All the Bad Guys Want," the lament of a nerdy guy who wants a rather bad girl. They also wrote and performed the theme song to Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius. Their latest album, Hangover You Don't Deserve, features their latest and perhaps biggest hit, "1985," an unabashed bit of nostalgia for the Eighties. Bowling for Soup shows influences from both the First and Second British Invasions, New Wave, and the classic power pop bands, albeit with a joy and a sense of humour rarely seen bands today. They are among the funniest bands around.

At the other end of the power pop spectrum is The Killers. Compared to Fountains of Wayne and Bowling for Soup, The Killers are a very young band. The band was founded by Brandon Flowers and Dave Keuning with the intent of creating a guitar driven group. Founded in Las Vegas, The Killers came to the attention of London based label Lizard King. The group then journeyed to the UK where they had a small tour and "Mr. Brightside" was released in limited edition. After playing in New York City, they were signed to Island Records. It was on that label that they released their first album, Hot Fuss. Unlike Fountans of Wayne (who tend to see the world through a sardonic lens) and Bowling for Soup (who are very, very happy), The Killers' songs tend to be very, very dark. Their first single and best song, "Mr. Brightside," deals with the suspcions and jealousies in a relationshp and the paranoid fears that can arise form them. "Andy You're A Star" deals with stalkers while "Somebody Told Me" deals with confused sexuality. While both are guitar driven groups that are identifiably power pop, The Killers are about as far from Bowling for Soup as one can get (they certainly aren't happy...).

The last of my favourite groups of late is Velvet Revolver. Unlike the aforementioned groups, Velvet Revolver is heavy metal. In fact, it can be fair to say that it is more Guns 'N' Roses than Guns 'N' Rose is now. Velvet Revolver consists of three former members of that band--leader guitarist Slash, Duff McKagan and drummer Matt Sorum. The rest of the band are veteran musicians as well. Lead singer Scott Weiland was once with Stone Temple Pilots, while guitarist Dave Kushner had belonged to Wasted Youth and other bands. Not surprisingly, Velvet Revolver sounds a lot like Guns 'N' Roses--in fact they sound more like Guns 'N' Roses than GNR does now. They made their debut on The Hulk soundtrack with "Set Me Free" and cover of Pink Floyd hit "Money" for The Italian Job. From there they recorded their first album Contraband. "Do It For the Kids" is wonderfully raw--what if one crossed grunge with heavy metal? "slither" sounds like old G 'N' R to me, although I personally think Weiland is a better singer than Axl Rose ever was. The only thing I dislike about Velvet Relvolver are their power ballads, which fall a little flat for me. But then I never was a fan of power ballads...

Anyhow, those are the current groups that I really like. I suspect that all four of them will see much success in the future, even if it has taken awhile for Fountains of Wayne to see any. I know I would much rather kids today listen to these bands the current crop of rappers and teen divas...

Friday, December 10, 2004

The Apartment

Tonight I watched The Apartment again. I don't really know how many times I have watched the movie, but it is one of my favourite films of all time. I consider it Billy Wilder's greatest movie, even better than Some Like It Hot. Indeed, it is quite possibly the greatest romantic comedy of all time in my opinion.

The Apartment centres on C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a clerk at the huge Consolidated Life Insurance Company in New York City. Baxter has a unique problem. Becuase he once lent his apartment to someone who needed to change for a wedding, he now finds himself lending his apartment to his superiors for their various rendevous. This puts him in good with his bosses, but makes his life miserable otherwise. Worse yet, Baxter is carrying a torch for elevator operator Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), which leads to further complications... Wilder's inspiration for The Apartment came from a scene in Brief Encounter, in which the two lead characters have a rendevous in the apartment of an unseen character. Wilder was more fascinated by the unseen owner of the apartment than he was the two lead characters.

For me The Apartment is a nearly perfect movie. It is part comedy, part romance, and part drama. Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond's script is excellent. It is a far cry from the sometimes shallow romantic comedies one sees today. The Apartment deals realstically with the compromises with principles and compromises to self respect that occur in the business world, even compromises that could cost a guy the girl he loves. Wilder and Diamond's script is both very dark and sardonic, yet at the same time it has many lighter moments. Somehow they worked out a balance between comedy and drama. As usual, the dialogue is sparkling and realistic--the sort of smart dialogue (complete with a few pop culture references) for which Wilder and Diamond were known.

As to the cast, the performances are fantastic. Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine make Baxter and Kubelik sympathetic, yet flawed. And both actors often reveal their characters' inner feelings subtlely--their facial expressions often revealing more than words could. Fred MacMurray also gives a convincing performance as the less than sympathetic Mr. Sheldrake (once you see The Apartment, you'll never be able to watch My Three Sons in quite the same way again.

I've loved The Apartment ever since I first saw it. While it is not a laugh out loud comedy (although there are some laugh out loud moments), it is one of the funniest films I have ever seen. It is also one of the most romantic films I have ever seen. There is no schmaltz, just genuine feelings in a fairly realistic film.

Sunday, December 5, 2004

Two of My Favourite Web Sites

I don't write about the web on this blog very often because there is already so much written about the web that is already on the web. I must admit, however, that I do spend a good deal of time on the web. And, of course, I do have my favourite web sites. Two of them are rather high profile.

The first is Amazon.Com. A large part of Amazon's appeal for me is that they carry books, DVDs, and so on that I wouldn't find at Sam Goodys or WalMart. I just bought the DVD of The Assassination Bureau (a fun period piece from the Sixties featuring Oliver Reed and Diana Rigg) and a copy of An Introduction to Old English Runes by R. I. Page. Neither of these would I be likely to find in Randolph County. But Amazon goes beyond being a simple bookstore where one can get books one might not find at Sam Goodys or Wally World. One of my favourite features is their Recommendations. This is a feature that is turned on when one logs into his or her Amazon account. Basically, Amazon recommends various books, DVDs, CDs, et. al. in which one might be interested based on a survey he or she takes and his or her previous purchases. Sometimes these recommdations are way off base (I loathe The Sound of Music). Other times they are right on target (the Recommendations is how I found they carried The Assassination Bureau).

Amazon also includes Customer Reviews (some more useful than others), which can give one an idea of what to expect from a particular book or DVD. For DVDs, they list the various features it has. For CDS, they have a track listing. For books, DVDs, and CDs they also include a list of works that customers also bought. (for instance, people who bought the wide screen version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone also bought the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings movies and Pirates of the Caribbean. Amazon also has "Market Place Partners," through whom one can buy used and new copies of DVDs, books, and CDS, often at a cheaper price.

Of course, the most important thing to me is that Amazon is reliable. I have always received whatever I have ordered within two weeks. And any item I have ordered, whether it is a book or a DVD, has been in good condition. I actually trust Amazon more than some shops.

Another one of my favourite web sites is the Internet Movie Data Base, better known as IMDB. As its name indicates, IMDB is a data base on the internet listing literally thousands of movies, TV shows, actors, directors, cinematographers, and virtually anyone else who has worked on a movie. With regards to movies, they have detailed information on each film listed, including its release dates, box office, cast, and so on. With regards to actors, directors, and others who have worked on films, it includes a complete filmography and usually a biography and trivia as well.

The fact is that I don't think I have seen any source of information on films and TV shows as IMDB. Even the most obscure films are listed. And I have learned numerous bits of trivia regarding various actors and directors from IMDB. It is one of the most useful, if not the single most useful web sites for any person interested in film or television.

The fact is that of web sites I visit, I probably visit Amazon and IMDB more often than most others. I would recommend them to anyone who loves books, films, or TV shows.

Saturday, December 4, 2004

Dino the Sinclair Oil Dinosaur

I don't know what was the first advertising icon to which I was exposed, but it could well have been Dino, the Sinclair Dinosaur. For those of you not familiar with Dino, he is the green apatosaurus (formerly "brontosaurus") that is prominently displayed on Sinclair Oil signs and absolutely tons of merchandise. For whatever reason, the green dinosaur struck a chord with me.

Dino grew out of an advertising campaign created by Sinclair advertising men in 1930 for Wellesville oils. The advertising men wanted to emphasise the idea that oldest crude oils make the best lubricants. They struck upon the idea of a series of advertisements, to be published in magazines and newspapers, featuring dinosaurs. The ads featured several different species of dinosaur, from the tricertops to the tyrannosaurus rex to the brontosaurus (as he was called then). For whatever reason, it was the brontosaurus that captured the public's imagination. The public soon named the critter Dino and Sinclair adopted him as their company mascot. Sinclair Oil Corporation registered the brontosaurus as a trademark in 1932. He appeared as part of the Sinclair logo, as he still does today. Sinclair gas stations, then as now, sometimes had figures of Dino on display (the station in Salisbury still does). The Sinclair exhibit at the 1934 Chicago World's Fair featured life sized replicas of dinosaurs, with Dino the star attraction.

The popularity of Sinclair's trademark resulted in the creation of tons of merchandise over the years. Among the earliest was a dinosaur stamp album distributed in 1935, with the stamps being filled once a week at gas stations. The image of Dino also adorned magnets, clocks, t-shirts, caps, and various other sundry things over the years. Naturally there were many toys. Over the years there have been plastic Dino figures, inflatable Dino toys, plush Dino toys, and many others. I remember having a tiny, green, plastic Dino as a child. Among the stranger bits of merchandise was Dino Soap--soap in the shape of the lovable apatosaurus.

Television brought a new era of advertising for Sinclair, and Dino was featured prominently in their commercials. I can remember them from a child. In fact, it may explain why I am fascinated with Sinclair's advertising mascot. I have only vague memories of the commercials, although I have read of one in which Dino curled up, died, and became crude oil...

The Sixties may well have been Dino's hey day. Sinclair had an exhibit at the 1964/1965 New York World's Fair. The exhibit once more featured a display of life sized replicas of dinosaurs. Featured were a brontosaurus (naturally), an ankylosaurus, a corythosaurus, an ornitholestes, a struthiomimus, a stegosaurus, a trachodon, triceratops, and a tyrannosaurus rex. At least three of the models were animated. Dino greeted people from the top of Sinclair's pavillion. To promote the World Fair, Dino even received a balloon in the 1963 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Dino remained a part of the parade until the late Seventies. I am not sure, but he may have been the first advertising icon to be turned into a Macy's Day balloon...

While I still see Sinclair signs all over the place and there is still a model of Dino in front of Salisbury's Sinclair station, I do not think I have seen an ad for Sinclair Oil on television for a long time. Maybe it is because I remember the commercials from the Sixties, but in some ways I do miss them. It is odd, but there is something comforting about Dino, the big green apatosaurus. I suppose it could be just that it is a fond memory from my childhood.

Friday, December 3, 2004

The 40th Anniversary of the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer Special

Wednesday CBS broadcast the 40th anniversary airing of the classic TV special Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. I imagine there are a few who think Rudolph originated with the TV special. Still more might think that he originated with the classic song written by Johnny Marks. In truth, his origins go back to a Montgomery Ward advertising campaign.

In 1939 Montgomery Ward asked copywriter Robert L. May to develop a a holiday tale that they could give away to shoppers. May came up with the idea of a reindeer named Rudolph who was an outcast because of his red nose. May's story differed considerably from both Johnny Marks's song and the Rankin Bass TV special. Rudolph was not one of Santa's reindeer and did not grow up at the north pole. Since Rudolph was not one of Santa's reindeer, he did not pick Rudolph out from his herd on that foggy Christmas Eve. Instead Santa found Rudolph when he was delivering presents at Rudolph's home. Santa thought that the nose could help him finish his deliveries in the thickening fog and adopted the reindeer.

Regardless, Rudolph the Reindeer was a hit. Unfortunately, May saw none of the money from the merchandising of the character, whose copyright belonged to Montgomery Ward. Eventually, in 1947, Montgomery Ward's president Sewell Avery gave May the copyright to his creation. May had copies of the original story printed in 1947 and 1948 saw a 9 minute theatrical cartoon based on the tale, produced by the great Max Fleischer. It was 1949 that really brought the Red Nosed Reindeer to fame. May's brother in law, songwriter Johnny Marks wrote the famous song based on the story, changing it considerably in the process. After being turned down by a number of artists, the song was finally recorded by Gene Autry in 1949. It became Autry's biggest hit and the 2nd best selling song of all time (only to "White Christmas").

This brings us to the Sixties and the TV special. In 1955 Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass founded Videocraft International, later renamed Rankin/Bass. Initially they produced televison commericals, although they wanted to expand into both feature films and TV shows. In 1960 they did exactl that, producing a series of 130 stop motion cartoon shorts under the title The New Adventures of Pinocchio. They followed this in 1961 with a series of limited animation shorts entitled Tales of the Wizard of Ox, based on the works of L. Frank Baum. As it so happened, Arthur Rankin Jr. was neighbour to Johnny Marks. It was Rankin who suggested to Marks that song could be adapted as a TV special produced using stop motion animation. Mraks was reluctant, fearing that the special could endanger the success of his biggest hit song, but eventually Rankin won him over. In fact, Marks even wrote new songs for the special, including the now classic "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Silver and Gold." The script, written by Romeo Muller, drew upon Marks's song for inspiration, expanding on the story considerably.

The hour long Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer special took a year to make, with many hours devoted even to the shortest of sequences. While still in production, Rankin pitched the special to sponsor General Electric. General Electric bought time on NBC. It debuted on NBC in 1964 under the title The General Electric Fantasy Hour: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. The special was an immediate hit and aired on NBC every year until 1972, when it moved to CBS. It has been there ever since. Over the years the special has changed somewhat from when it was originally aired. In the original plot, Santa did not rescue the Misfit Toys from their island. A writing campaign convinced Rankin-Bass to change the ending and it was altered so that Santa did indeed save them. The songs "We Are Santa's Elves" and "We're a Couple of Misfits" were cut in the late Sixties, presumably to make way for commercials. They were restored in 1998.

I don't know when I first saw Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, but I must have been very young. I remember it was still on NBC and GE was still its sponsor. I am guessing it could have been as early as 1967. I do know that I watched it loyally for most all of my childhood. A few years ago I saw it again for the first time in many years and I was impressed. It was one of the few Yuletide specials that an adult can actually enjoy. It has a keen sense of humour (I swear some of the jokes would probably go over a child's head). The story still seems very good to me, supporting the individual's right not to conform to others' expectations. Rudolph gets to pull Santa's sleigh even though his nose makes him different from everyone else. And Hermey the Elf finally gets to be a dentitst instead of having to make toys like other elves. Of course, one of the special's greatest assets is the music. The songs are very good. Indeed, I cannot believe they cut We Are Santa's Elves" and "We're a Couple of Misfits" from the special, even if they wanted to make room for more commercials. Both songs are among my favourites.

At any rate, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is perhaps my favourite holiday special of all time (A Charlie Brown Christmas might come close) of all time. It seems that it must be other people's favourite as well or else it would not have lasted 40 years. I rather suspect it will last another 40 years and more.