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Friday, June 30, 2006

The 50th Anniversary of the Interstate Highway System

It was fifty years ago yesterday that President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act of 1956. For those of you who do not know what the Federal Highway Act of 1956 was, it was a bill which would allot $33,480,000,000 to create a system of highways that would connect over 90% of all cities with populations over 50,000. Put more simply, the Federal Highway Act of 1956 created the Interstate Highway system.

Curiously, for a bill that would change the United States forever, the signing of the Federal Highway Act was performed without ceremony at Walter Reed Army Medical Center where Ike was recovering from stomach surgery. What is more, the signing of the bill did not even make the front page of The New York Times, which instead concentrated on riots in Poland and a steel worker strike, among other things. And to tell the truth, many people were probably more interested in Marilyn Monroe's marriage to Arthur Miller that took place that day than they were the Federal Highway Act.

Regardless, the signing of the Federal Highway Act of 1956 would have more far reaching effects than any other event that day. The most obvious result of the Interstate Highway System coming into existence was the fact that for the first time in American history nearly every major city would be connected by a system of roads. Today it is possible to go from New York City to Los Angeles taking Interstate Highways nearly all the way. Arguably, the Interstate Highway System may have contributed to automobile ownership. In the mid-Fifties only about fifty percent of all Americans owned cars. That number would increase dramatically afterwards. While such other factors as the economy and car prices probably contributed to the increase in car ownership, the ease that the Interstate Highway System brought to long distace travel may well have helped.

Of course, the Interstate Highway System has been blamed for things that were not quite so positive. While urban sprawl was taking place to some degree even before the Federal Highway Act of 1956 was signed, it notably accelerated with the creation of the Interstate Highway System. Fast food restaurants, shopping malls, motels, and so on sprung up along the Interstate Highways in much the same way that they once did along Route 66. The Interstate Highway System has also been blamed for the similar phenomenon of surburban sprawl. Since the Interstate Highways made access to the major cities much easier, people could live farther from their work than they could before. As a result, suburbs were built farther and farther away from major cities. As businesses left the cities for the suburbs, this would in turn lead to the decline of many major city's downtowns.

Among the events of the 1950s, the signing of the Federal Highway Act of 1956 was definitely one of those which had the most far reaching consequences for the United States. Some of the changes it made were positive, others were negative, but it definitely changed the nation forever.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

American Indian Biographies, Revised Edition

It is an unfortunate fact of American lives that the Native Americans have either been excluded from our study of history or, at most, given scant attention. This has improved in the past several years and one of the ways in which it has improved has been the publication of historical resources related to Native Americans. Among those resources is a book simply called American Indian Biographies. First published in 1999, American Indian Biographies was revised in 2005.

The revised edition of American Indian Biographies contains 391 biographical essays on important Native Americans from the spheres of history (such as Tecumseh and Geronimo), politics (such as Wilma Pearl Mankiller), entertainment (such as Wes Studi), art (such as R. C. Gorman), and so on. Each essay gives the indivdual's birth and death date (provided he or she is no longer living), the individual's tribal affiliation, and the individual's significance in Native American history and culture. American Indian Biographies covers a wide range of subjects. As pointed out above, it includes essays on individuals from the worlds of politics to art. It also covers a large time frame. The earliest biographies are of individuals dating from the 16th century; the latest are from individuals still living.

In fact, as odd as it may sound, the only complaint that I have with American Indian Biographies is that it could have included biographies of even more individuals. While including such entertainment figures as Adam Beach (from the movie Smoke Signals), Irene Bedard (the voice of Disney's Pocahontas and star of many films and TV movies), and Wes Studi (from Dances with Wolves and Mystery Men), Floyd "Red Crow" Westerman (from Dances with Wolves and Hidalgo), Darren E. Burrows (Ed on Northern Exposure), and Elaine Miles (Marilyn from Northern Exposure are not featured. Westerman is an acclaimed singer and songwriter, in addition to having an extensive acting career. Both Burrows and Elaine Miles's roles in Northern Exposure made them the highest profile Native American actors of their time. With regards to musicians, Mary Youngblood, the Grammy winning flute player and one of the nicest people one could ever meet, is not included among the profiles. With regards to the art world, neither jeweller, artist, and actor Michael Horse (yes, he is a renaissance man) nor painter Yellowman are mentioned. While American Indian Biographies is very extensive, it could have been more so. I think every individual I mentioned is worthy of a biography in the book.

Regardless of the admittedly few exclusions, American Indian Biographies is well worth reading. Even for those already familiar with Native American history it often reveals new facts that one may not have already known. For those wholly unfamiliar with Native American history, it will open a whole new world of fascinating individuals all too often unexplored by American mainstream pop culture. It is well worth a look.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Moose R.I.P.

Moose, the Jack Russell Terrier who played Eddie on Fraiser, died Thursday. He was 16 1/2 years old (that'd be around 115 1/2 years in dog years...).

Moose's beginnings showed no indication of stardom to come. Born in Florida, as a puppy Moose could be rambunctious. He would bark frequently, tear things up, and even refused to be house trained. His family called dog trainer Mathilde Halberg in hopes of getting Moose under control. Not only did Halberg get Moose properly trained. In no time he was cast as Eddie in Fraiser. He played the role for ten years before retiring and passing the part of Eddie on to his son, Enzo.

Moose made several television appearances throughout the years, on shows such as Late Night with David Letterman, Phil Donahue, The Tonight Show, and various shows on both the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. He played the older version of Skip in the movie My Dog Skip (his son Enzo played the younger version). With co-writer Brian Hargrove, Moose wrote his autobiography, My Life as a Dog. In 2003 Animal Planet ranked Moose at number five on their list of 50 Greatest TV Animals.

I have always had a weakness for dogs and Fraiser was probably my favourite sitcom of the Nineties. For that reason I always adored Moose in the role of Eddie. He could easily steal scenes from his co-stars and added a good deal of warmth and humour to an already funny series. While he lived a very long life for a dog, I still can't help but being saddened by his passing.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Superhero Movies of the Nineties

There was a time when big budget superhero movies were unknown. In the Forties the best that any superhero could do would be a Saturday matinee serial, often shot on a shoestring budget. Indeed, no less than Batman's first appearance on screen, The Batman (1943), had a budget so small that they could not afford a Batmobile (a plain old Cadillac filled the role). All of this changed in 1978 with the release of Superman, a big budget film featuring Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel and no less than Richard Donner in the director's seat. Both Superman and is first sequel, Superman II, did enormous business at the box office.

Despite the success of the first two Superman movies, a boom in superhero movies in Hollywood was not forthcoming. This would not take place until the 1989 release of Batman. Batman, featuring the controversial choice of Michael Keaton in the title role, brought Batman back to his roots as a dark night avenger. It also placed as much emphasis on character development as it did action. Batman not only proved to be the top movie of 1989, it also proved to be one of the most successful movies of all time. Batman would result in three sequels, of which only Batman Returns (1992) approached the original in qualty. With its success, Hollywood started looking to comic books for sources of inspiration.

Of course, the first film that struck close to Batman in its format and subject matter was neither a superhero film or based on a comic book. Dick Tracy was based on the famous comic strip by Chester Gould and featured Warren Beatty in the title role. While Dick Tracy was a policeman rather than a superhero and his origins lie outside comic books, the character would have a lasting impact on superhero comic books. Namely, Dick Tracy boasted one of the most colourful rogue's galleries of all time: Flattop, The Brain, Mumbles, and so on. Tracy's rogue's gallery could be argued to be predecessors of the supervillains of comic books. Although it had a fairly big name cast (Warren Beatty as Tracy, Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles, and so on) and a big budget for its time, Dick Tracy performed below expectations at the box office. It was perhaps a warning for superhero movies to come in the next few years.

Many of the superhero movies following in the wake of Batman and Dick Tracy may well have had those movies' success if Hollywood had simply followed their forumula. Both Batman and Dick Tracy were made on fairly good sized budgets. Both Batman and Dick Tracy were highly stylised, the films approximating the original source material quite well. Both films had an emphasis on character as much as they did on action. And both Batman and Dick Tracy were based on fairly big names in their media (Batman perhaps being the second most famous comic book character after Superman and Dick Tracy one of the more famous comic strip characters). Of course, in Hollywood's defence, in many instances they simply could not bring big name superheroes to the big screen in the Nineties. Plans for a Superman movie to follow the wretched Superman IV: the Quest for Peace had been percolating since 1987. Problems with the development of a new Superman feature kept the Man of Steel off the big screen until this year. A movie based on Spider-Man was in development for ten years before finally making it to theatres in 2002. Because of the importance of the big name superheros to their parent companies, the choice was often made to take their time in developing movie properties based on their characters. The heros often appearing in superhero movies of the Eighties were then often not big names.

Indeed, it is doubtful that many comic book fans had heard of The Rocketeer, a character created by Dave Stevens who appeared in only a smattering of comics published by smaller companies such as Pacific Comics and Dark Horse. In the comic books The Rocketeer is stunt pilot Cliff Secord, who found a jet pack and then used it to fight crime. The series was set in 1938. The movie, released by Disney in 1991, was fairly loyal to the comic book series, although the adult elements of the comic book series was toned down to make the film more family friendly. Set in Los Angeles in 1938, the movie pits The Rocketeer against Nazis and gangsters. The film was very well done, perhaps the best superhero movies of the early Nineties besides Batman Returns. Unfortunately, The Rocketeer did not do well at the box office.

While The Rocketeer was a little known superhero, Captain America has been one of the big names of the comic book world since his debut in 1941. He was also one of the few big name superheros who would almost make it to the big screen in the wake of the success of Batman. Sadly, it would be in a film that could possibly be the worst superhero movie ever made. Indeed, the movie was so bad that it was released directly to video rather than to theatres. The film was produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the production team behind Superman IV: the Quest for Peace. It was shot on a shoestring budget and introduced extreme changes into the mythology of Captain America (for instance, his archnemesis the Red Skull was an Italian fascist rather than a Nazi).

Not every superhero movie made in the early Nineties took their characters from comic books. The Shadow first appeared in 1929 (nine years before Superman) and would eventually be the star of both his own radio show and a pulp magazine published by Street and Smith. Even today this day, his catchphrase "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men..." is still well known. The Shadow was then an obvious choice for a film property. And the movie The Shadow (released in 1994) is for the most part a good film. The casting was perfect, with Alec Baldwin as The Shadow (and his alter ego Lamount Cranston), Penelope Ann Miller as Margot Lane, and John Lone as his archnemesis, Shiwan Khan. The film is also well written and well developed. Sadly, in my humble opinion, it suffers from fatal plot twist (I won't spoil it here) that effectively ruins the film. Regadless, The Shadow did not do well at theatres.

Another superhero who emerged from a medium other than comic books (he made his debut in a comic strip in 1936) was The Phantom. Created by Lee Falk (who also created Mandrake the Magician), The Phantom was a mysterious, costumed figure who fought crime in the jungles of Africa. Previously brought to the screen in a 1943 serial, The Phantom debuted as a major motion picture in 1996. The Phantom featured a fairly well known cast, with Billy Zane in the title role, as well as Treat Wiliams, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Samantha Eggar in supporting roles. The film was set in the Thirties and had The Phantom travel to New York to stop a madman from getting three magical skulls. Many consider The Phantom to be a bad film, I suspect because of its small budget and the fact that it features no spectacular special effects. That having been said, it is fairly faithful to its source material and it does feature a good performance by Billy Zane. I think that the worst that can truly be said about The Phantom is that it is a fun, popcorn movie that never rises above being a fun, popcorn movie.

Indeed, it must be pointed out that there were much worse superhero movies released in the Nineties than The Phantom. One of those was Steel, releasead in 1997 and starring NBA star Shaquille O'Neal. The movie was based on the DC Comics character of the same name, a weapons engineer named John Henry Irons who designed a special suit of armour. In Steel O'Neal proves that many times sports stars simply cannot act. Worse yet, the script is poorly written and full of plot holes. Short of Captain America, it may be the worst superhero movie to emerged from the superhero cycle of the Nineties.

With but few exceptions, the superhero movies of the Nineties did not perform well at the box office. Worse yet, the cycle was probably doomed with the decline in quality of the Batman franchise. Both Batman and Batman Returns were solidly good movies. Sadly, while Batman Forever and Batman and Robin had larger budgets, they were also not nearly as good as the previous movies. Indeed, Batman and Robin is often regarded as one of the worst superhero movies of all time. The Batman movies also made less money with each sequel; perhaps in large part because of its poor quality, Batman and Robin effectively bombed. With most superhero movies doing poorly at the box office and the Batman franchise failing, the superhero cycle of the Nineties came to an end.

Of course, it is questionable whether it ever really ended. In 1998 (just a year after Steel), a movie based on Marvel Comics' vampire slayer Blade was released. The movie was fairly well received by critics and did well at the box office, effectively proving that superheroes did not mean box office poison. Its success was followed in 2000 by the release of X-Men, which proved very successful at the box office and produced two sequels. It also started a new boom in superhero movies that has produced such films as Spider-Man and Batman Begins. Whether Blade and X-Men were simply continuations of the superhero boom started by Batman or the beginning of a new wave of superhero films is debatable. Regardless, with Superman Returns coming out this week and with Spider-Man III coming out next year, superheros will probably be filling movie screens for some time to come.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Aaron Spelling R.I.P.

Aaron Spelling died Friday at the age of 83 after suffering a severe stroke June 18. According to The Guiness Book of World Records, he had produced more TV shows than anyone else in the history of television.

Spelling was born the son of Jewish immigrants in Dallas, Texas on April 22, 1923. After graduating college he went into acting. He appeared in such TV shows as Dragnet and Gunsmoke and such movies as Kismet and Mad at the World. He broke into writing with a script for Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theatre in 1954. Eventually, he would write for Wagon Train, Playhouse 90 and other shows. His career as a writer would lead to him getting the position of producer on Zane Grey Theatre.

Zane Grey Theatre would be the first of many shows Spelling would produce. Among the many series he produced were Burke's Law, Daniel Boone, The Mod Squad, S.W.A.T., Charlie's Angels, Melrose Place, and Charmed. Although many of his serious received phenomenal ratings, they were often held in low regard by critics. Besides his TV shows, Spelling also produced over 140 TV movies.

Given the sheer number of TV shows that Aaron Spelling produced, I cannot deny that he had an impact on my life. That having been said, to some degree I do have to agree with the critics. It seemed to me that many of Spelling's shows (Dynasty, Charlie's Angles, and Beverly Hills 90120 were simply empty, flashy, and souless spectacles. While I did not like many of his shows, I must say that there were those that I did enjoy. When I was a very young child, Daniel Boone was my favourite show besides Batman. And I must admit to having been a loyal viewer of Melrose Place (it had sort of an over the top, campy charm to it). And although I was never a regular viewer, I do think Seventh Heaven was one of the better family dramas to come along. As to Charmed, well, I always enjoyed that show as a campier take on horror and supernatural TV shows--it definitely had its niche. Of course, even if Spelling's shows often were not of a very high quality, the very fact that he produced a large number of them is an achievement in and of itself. Off the top of my head, I can think of no other televison producer who produced nearly the number of hours of programming that Spelling did. And I doubt anyone ever will again.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Top of the Pops is No More

Tuesday the BBC announced the cancellation of what may be one of the longest running TV shows in the world, Top of the Pops (also known by the acronym TOTP). For those of you who have never heard of Top of the Pops, it was a programme which featured performances of some of the current week's best selling songs. Its last episode will air on July 30.

Top of the Pops debuted in 1964. That first programme featured performers who would later become legendary: The Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield, The Dave Clark Five, The Hollies, The Swinging Blue Jeans, and The Beatles. Meant only to last a few weeks, Top of the Pops proved so successful that it would last 42 years. Over the years such artists as Status Quo (who appeared on the show more than any other band--87 times), Slade, The Boomtown Rats, Madonna, and The Spice Girls all appeared on TOTP. The show was at its height in the Seventies, when it attracted 15 million viewers. Unfortunately, in recent years its ratings had declined due to competition from cable, satellite, and the World Wide Web. In the end, Top of the Pops was not the attraction it had once been.

Speaking as an American who has only seen video clips of Top of the Pops, I must say that I am disappointed that the Beeb chose to cancel the show. Over the years it was a showcase for some of the most popular music artists in the world. I don't think any other show, not even American Bandstand, had as good a track record of drawing in the most popular musical acts to perform. I rather suspect that the cancellation of TOTP will leave a void in British programming (one that already exists on American television) that only a similar show could fill.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Please Return It

Right now I cannot sleep. As it is I haven't been in a particularly good mood the past few days. In fact, I have been rather blue. I won't go into why, but I will say that there is an emptiness in my life right now that needs to be filled.

At any rate, I find myself in the mood for rather tragic songs. I am really not sure if "Please Return It" by The Posies can be considered tragic, as I am not precisely sure what it is about (as is the case of many Posies songs). Near as I can tell, the singer has sent a letter that he now wants returned, presumably because the content might reveal feelings better left unsaid. It is a song I've had reason to identify with from time to time.

Anyhow, The Posies were one of my favourite bands of the Nineties. They were always pegged as "alternative (wasn't every band called "alternative" in the Nineties...)," but I would say that they are pure power pop. Their harmonies and guitar work are very reminiscent of various British Invasion bands (think The Hollies meet The Who) and there is quite a bit of influence from Big Star (the original power pop group) thrown in for good measure.

Regardless, here are the lyrics to "Please Return It," composed by Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow.

Now, now is the time
Time to reckon
Time to beckon, be surprised
Like a letter
I just sent it, please return it, just forget it
When we live the life we live
It's never ours completely
Not completely
Like a movie, like a style, please return it, please return it
like a favor, like a glance, please return it, please return it

8, 8 is the hour
hour of our trials, ours too sickening to live
please return it
put it back, I take it back, I can burn it
When you let me live my life
You didn't do it completely but you were discreet
Like the year I spent comparing me to you, please return it
Like a servant, like a sewer, please return it, please return it

There's an "upside"--there has to be an "upside"
There's an "upside"--there has to be an "upside"
There's an "upside"

When you took me by surprise
That's half the fun of everything
Do you miss the point like I do?
In the certainty of friendships you can ask
Please return it
Bring the balance back to you
In returning

There's an "upside"--there has to be an "upside"
There's an "upside"--there has to be an "upside"
There's an "upside"--there has to be an "upside"

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Vincent Sherman R.I.P.

Director Vincent Sherman died Sunday night of natural causes at 99 years of age at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Los Angeles.

Sherman started out as an actor, appearing in several roles on Broadway starting with Volpone in 1928. He went onto appear in such plays as The Good Earth and Paradise Lost. He made his debut on film in the movie Counsellor at Law in 1933. Sherman's acting career was short, however, and it would be as a director that he would leave his mark in Hollywood.

Sherman's directorial debut was the B movie The Return of Dr. X. Sherman would go onto direct such movies as Nora Prentiss and The Adventures of Don Juan. His career was interrupted in the Fifties when a government agent told Warner Brothers that Sherman had communist ties. Sherman was associated with the communist party, although he knew people who did--guilt by association was enough to injure or end a film career during the Red Scare.

Sherman returned to directing movies with 1957's The Garment Jungle. With the TV series 77 Sunset Strip Sherman started directing in television. He would go onto direct episodes of Medical Center, The Waltons, and Baretta.

I can't say Vincent Sherman had an enormous impact on my life. That having been said, he did direct some films that I really liked, among them The Adventures of Don Juan and Mr. Skeffington. He may not be remembered as one of the all time great directors, but I rather suspect he will not soon be forgotten.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Invictus

Tonight I am not feeling well and I feel slightly blue. For that reason I thought I would forgo a long blog entry and instead post one of my favourite poems. It is "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley. Henley was an English poet and dramaticist who lived from 1849 top 1903. He collaborated with Robert Louis Stevenson on several plays and published no less than six books of poetry. The last one, In Hospital, included his most famous work, "Invictus (which means "unconquered" in Latin)." The poem is essentially a statement of the stiff upper lip mentality that characterised England during the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud,
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Hair

"Gimme head with hair
Long beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming,
Streaming, flaxen, waxen..."
("Hair," from the musical of the same name, lyrics by James Rado & Gerome Ragni music by Galt MacDermot)

Call me vain, but I have always been overly proud of my hair. I was fortunate enough to be born with a thick head of sable brown hair that has only decreased a little (compared to many of my contemporaries) with age. And I was fortunate enough to be born at a time when long hair on men would soon be in fashion. Unlike other generations, mine would not be subjected to the ignobility of the "buzz cut." I suppose I am not alone in being overly proud of my hair. Given the popularity of baldness cures and Just for Men hair colour, I'm guessing a lot of guys are.

Of course, I must admit to being sometimes puzzled by the changes that have occurred in men's hairstyles over the years, not the least of which is the fact that some men's hairstyles are just so unattractive. Indeed, I have never been able to figure out why really short hair sometimes comes into fashion for men. In the Jewish Bible there is the story of Samson, who derived his strength from his hair. Among various Germanic tribes the kings often wore long hair, and only slaves would have their heads shorn. During the English Civil War, the Cavaliers wore long, flowing hair, a sharp contrast with the less glamourous Roundheads who kept their hair cut short. Even as late as the 19th century a decent head of hair was not unknown among men. We still have the picture of my great, grandfather and, even in his older years, he had a good head of hair.

I must admit that I am not an expert on the history of hairstyles, but it seems to me that all of this changed in the 20th century. I know the "buzz cut" came into fashion during World War II and remained popular until Elvis, JFK, and The Beatles made having a decent head of hair fashionable again. And I must point out that when The Beatles first arrived on the scene, they were considered to have long hair, and there were actually accusations from some quarters that they looked like girls! I guess somehow the pendulum had swung so far that near baldness was now considered a sign of masculinity

Fortunately, this changed with the Sixties. Long hair would become fashionable among men again and would remain so throughout the Sixties and Seventies. Since then hair length among men has varied, but at no point has the buzz cut ever become the dominant fashion. And I must confess that I have always been puzzled as to why the buzz cut ever did come into fashion to begin with. I mean, it seems to me that most of the movie stars whom women swoon over had hair (just think of Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable, Gene Kelly...). Contrast this with the number of bald movie and TV stars that women consider "sexy." I can think of only one, Yul Brynner, although I know one woman who actually thinks Patrick Stewart is "sexy (I know, I can't explain it either...)." It seems to me that if one wants to attract women (or if one is married, keep his wife happy), unless one is in the military, one should at least keep his hair over an inch!

At any rate, I think my hair has been nearly every length possible. As a very young child, my father gave me crewcuts. As soon as I could I started growing it long. As an adult it was actually down to the small of my back at one point. Right now it is a little over an inch long and I must admit that I like the way it looks (as I said, I'm fortunate that in my forties I've kept most of my hair). For that reason (and the fact that I don't want my head getting frostbitten in the winter) I pray the crewcut and buzz cut never come back into fashion...

Friday, June 16, 2006

Walk the Line

I have said it before in this blog. I do not like country music. A lot of you might then find a bit puzzling that I have been a fan of Johnny Cash since I was little. That having been said, while he is often classed as a country artist, I have never seen him as such--I count him as a folk artist myself. Of course, I suspect that even the most die hard country fan would have to admit that Johnny Cash is one of those artists who transcended genres.

Anyhow, given my love for the music of Johnny Cash, it was only a matter of time before I watched Walk the Line, the movie based on part of his life. Walk the Line covers events from his childhood to his proposal to the legendary June Carter. And while many biopics simply move from event A to event B without ever letting us see the man inside the character, Walk the Line lets us view not only Johnny Cash's inner demons, but June Carter's inner demons as well.

Indeed, Walk the Line is very much an actor's movie. Its strongest point is its performances. Even though Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon only vaguely resemble Johnny Cash and June Carter, they are wholly convincing in the parts. And their roles were anything but easy. Phoenix had to play the Man in Black, who for all his great talent also fell victim to equally powerful addictions. Witherspoon had to play June Carter, arguably the most famous bluegrass artist of all time, who not only fell in love with a deeply flawed man, but had the insight into him to realise that he could overcome his inner demons. That Phoenix and Witherspoon play their roles with total sincerity and without the slightest hint of melodrama is a major accomplishment. I very seriously doubt any other actors could done as well.

Of course, much of the credit also goes to the screenplay written by Gill Dennis and James Mangold. The writers eschewed the usual formula of biopics (ever notice in Hollywood's biopics how many actors and singers' mothers had to do laundry for a living...) for something much more enthralling--the truth. What is more they eschew the usual sentimentality and melodrama for a realistic portrayl of Cash's life. Most Johnny Cash fans will be familiar with the events which unfold in the movie, yet most people who watch this movie will be transfixed by the story nonetheless.

And it is quite a story. In the world of 20th century entertainment it seems to me that there were two great love stories: George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Johnny Cash and June Carter. While I do not believe in predestination, it seems to me that these are individuals who were meant for one another. By the time Johnny Cash and June Carter married, they had been friends for over a decade. And despite their weaknesses (which, in Cash's case, were considerable), the two had a good deal in common (both were nonconformists who were interested in a wide range of music and subject matter) and complimented each other perfectly. Indeed, I don't think anyone can deny that it was ulitmately June's love for John that saved his life from a world of drug addiction.

For those who are fans of Johnny Cash, this movie also had the great songs of the Man in Black. What is remarkable is that the performances are original. They are not dubbings of old recordings. Both Phoneix and Witherspoon did their own singing. That they sound almost exactly like Cash and Carter in nothing short of amazing.

I would recommend Walk the Line even for those people who are not fans of Johnny Cash. The movie is an interesting portrayl of a man who sunk to the lowest depths in his life, only to be saved by the woman who loves him. It is not only a great biopic, but a great romance as well.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers

Wednesday night CBS aired AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers, an American Film Institute special in which they revealed what they considered the 100 most inspiring films of all time. As has been the case with AFI's past specials, I found this one to be a mixed bag. There were movies I thought should not be on the list, movies I thought should have been on the list, and movies that I thought should have ranked either higher or lower.

I suppose I should begin with the movies I feel should not have made the list. Among these is Working Girl, which came in at 87. Now I like Working Girl. It is a funny, well done movie. But is it inspiring? I don't think so. Another movie I do not think should have made the list is An Officer and a Gentleman (#68). I do think it is an enjoyable movie (although a bit overrated...), but is it particularly inspiring? Again, I don't think it is. Another movie that I like a good deal that I don't think should have made the list is Thelma and Louise. Now I think it is a great film (as many of Ridley Scott's films are) and I have always enjoyed it, but I find it no more inspiring than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Bonnie and Clyde (two films I also like a good deal).

Of course, there were films that I did not like that I don't think should have made the list. One of those is The Sound of Music. I have said it before in this blog and I will say it again. The Sound of Music is dull. A movie cannot be inspiring if you cannot bear to sit through the parts where they are not singing (it does have a great soundtrack).... At least The Sound of Music is based on real life events. While Braveheart purports to be based on historical events, it departs so much from the historical record that if Edward Longshanks was still alive, he could sue for slander. Its message of freedom is admirable; its portrayal of historical events and personages is offensive in the extreme.

As to movies that should have made the list, while there are quite a few I can think just off the top of my head. I have always thought El Cid to not only be one of the greatest epics of all time, but one of the most inspiring films of all time as well. Do the Right Thing, directed by Spike Lee, is in my opinion perhaps the best movie about racial relations ever produced. And while I am not Christian, I must say that I found both The Bishop's Wife and The Last Temptation of Christ to be particularly inspiring movies--they can be appreciated as universal statements of faith, regardless of one's beliefs. There are a few other films I can think of that should have made the list as well: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the best children's movie ever made) and the Lord of the Rings trilogy (the greatest fantasy films of all time).

As I mentioned above, there are also movies that made the list that I think should have ranked lower. I can appreciate that Rocky is considered inspiring for many. I cannot deny I find it a bit inspiring myself. But is it so inspiring that it should rank #4 on the list? Is it really more inspiring than The Grapes of Wrath and Apollo 13? By the same token, I can't see how Philadelphia came in at #20, placing above Gandhi, City Lights, and Meet John Doe.

Finally, there are movies that made the list that I think should have ranked higher than they did. I was suprised that Babe only came in at #80. I would have thought it would have made the top twenty, at least. By the same token, I would have thought Fiddler on the Roof (one of my favourite musicals of all time), which came in at only 82, should have made the top twenty. Spartacus, one of the best movies addressing heroism ever made, should have made the top ten. It only ranked #44.

Overall, I can't complain too much about AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers. Most of the films I expected to make the list did make it. And I can't argue that too many of the films on the list are not inspiring. I am very happy that It's a Wonderful Life was #1, although I seriously doubt there were very many who had any doubt that it would be.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Bernard Loomis R.I.P.

Most of you have not heard of Bernard Loomis, but chances are if you are a member of Generation X or Generation Y he had an impact on your life. Bernard Loomis was a toy marketer, possibly the best in the business. In a career spanning over fifty years, he marketed Mattel's Hot Wheels line and licensed toys for a movie then simply called Star Wars. Loomis died on June 2 at the age of 82 from heart disease.

Loomis was born in the Bronx, New York on July 4, 1923. During World War II he served in the Army Air Corps. He entered the toy business in 1958 and by 1960 he had joined Mattel. Among his first major projects was the marketing Chatty Cathy, the first talking doll. When Mattel introduced the Hot Wheels miniature car line, Loomis made the then revolutionary proposal that the line could be promoted with a half hour, Saturday morning cartoon. The cartoon Hot Wheels debuted on ABC in the fall of 1969 and would run for two years. It was cancelled because of complaints to the FCC that it was essentially a half hour commercial for the Hot Wheels toys. Regardless, a precedent had been set and Hot Wheels would be the forerunner of such toy based cartoons as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Transformers in the Eighties.

Loomis would move from Mattel to General Mills, who owned the toy company Kenner. There he became a vice president at General Mills and president of Kenner. There he saw to it that Kenner became the first company to license Star Wars, feeling that the various characters and vehicles would make for a great toy line. He was also pivotal in the marketing of the Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears lines. In 1992 he was inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame.

When it came to toy marketing, Bernard Loomis was a true pioneer. As mentioned above, he conceived of marketing lines of toys with half hour cartoons based on those toys. Loomis was revolutionary in that rather than focusing on the sale of individual toys, he instead focused on the marketing of entire toy lines. If not for Loomis, many of us as children may not have been able to enjoy the never ending number of toys from a single line. Had he simply obtained the Star Wars licence for Kenner, he would have had a place in the history books. As it is, he did so much more.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Superman in Song

Tonight I watched the documentary Look Up in the Sky: the Amazing History of Superman on A&E. I can't recall who mentioned it, but when dicussing the demand that there still is for the Man of Steel, he mentioned that there had been several hit songs written about Superman. I had never really thought about it, but it seems to me that he is right. I can think of several off the top of my head. And given my total ignorance of rap, my knowledge of songs about Superman is probably not near being complete.

At any rate, the Man of Steel appeared in song fairly early in the history of rock 'n' roll. Dale Hawkins, composer and original performer of the classic "Suzy Q. (later covered by Credence Clearwater Revival)," recorded a song entitled "Superman" in the Fifties. This song is not so much about Superman, as it is about a fellow who feels like Superman whenever he is with his girl.

By the same token, "Sunshine Superman" by Donovan, released in 1966, is not a song about a Man of Steel. Instead, it is a song in which the singer boasts that a girl is "...going to be mine." There is only one reference to the Last Son of Krypton, in which the singer boasts, "Superman or Green Lantern ain't got nothin' on me."

While neither Dale Hawkins' "Superman" or Donovan's "Sunshine Superman" are about the Man of Steel, The Clique's "Superman," released in 1969, would certainly seem to be. At the very least, the singer boasts "I Am Superman!" The Clique's "Superman" is essentially a love song in which the singer proclaims that "I know you don't really love that guy 'cause I can see right through you..." I suppose the song proves that even Superman can have problems when it comes to affairs of the heart (of course, it did take him 60 years just to win Lois Lane...). The Clique's "Superman" was later remade by R.E.M. on their album Life's Rich Paegent.

The Man of Steel has a universal appeal that seems to cut across cultures. It should then be no surpise that even legendary London band The Kinks should acknowledge him in song. "(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman" appeared on their 1979 Low Budget. The song is not about Superman himself, but rather about "a nine stone weakling (that'd be a 126 pound weakling for my fellow Americans out there...)" who longs to be the Man of Steel. The singer not only wants to be in better shape, but he wants to be able to change the world.

If there was a golden age for songs about Superman, it may well have been the Nineties. Throughout the decade, several songs appeared that were either about or at least mentioned the Man of Steel. Indeed, in 1991 The Spin Doctors (not one of my favourite bands) released an album whose title even related to Superman-- Pocket Full of Kryptonite. The title was taken from a line in the song "Jimmy Olsen's Blues," in which Jimmy Olsen expresses his repressed desires for Lois Lane. Indeed, depending upon how one interprets the line "pocketful of kryptonite," he may even be willing to kill the Man of Tomorrow for her... Of course, if Lois Lane does look like Kate Bosworth, I can't say I'd blame him...

While there were plenty of songs about Superman in the Nineties, there were some who thought that the concept of Superman may sadly be outdated. That was the theme of the 1996 song by Our Lady Peace, "Superman's Dead." Reportedly, Raine Maida (the lead vocalist of Our Lady Peace) has said that the song is about the ideas of morality, being a gentleman, and everything else that Superman represented being pretty much dead in modern day society. If Our Lady Peace is right, then perhaps this is why superheros such as Superman and Batman remain popular. Our world lacks heroes so we have to create our own...

That the world needs Superman is a theme that does occur in "Waitin' for a Superman" by The Flaming Lips, released in 1999. Unlike "Superman's Dead," however, "Waitin' for a Superman" is hopeful. Its chorus states that Superman "...hasn't dropped them/or forgot them/or anything."

So far the only song I have mentioned which is sung from the point of view of the Man of Steel has been "Superman" by The Clique. In 2000 another such song was released, "Krytonite," by 3 Doors Down. The song apparently centres upon Superman's concerns about his relationship with Lois Lane. He makes references to all the times in which he has saved her ("I picked you up and put you back/On solid ground..") and asks the question "If I go crazy then will you still/Call me Superman?"

Another song in which the singer longs to be Superman is "If I Were Superman" by Dweller, released in 2001 on their album Before You Save the World. In this song the singer's motives aren't entirely selfish: "If I were like Superman/I'd be the one to save the land/taking on the bad guys/I'd save the day..." And once more in this song, the romance between Superman and Lois Lane is stressed.

I know that these are not nearly all the songs about the Man of Steel. In fact, Rhino Records is releasing a tribute album called Sound of Superman tommorow, filled with songs about the Man of Steel. As one of the iconic characters of the 20th century, I suppose it is natural that there would be a number of songs that are either about Superman or at least make references to him. Indeed, I rather suspect that there will be even more songs about the Man of Steel to come.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Most Successful Studio Never to Exist

When people think of the most successful studios in the history of Hollywood, they might think of MGM, Warner Brothers, Paramount, and so on. One studio that does not come to mind is Mammoth Studios. Of course, there is a good reason for that; a Hollywood studio called "Mammoth Studios" never existed. Nonetheless, the name probably sounds familiar to many Americans, because the name has been used repeatedly for fictional studios in movies, television shows, and books.

I am not sure why various directors and writers seized upon the name "Mammoth Studios." I have heard the big studios of Hollywood's Golden Age described as "mammoth" fairly often, and perhaps this is the source of the name. Regardless, it has been used repeatedly in films, television, and other media for a very long time.

Indeed, I am not sure when the name "Mammoth Studios" was first used. It may well have been in the 1933 screwball comedy Bombshell, starring Jean Harlow and Lee Tracy. The movie cast Harlow essentially as herself. She played Lola Burns, a rising starlet at Mammoth Studios. In Bombshell Mammoth Studios is obviously a takeoff on MGM. There are references to such MGM performers as Clark Gable and Greta Garbo. The entrance way to Mammoth even resembles that of MGM! This is remarkable given the fact that MGM produced the film, so that they were in effect parodying themselves.

A studio bearing the name "Mammoth" would also appear 12 years later in Abbott and Costello in Hollywood. The movie casts Abbott and Costello as barbers Kurtis and Abercrombie, whose shop just happens to be down the street from Mammoth Studios. Naturally, they find themselves in trouble and they are forced to hide out at that studio's lot. Curiously enough, Abbott and Costello in Hollywood is another MGM production. Indeed, the backlot used in the film is that of MGM.

It seems quite possible to me that in its first few uses in movies, Mammoth Studios was pretty much a fictionalised version of MGM. This certainly seems to be the case in Merton of the Movies from 1947. Also produced by MGM, Merton at the Movies features a movie usher from Kansas, Merton Gill (played by Red Skelton), who imitates his screen idol Lawrence Rupert's heorics so well that the studio brings him out to Hollywood in hopes of free publicity. Naturally, Gill thinks he is being considered for stardom. Set in 1915, during the Silent Era, the plot of Merton at the Movies actually predates MGM. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer would not be founded until 1918 when Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer Pictures were combined to form a new company. Regardless, it is a Silent Era version of the MGM backlot where much of the movie's action takes place.

Of course, Mammoth Studios does not only appear in movies produced by MGM. In fact, its most famous appearance may well be in a television show. On The Beverly Hillbillies, during the 1964-1965 season, banker Milton Drysdale obtained controlling insterest in Mammoth Studios for hillbilly multi-millionaire Jed Clampett. For the next few seasons Mammoth Studios head Lawrence Chapman's life would never be the same. Drysdale tried tearing down the studio to make way for a new development. The Clampetts tried opening a general store on the studio lot. They even made a silent movie featuring legendary star Gloria Swanson. Regardless, Lawrence Chapman had to be thankful for the Clampetts. His studio on the decline and Milburn Drysdale wanting it torn down, it was only the Clampetts which kept the studio running!

Although it received most of its exposure on The Beverly Hillbillies, Mammoth Studios was also referenced on another sitcom, The Monkees. Curiously, on The Monkees Mammoth Studios seems to have been in worse straits than it was on The Beverly Hillbillies. It appears in the first season episode "I've Got a Little Song Here" as a thriving studio where the latest movie featuring starlet Joanie Janz is being made. It is only nine episodes later, however, in The Monkees at the Movies, that a comment is made that Mammoth went out of business years ago! Indeed, in the second season episode The Picture Frame, Mammoth Studios appears as being totally abandoned. The final reference to Mammoth Studios is in the final episode of The Monkees, "Mijacogeo" (AKA "The Frodus Caper"). Although they are at TV station KXIW, Peter tells the police on the phone that they are being held captive behind Mammoth Studios! I can only guess that maybe the studio was back in business and had bought KXIW-TV. Or maybe KXIW-TV had bought Mammoth Studios....

References to Mammoth Studios aren't simply limited to movies and television. The name has also been used in books. Mammoth Studios appears in the 1960 book The Woman Chaser by Charles Willeford and later in the film adaptation of that novel. Both the book and the movie centred around a used car salesman desperate to break into film. The Woman Chaser differs from many works which mention Mammoth Studios in that, while it has its funny moments, it is definitely not a comedy. Instead, it is a thriller of the hardboiled variety which also serves as a psychological study of its protagonist.

In a much more humourous vain is Elementary, My Dear Groucho by Ron Goulart. It is the third in a series of comedic mysteries Goulart has written which feautre the legendary comedian Groucho Marx solving various crimes. In Elementary, My Dear Groucho, Groucho and his writing partner Frank Denby must solve a murder on the set of a Sherlock Holmes movie being filmed at Mammoth Studios. In this novel he has competition in the form of the film's star, Miles Ravensclaw (playing Sherlock Holmes in the Mamoth Studios film), who boasts that he can catch the killer before Groucho and Denby can.

Mammoth Studios has also been mentioned in comic books. In Blue Ribbon Comics (published in the late Thirties and early Forties by MLJ Comics, which later renamed itself after its most successful character, eternal teenager Archie), a studio known both as Mammoth Studios and Mammoth Pictures appeared in two Rang-A-Tang the Wonder Dog stories. In the first, "The Madman of Mammoth Studios," the Wonder Dog must find who is causing the mysterious accidents surrounding a new director at the studio. In the second Rang-A-Tang must stop Nazis from shutting down one of the studio's latest productions.

In Marvel Comics, the character known as The Hangman was Jason Roland, a former actor at Mammoth Studios. First appearing in Tower of Shadows #5 (May 1970), he made a deal witht the devil for fame and fortune as a horror actor. To this end the devil gives him a monstrous visage. Unforutnately, he found that at the end of the production, the makeup wouldn't come off. Roland later made another deal with demons to restore him to human form. After this, he became The Hangman. In his first appearance as The Hangman, he attempted to shut down a remake of one of his old movies at Mammoth Studios.

I am not sure, but I suspect that "Mammoth Studios" may be the most often used name for fictional studios in film and television, and perhaps books as well. Of course, it is not quite so fictional any longer. There is a Mammoth Studios in Burnaby, British Columbia, which boasts the largest sound stage in North America (I think parts of The Fantastic Four movie were filmed there). Of course, this Mammoth Studios is a Candian operation, whereas the Mammoth Studios mentioned in film, television, books, and even comic books, is always very much a Hollywood affair.

Indeed, if one looked at the references in film and television as reflecting the history of a real life studio, then the fictional history of the fictional Mammoth Studios would parallel those of the real life studios. In Bombshell, Abbott and Costello in Hollywood, and Merton at the Movies, Mammoth Studios is a thriving movie studio. In fact, as it is modelled after MGM, it could well have been the biggest studio in Hollywood. These movies were made at a time when the real life Hollywood studios were at their peak, so the success of the fictional Mammoth Studios in those films reflects that the real life studios were having at the time. This was not the case at the time of The Beverly Hillbillies was in production. The Hollywood studios were already well into their decline. Increasingly, the studios looked to television production as a means of making money (consider the number of TV shows produced by Warner Brothers and Universal in the Fifties and Sixties). And by the Sixties, studios were already becoming part of conglomerates. MCA had acquired Universal. Gulf & Western would acquire Paramount in the mid-Sixties. As alarming as it may be, the major studios were under constant threat of suffering the same fate that Mammoth Studios had apparently suffered on The Monkees--of being shut down forever. Indeed, RKO ceased operating as a studio in 1957. Ten years later, had things unfolded only a little differently, it could have easily been 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, or even former giant MGM that shut down.

Sadly, forty years later, the studios of the Golden Age are either parts of conglomerates or have ceased to exist altogether. Indeed, MGM and United Artists were bought by Sony just last year. While films will still be released under the MGM and United Artists names, for all practical purposes they have ceased to exist as independent studios. If Mammoth Studios had existed, this would probably have been its fate. A Hollywood giant in its glory days, featuring such stars as Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, Mammoth Studios would either close its doors or be a mere subsidiary of a larger corporation. Of course, that is if the Clampetts had ever decided to sell it....

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Miniver Cheevy

This weekend has been a busy one for me, so rather than making a long entry, I thought I would post one of my favourite poems by one of my faovurite poets. Edward Arlington Robinson was a late 19th century/early 20th century poet, born in Maine. His style was very traditional and owes a lot to both William Shakespeare and Ben Johnson. While his style was traditional, however, his subject matter was very untraditional. Many of his poems took the form of short, often tragic character sketches of the sort of people he might encounter in his native New England. "Miniver Cheevy" is one of those character sketches, a poem about a man who feels he was born in the wrong time. I am sure many have had this feeling at one time or another, but very few have probably taken it to the extremes that Miniver does in the poem.

"Miniver Cheevy"
by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam's neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediaeval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

Friday, June 9, 2006

A Few Passings

It is often said that celebrities die in threes. I am not sure that is true, but they certainly do seem to die in bunchs at times. Lately, there have been a few celebrity deaths of note. I thought I would cover them all in one post.

Among those deaths was special effects innovator Arthur Widmer. Widmer died of cancer at age 92. Widmer was born in Washington, D.C., and attended the University of Michigan. He worked for Kodak's research labs and later Clinton Laboratories (later to become the Oak Ridge National Laboratory).

At Kodak Widmer worked on colour photography, including Kodachrome. Following World War II, Kodak sent Widmer to Hollywood. There he was part of introducing Kodak Color Negative and Color Positive to the movie studios. He was at Warner Brothers when he developed the Ultra Violet Travelling Matte, an early version of what we now call "bluescreen." Quite simply, bluescreen involved the process of shooting actors against a monochromatic background (usually the colour blue, hence the name) in order to replace the background with another background or scene. Widmer was also pivotal in developing such technologies for film as 3-D and wide screen. For his contributions to the movie industry, Widmer received an Acadmey Award of Commendation for his development of the Ultra Violet Travelling Matte.

Another celebrity to die of late was comic book and animated cartoon artist Alex Toth. Toth died at age 77 in Burbank, California. He was born on June 25, 1928. At age 15 Toth started his career in illustrating comic books. He was first hired by illustrator and editor Steve Douglas to work on Famous Funnies. He would later be hired by legendary editor Sheldon Mayer to work on various titles at All-American Comics. After All-American merged with National Periodical Publications (better known, and now officially known, as DC Comics), he would continue to work with Mayer. At All-American and National, Toth worked on such titles as All-Star Comics (featuring the Justice Society of America) and Green Lantern. After a stint in the military Toth would work for Dell Comics.

While Toth worked extensively in comic books, he is perhaps best known for his work with Hanna-Barbera. He joined the animation studio in 1965. There he developed such characters as Space Ghost, the Herculoids, and Birdman. He would also work on such cartoons as Josie and the Pussycats and Superfriends. Toth's Hanna-Barbera characters, such as Space Ghost, entered American pop culture and would prove to be an influence on future comic book artists and writers (Mike Baron and Steve Rude credit Space Ghost as the inspiration for their comic book character Nexus). Following his work for Hanna-Barbera, Toth went back to work in comic books, working for such companies as DC, Dell, and Warren.

I was always a fan of Alex Toth. Although his work was often simple and uncomplicated, it was also realistic. With a few simple strokes, Toth could endow any given scene with a sense of immediacy and realism that many artists with more complex styles could not. Fittingly, Toth died at his drawing table.

The third celebrity to die of late was keyboardist Billy Preston. Preston died June 6 at age 59 after a long battle with chronic kidney disease. Preston was born in Houston, Texas, although he grew up in Los Angeles, California. He started playing piano when he was only three years of age. His first work was with the likes of Little Richard and Ray Charles. Perhaps his greatest claim to fame was his work with The Beatles. Appearing on The Beatles albums Let It Be and Abbey Road, he was the first non-Beatle to receive a credit on a Beatle record. For this reason he was sometimes called "the Fifth Beatle." Preston would work again with George Harrison on the song "My Sweet Lord."

Preston would go onto work with such artists as The Rolling Stones, Sly and the Family Stone, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He would also have a successful solo career of his own. Preston's first two singles went nowhere on the Billboard charts, but he had a hit and a Grammy win with his third single, "Outta Space." He would have two number one singles with "Will It Go Round in Circles" and "Nothing From Nothing."

In my humble opinion, Preston was one of the greatest keyboardists of the Sixties and Seventies. His work with The Beatles was impeccable. Indeed, I don't think any of The Beatles could have done better than him when it came to playing keyboards. I also enjoyed his some of his solo work, particularly "Will It Go Round in Circles." I am truly saddened by his passing.

Thursday, June 8, 2006

Two Hangmen

Among my favourite songs is "Two Hangmen," a song released by the band Mason Proffit in 1969. The late Fifties had seen folk music soar in popularity with the emergence of the Kingston Trio and such artists as Bob Dylan. By the mid-Sixties many artists, such as The Byrds and Simon & Garfunkel, had blended folk music with rock music to create the subgenre known as folk rock. Mason Profitt fell into this category. The band was formed by brothers Terry and John Talbot. Terry Talbot had performed with such artists as Glen Campbell, Sonny & Cher, and Chad Mitchell.

Mason Proffit developed a bit of a following, with successful tours and soldout concerts. They opened for The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, among others. From 1969 to 1974 they released five albums. Depsite this, they were never a huge success commercially. In 1974 the band disbanded so that John Talbot could engage in religious pursuits. His brother Terry continued to perform, even touring with The Eagles. The band was reformed in 2003 by Terry Talbot. While John's religious obligations keep him from touring with the band, he does still record with them. The band has released two albums since reforming.

"Two Hangmen" was perhaps their biggest hit. To this day it still receives airplay on radio stations across the country. For me the appeal of the song is that it tells a story which can be interpreted on many levels. The lyrics are below:

As I rode into Tombstone on my horse whose name was Mac
I saw what I'll relate to you goin' on behind my back
It seems the folks were up in arms a man now had to die
For believin' things that didn't fit the laws they'd set aside
The man's name was I'm a freak the best that I could see
He was the executioner a hangman just like me
I guess that he'd seen loopholes from workin' with his rope
He'd hung the wrong man many times so now he turned to hope

He'd talk to all the people from his scaffold in the square
He told them of the things he found;
But they didn't seem to care
He said the laws were obsolete, a change they should demand
But the people only walked away, he couldn't understand

The Marshall's name was Uncle Sam he said he'd right this wrong
He'd make the hangman shut his mouth if it took him all year long
He finally arrested Freak and then he sent for me
To hang a fellow hangman from a fellow hangman's tree

It didn't take them long to try him in their court of law
He was guilty then of thinking a crime much worse than all
They sentenced him to die so his seed of thought can't spread
And infect the little children; that's what the law had said

So the hangin' day came 'round and he walked up to the noose
I pulled the lever but before he fell I cut him loose
They called it all conspiracy and that I had to die
So to close our mouths and kill our minds they hung us side by side

And now we're two hangmen hangin' from a tree
That don't bother me at all
Two hangmen hangin' from a tree
That don't bother me at all

At its most basic level, "Two Hangmen" is a protest song. The song is ostenisbly set in the Old West. The narrator rides into town on a horse. There is a reference to Tombstone (presumably, Tombstone, Arizona, where the gunfight at the O.K. Corral took place). There is also a reference to a marshall (the profession commonly held by heroes in Westerns). Despite this, the lyrics would seem to be directed against the Vietnam War and perhaps other percieved injustices of the time. Freak speaks from his gallows, telling the folks of the injustices that he has seen. Sadly for Freak, the people do not wish to listen. This reflects the situtation as percieved by many protesters in the late Sixties. For all their protests, many of them could not help but feel that the general populace did not want to hear what they had to say. Furthermore, many felt as if they were being condemned for their views; not condemned to death, as Freak was, but condemned nonetheless.

One thing I find signficant about "Two Hangmen" is that the protagonists are both hangmen. Hanging was the traditional method of executing criminals going back to the times of the Anglo-Saxon kings. In Anglo-Saxon paganism it may well have been associated with the god Woden, who was known to the Vikings as Odhinn, whom the Vikings did associate with hanging. According to myth Odhinn hanged on the World Tree and obtained knowledge of the runes. He was further said to sit beneath the gallows to get knowledge from hanged men. As Odhinn was the god of wisdom and was associated with hanging, it is perhaps signficant that Freak's crime was "thinking" and that he was condemned to death so that he would not spread his thoughts. The song would then seem to be rooted in views possibly held by the ancient Germanic peoples (to which both the Anglo-Saxon peoples and Vikings belonged) on a link between arcane knowledge and hanging.

The link between hanging and knowledge doesn't seem to have been limited to the ancient Germanic peoples. While interpretations of Tarot cards vary greatly, I seem to recall that many associated the Tarot card called the Hanged Man with the pursuit of knowledge. The poet Maurice Ogden also associated hangmen with mysterious knowledge, as well as dealing out justice, in his poem "The Hangman."

Regardless, the general theme of "Two Hangmen" would seem to be that many people consider knowledge to be dangerous and are willing to silence those who possess such knowledge. At the same time, however, given that the two hangmen die for their beliefs, it is a statement on the importance of remaining faithful to one's beliefs regardless of the costs. In this respect, the meaning of "Two Hangmen" goes well beyond that of the typical Vietnam War protest song. It is a song about the importance of belief that can have meaning for nearly anyone of any faith or creed. While I can see that the song links to myths and folklore, its most important message is one that is ageless and universal.

On their latest album, Mason Proffit has a remake of "Two Hangmen." It is good, as might be expected, but it doesn't nearly match the original.

Saturday, June 3, 2006

A Shroud of Thoughts 2nd Anniversary

It was two years ago today that I first started writing this blog. A lot has happened since then. In fact, I think there may well have been more changes in my life in the past two years than in the four years before that. Some of it has been good. I have a decent job making decent money. I finally got a new PC after my old one was threatening to give up the ghost. For the most part my family is doing well. Of course, that is not to say that my life has not had its share of sorrows. Two of my aunts passed on (although it must be pointed out that one was in her eighties and the other was in her nineties). We've had our share of family crises. And one dream I'd held for a few years (the one closest to my heart, in fact) just came crashing down in flames. I haven't quite been happy ever since. Life, as ever, is a very mixed bag.

I suppose many of you might be wondering where the title of this blog comes from. I got it from Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage canto iii stanza 113, which is below:

I have not loved the world, nor the world me;
I have not flattered its rank breath, nor bow'd
To its idolatries a patient knee,
Nor coin'd my cheek to smiles, nor cried aloud
In worship of an echo; in the crowd
They could not deem me one of such; I stood
Among them, but not of them; in a shroud
Of thoughts which were not their thoughts, and still could,
Had I not filed my mind, which thus itself subdued.

As with last year, I thought I would give you a list of what I think are the best posts I have made over the past year. The exception is "The Blonde Mystique." I do think it is one of the best posts I've ever written, but technically it belongs to the first year of publishing A Shroud of Thoughts. That having been said, I made it right before the first anniversary of the blog and didn't include it in last year's "Greatest Hits" for that reason. Anyhow, here are the best posts of the past year (and one week, counting "The Blonde Mystique," I guess) in chronological order:

The Blonde Mystique

A Night at the Movies

Simon and Garfunkel

The Rise and Fall of the Independent Televison Station

Words From Pop Culture

Les Belles Dames Sans Merci: Elf Maidens and Men

From the Small Screen to the Big Screen

The Fleischer Superman Cartoons

Blondie Turns 75

Forty Years of The Wild Wild West

The Name Game

Dracula on Film

Roald Dahl's Critics

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloons

Days in a Life: John Lennon Remembered

The Week of December 18, 2005 (one of my better weeks this past year)

The Nostalgia Wave of the Seventies

The Week of January 8, 2006 (another good week)

The History of Heavy Metal (all five parts and another entry thrown in for good measure)

Vikings on Film

Mary Ann Versus Ginger

The Week of February 26 ("The Dramatic Roles of Gene Kelly," "Great Expectations," and eulogies for three of my favourite actors)

The Music of the Monkees

Star Wars

The Harry Potter Movies

Kellogs' 100th Anniversary

Men and Musicals

And Now a Word From Our Sponsor...

Anyhow, I think I've done fairly well with this blog over the past year. I hope to do better in this next year. And I hope this coming year is even happier than the past one!

The Greatest Superhero Movies of All Time (IMHO)

Although they have dominated comic books for over sixty years, there was a time when superheros had problems when it came to the movies. During the Golden Age of comic books (about 1939 to 1949), the only way in which a superhero could be seen on the big screen was in serials. And while some of the serials were quite well done (for instance, The Adventures of Captain Marvel), most were strictly kid's fare and some were downright atrocious (the two Batman serials are examples of these). I am not sure what the first superhero feature film was, but it may well have been Superman and the Mole Man, released in 1951. Superman and the Mole Men was the pilot for the classic Adventures of Superman TV series, released to theatres prior to the series' debut. Although it has the advantage of having George Reeves in the title role, the movie does not play nearly as well as the show did. Shot on the cheap, it is burdened with a script that simply cannot sustain itself for its 58 minutes length. Batman: the Movie, the 1966 feature film spun off from the TV series, was entertaining, but like the TV show it played the Caped Crusader for comedy.

It would not be until Superman (released in 1978), Superman II (released in 1980), and Batman (released in 1989) that superheroes really got their due on the big screen. Since then there have many superhero movies released and many of them are actually good. I thought it might be interesting to do a run down of what I consider to be the five best.

I. Batman Begins: If superhero movies have suffered one fatal flaw over the years, it is that they have tended to focus too much on the heroic alter ego than the secret identity they keep most of the time. This is not the case with Batman Begins. The movie actually explores the inner demons of Bruce Wayne which drive him to dress up like a bat and fight crime. With the exception of the Spider-Man films, no other superhero movie has spent as much time exploring the inner man as Batman Begins did. Fortunately, Batman Begins is not all character study, as it also features some of the best action scenes ever seen in a superhero movie.

II. Spider-Man 2: Like its predecessor (and Batman Begins, for that matter), Spider-Man II explores the inner demons of Peter Parker. Where Spider-Man II goes even further is that it features what may be the greatest portrayl of a supervillain on film. Played by Alfred Molina, Dr. Octopus is a complex, sophisticated character. Indeed, he becomes a supervillain not by choice, but by accident, making him an altogether tragic character. Between the potrayal of Peter Parker and the portrayal of Dr. Octopus, Spider-Man 2 is lifted above the average superhero film.

III. Spider-Man: Moreso than any superhero movie made before it, Spider-Man explored the man behind the mask. In fact, Spider-Man does not even appear for nearly forty minutes into the film! The movie is as much about the impact (both positive and negative) Peter Parker's super powers have on his life as it is about fighting the Green Goblin. In the end, Peter Parker as he is portrayed in Spider-Man is the most complex superhero to appear on screen until the release of Batman Begins. The movie only has two weaknesses, in my humble opinion. First, the Green Goblin is not nearly as well developed as he should be. The character lacks much of the depth that he had in the comic books. Second, why did they choose to use Mary Jane Watson instead of Gwen Stacy>?! To me this would be like doing a Superman movie where the love interest is Lana Lang rather than Lois Lane....

IV. X-2: X-Men United: Like the films in the Spider-Man franchise, this is another case where the sequel was better than the original. Part of what is so impresive about this movie is that it features an ensemble of characters while at the same time insuring all of them are three dimensional. Despite whatever super powers they might have, each one of the X-Men are fully realised characters who could concievably exist. Beyond the fact that the movie does quite well in its portrayls of the characters, it is among the best movies at capturing the look and feel of comic books on film. There is plenty of action to be had, including the best fight scene Woverine has had so far in the series. And I must say that I am impressed with the way they handled Nightcrawler's powers.

V. Superman II: For me, Superman II was the first superhero movie to capture the look and feel of comic books on film. Indeed, the knockdown, dragout fight between Superman and his Kryptonian opponents (General Zod, Ursa, and Non) is one of the best superhero battles ever filmed. It could have been ripped straight from the pages of any comic book. Of course, this is not to say that Superman II is all comic book action. One of the attractions of the film is the relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane, finally allowed to develop after forty years of flirting. For me Superman II is a movie that is still charming 25 years after its release.

Well, those are what I consider the five greatest superhero films of all time. This summer has seen the release of X-Men III and will see the release of Superman Returns. It will be interesting to see if those films measure up to these.

Friday, June 2, 2006

Robert Sterling R.I.P.

Actor Robert Sterling, best known for his roles in the TV series Topper and such movies as Show Boat and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, died Tuesday at age 88.

Sterling was born William Sterling Hart in New Castle, Pennsylvania. He attended the University of Pittsburgh. Before taking up acting, he had worked as a clothing salesman. In 1939 he signed a contract with Columbia Pictures. He took the stage name "Robert Sterling" to keep from being confused with silent Western star William S. Hart. At Columbia his film career was lacklustre at best; Sterling appeared only in a few small parts in even smaller films.

Fortunately, in 1941 he was signed to MGM as a possible replacement for Robert Taylor, who had entered the U. S. Navy. Although Sterling was usually not the leading man, he did play supporting roles in several major feature films. He appeared in such films as Two Faced Woman, Somewhere I'll Find You, Show Boat, and The Sundowners.

Sterling also appeared on the Broadway stage. He appeared in the play Gramercy Ghost in 1951 and Roman Candle in 1960. It was through the former that he met his wife, actress Anne Jeffreys, who was playing in Kiss Me Kate just across the street. Sterling and Jeffreys started a stage act not long after their marriage, which led to the two of them being cast as George and Marion Kerby, the two fun loving ghosts who haunted the title character in the classic TV series Topper (based on the novel by Thorne Smith, which also inspired three classic films made in the late Thirties and early Forties). Topper ran from 1953 to 1956, with a healthy afterlife in reruns following its network run. Sterling and Jeffreys later appeared in their own short lived TV series, Love That Jill. Without his wife, Sterling starred in another short lived series, Ichabod and Me.

With the exception of the films Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Global Affair, most of Sterling's work was in television. He guest starred on many shows, among them The Loretta Young Show, Wagon Train, The Twilight Zone, and Murder, She Wrote.

I always liked Robert Sterling. He was a talented actor with a gift for comedy. Indeed, it must be pointed out that in Topper he stepped into a role originally played by Cary Grant (who portrayed George Kerby in the 1937 feature film Topper) and nearly matched Grant in the role. It is sad that he was generally cast in secondary roles and never saw much success (beyond Topper) on television. He not only had the looks of a leading man, but he also had the talent. I rather suspect that with the proper vehicle, he could have had a very successful career.

Thursday, June 1, 2006

Oasis Produced the Greatest Album of All Time?!

The annual publication, British Hit Singles & Albums, recently conducted a vote for the greatest albums of all time. Individuals could vote for up to 10 albums. Around 40,000 people voted, with 95% of the votes coming from the United Kingdom.

Quite frankly, I am a bit shocked at the results. Oasis' debut album, Definite Maybe, was voted the greatest album of all time. It beat out The Beatles' Revolver, which came in at #2, and The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which came in at #3. The rest of the top ten was filled out by: Radiohead's OK Computer at #4; Oasis' (What's the Story)Morning Glory? at #5; Nirvana's Nevermind at #6; The Stone Roses' self titlted album at #7; Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon at #8; The Smiths' The Queen is Dead at #9; and Radiohead's The Bends at #10.

As I said above, I am a bit shocked at the results. It is extremely difficult for me to see how anyone could honestly believe that Definite Maybe by Oasis is a greater album than either Revovler (my pick for the greatest album of all time) or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles. These two albums transformed rock music in the way that no other ablums have before or since. Quite simply, they were revolutionary. While I love Oasis and Definite Maybe is their best album, I am not sure that I would even rank it in the top ten, let alone name it the greatest album of all time. As to the rest of the top ten, I would have ranked Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd a good deal higher--at #3, right behind Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. OK Computer by Radiohead probably would make my top ten, although I would probably rank it quite a bit lower. (What's the Story)Morning Glory? by Oasis, Nevermind by Nirvana, and The Queen is Dead by The Smiths would not have even made my top ten. The Stone Roses would not even have made my top one hundred...

Indeed, I am amazed that some of these albums made British Hit Singles & Albums's top ten greatest albums of all time when other classic rock albums did not. In my humble opinion Days of Future Past by The Moody Blues is the greatest concept album ever made besides Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Besides Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, I would include A Night at the Opera by Queen, Who's Next by The Who, Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders of Mars by David Bowie, and Led Zeppelin IV as the seminal albums of the Seventies. Looking back to the days of Swinging London, Aftermath stands out in my mind as the greatest album made by The Rolling Stones and one of the greastest albums of all time. It is hard for me to understand how these albums did not make the top ten when they obviously seem superior to many of the albums that did.

While I do have some very big complaints with the results of this vote, I guess I should be thankful that it was not worse. With the exception of The Stone Roses, I like every album in the top ten. I could see Thriller by Michael Jackson or Madonna's debut album making some people's lists....