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Monday, July 31, 2006

Roy Orbison

Well, in case any of you are wondering, I am still unhappy. I feel as if my life has just ended and that now I merely exist for no real reason and with no real purpose. I certainly do not think I will ever be happy again. I guess this is what happens when one loses his hopes and dreams, when his fondest desires are utterly crushed. He becomes one of the living dead.

Anyhow, today I thought I would discuss a musical artist whose music I'll probably listening to quite a bit in the coming months: Roy Orbison. Orbison was a legendary pioneer in rock 'n' roll and a songwriter of some note. He was perhaps best known for his many, often sad ballads. Despite this, his biggest hit and best known song is purely rock, the classic "(Oh) Pretty Woman."

Orbison was born in Vernon, Texas on April 23, 1936. His family would eventually move to the town of Wink, Texas where he would spend much of his childhood. Orbison attended North Texas State College in Denton, Texas and Odessa Junior College in Odessa, Texas.

Orbison became interested in music very early and he formed his first band he was all of 13. The Wink Westerners proved successful enough to have their own weekly show on Kermit, Texas radio station KERB. They would even appear on TV on shows that aired on KMID and KOSA, both in the Midland-Odessa area. In 1956, with the Wink Westerners renamed "The Teen Kings," Orbison headed to Memphis, Tennessee to try to break into the recording industry. Orbison signed with Sun Records, founded by legendary producer Sam Phillips. Today many of Roy Orbison's songs recorded at Sun are considered classics, but at the time he saw very little success. His only hit while he was at Sun Records was the song "Ooby Dooby," a minor hit from 1956. Orbison eventually moved from Sun Records to RCA. It was in 1959 that he was signed by Monument Records, where his biggest hits were recorded.

Orbison's first song, a rockabilly tune titled "Uptown," was only a moderate success. It would be the song"Only the Lonely" that would be his first major hit. Released in May 1960, the song would eventually reach #2 on the United States Billboard charts and #1 on the United Kingdom singles charts. The song displayed his signature vocal range and his practice of incorporating instruments usually reserved for orchestras (vioins, for instance) into rock music. His next single, "Running Scared," would go to #1 on the Billboard charts. For the next several years he would be among the biggest rock artists of the era, with several hit singles to his credit. Indeed, his best known songs, "Crying," "In Dreams," and "Oh, Pretty Woman" would all be included in Rolling Stone Magazine's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" in 2004.

Orbison's songs were characterised by his nearly operatic vocals. They were also often characterised by sounds that as of yet had not been heard in rock 'n' roll. His classic "In Dreams," with its nearly epic quality, eschewed the typical structure of a pop song of the era. While most songs of the era tended to repeat certain sections of their music, "In Dreams" progresses through different musical sections that are not repeated. Of course, Orbison is probably best known for the lyrics of his songs, which are often about lost love. "Only the Lonely," "Crying," and "In Dreams" all paint portraits of men who have lost love and are not the better for it.

Of course, Orbison's biggest success would come with a happier song. "Oh, Pretty Woman" was released in 1964 and was the first American record to break The Beatles' stranglehold at the top of the Billboard charts. Indeed, the song not only went to the #1 spot, but sold more copies than any other single in its first ten days up to that time. Unfortunately, Orbison's career would virtually collapse following the success of "Oh, Pretty Woman." While his music was still popular throughout much of the rest of the world, the British Invasion insured Orbison remained hitless in his home of America. To complicate matters, the Sixties saw tragedy visit Orbison several times. His wife of 11 years, Claudette, died in a motorcycle crash in 1966. His home in Henderson, Tennessee burned to the ground in 1968, killing two of his sons.

Although Orbison would see success outside of the United States, his career would not be revived here until the Eighties. In 1980 he performed a duet with bluebrass singer Emmylou Harris, "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again." The song saw some success on the Billboard country charts. Nineteen eight six saw the release of the movie Blue Velvet, which included the song "In Dreams." With new interest in his early work, Orbison was once more in demand. He recorded a special for Cinemax, Roy Orbison and Friends, A Black and White Night in 1988. The special featured such artists as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and so on, performing as back up to the legendary Orbison. With its success Orbison would go onto record with Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne (of ELO), Tom Petty, and George Harrison as part of The Travelling Wilburys. The Traveling Wilburys were fairly successful and Orbison went onto record the solo album Mystery Girl. Sadly, just as his career was once more getting underway, Roy Orbison died from a heart attack on December 15, 1988. Shortly after his death, the song "You Got It" would become one of his biggest singles.

Roy Orbison was one of the greatest rock artists of all time. In fact, for the early Sixties, his songs were far more sophisticated rhythmically, melodically, and lyrically than other songs released at the time. His songs often broke with pop songwriting tradition and, listened to today, were obviously well ahead of his time. His voice spanned an impressive three octaves, perhaps making him the greatest singer in the genre of rock. Roy Orbison also proved to be an influence on other classic rock artists. He had an incredible influence on the British Invasion bands, particulary both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones (in 1963, while touring in Britain, he encouraged The Beatles to go to America). Among other artists Orbison would have an influence were Bob Dylan, The Bee Gees, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, lyricist Bernie Taupin, the Electric Light Orchestra, U2, and, most obviously, Chris Isaak ("Wicked Game" sounds as if it could have been both written and sung by Orbison). I rather suspect that if a top ten most influential artists of rock music was ever compiled, Roy Orbison would most certainly have to be included.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Good Night and Good Luck

Before there was Peter Jennings, before there was Tom Brokaw, even before there was Walter Cronkite, there was Edward R. Murrow. Murrow made his name reporting for CBS News from London during World War II. Following the war Murrow's reputation only increased. He anchored daily news reports on CBS Radio. With producer Fred Friendly he recorded a series of historical, spoken word albums entitled I Can Hear It Now. Those albums evolved into the radio show Hear It Now, on which Murrow and Friendly would tackle a number of controversial topics. The radio show would soon be adapted to the new format of television as See It Now, first airing on CBS in November, 1951. By the mid-Fifties Murrow was arguably the most respected journalist in America.

The movie Good Night and Good Luck, directed by George Clooney, focuses on what many believe to be the most fascinating aspect of Murrow's long career--his famous See It Now broadcast on which he criticised Senator Joseph McCarthy. Director Clooney and his crew did a wonderful job of recreating CBS News circa 1953 to 1955. The movie evokes the spirit of mid-Fifites televison quite well. The sets look almost exactly like pictures of the CBS newsrooms from the mid-Fifties that I have seen. And the black and white photography only adds to the movie's authentic feel and look (indeed, I am not sure that Murrow ever appeared in colour during his career with CBS). My only complaint with the flm with regards to its authentic look is that there is one typographical error in the movie. The CBS logo displayed in the newsroom is in Helvetica, a font face which was not created until 1957!

What is all the more remarkable is that actor David Strathairn recreates Murrow to such a point that it is at times difficult to believe that it is not Murrow on the screen. Strathairn certainly deserved to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Lead Actor; not having yet seen Capote, I would say that perhaps he even deserved to win it. Strathairn's performance as Murrow is all the most amazing given that the actor does not even look like Murrow in real life. The rest of the cast do a great job as well, especially George Clooney as Fred Friendly and Frank Langella as CBS head William S. Paley, even though neither actor looks much like the men they are playing (both Clooney and Langella are considerably better looking that either Friendly or Paley were).

To its credit, Good Night and Good Luck is fairly even handed in its portrayal of Murrow. While the movie does portray him as a heroic figure, it sometimes shows the legendary reporter in a lesser light. In the film, as in real life, Murrow sometimes expressed doubts about using the medium of television to attack an individual, public figure like McCarthy. And, as in real life, Murrow is portrayed as a bit of a showman. While he hosts See It Now, Murrow was also the host of the CBS interview show Person to Person. The movie recreates an interview done on that show in which Murrow asks Liberace (for those of you too young to remember, he was a flamboyant, gay pianist) about his marital prospects. And while Murrow is not always portrayed as a saint, neither is CBS head William S. Paley portrayed as a base villain. While many filmmakers would portray Paley as a money grubbing executive who cancels See It Now simply because of the company's bottom line, Paley is portrayed as a responsible man who genuinely likes Murrow and admires the work CBS News has done, but also has concerns about retaining sponsors for the network and providing a living for its many employees. Paley is even allowed to get some blows in on Murrow, pointing out that Murrow did not correct McCarthy when the Senator claimed known Communist Alger Hiss was convicted of treason (he was convicted only of perjury).

All of this is not to say Good Luck and Good Night is a perfect film. Like Quiz Show (the film about the quiz show scandals of the Fifties), it does create some inaccuracies through omission. While the movies does point out that McCarthy was not the first person to engage Red baiting (the HUAC-Hollywood Ten hearing predated McCarthy by a few years), it does not point out that there were major figures who tackled McCarthy before Murrow went after him. Both columnist Drew Pearson and cartoonist Herblock both attacked the junior Senator from Wisconsin before Murrow did. And while the movie does make reference to Don Hollenbeck's failing health and the fact that his wife had left him, the movie could well leave some viewers with the impression that it was the attacks made on him by New York Journal American columist Jack O'Brian which was the ulitmate cause of his suicide (in truth it was probably a combination of many factors). Similarly, I think that Clooney could have done a better job of handling the bigger picture of the Red Scare. Let's face it. In the Fifties the U.S.S.R. presented such a viable threat to the safety of America that for quite some time fallout shelters were all the rage...

Even with its omissions, however, Good Night and Good Luck is a remarkable film. It recreates with a good deal of authenticity the look and feel of one of the most fascinating events in television history, and the man who was behind it all. Good Night and Good Luck isn't just for the television historian, but anyone who enjoys a well told story.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

User Generated Content

Well, today I am feeling no better than I have been. The weather has turned hot and muggy again. Worse yet, I still feel like my life has become a Queensryche album. Either that or I have become Thomas Veil from the TV show Nowhere Man. Or maybe Pip from Great Expectations. At any rate, I am not happy. But enough about me. On with the show.

Among the buzzwords one hears these days about the World Wide Web is the term "user generated content." The term essentially refers to any content that is produced by users of websites rather than the mass media (television networks, movie studios, magazines, et. al.). The term is rather all encompassing, as it can be used of virtually any content generated by web users, everything from blogs to online auction sites. Regardless, user generated content became big news in 2005. Newsweek, The New York Times, the BBC, and several other media outlets have done stories on the phenomenon. Of course, like so many things on the Web that the media are just now discovering, user generated content is nothing new.

Indeed, it has been many, many years that most ISPs have offered their customers free web space for their own web site. I have had my own web site since 1998! Even if one's ISP didn't offer free web space, one could set up his or her own web site on GeoCities (which has been around since 1995), Tripod (which has been around in some form or another since 1992), or one of the other free webhosting services. eBay was founded in 1995, introducing the concept of the online auction, in which users could place items up for bid on the eBay website. Of course, the ultimate example of user generated content may well be blogging. Blogs have been around since 1994, although their popularity was greatly enhanced in 1999 with the creation of Blogger, Diaryland, and other blogging services.

That having been said, it does seem as if websites dedicated to user generated content have taken greatly increased in the past three years. Perhaps the most popular of these new user generated content sites is MySpace. MySpace is technically a social networking website, not exactly what comes to mind when I think of "user generated content." But then MySpace is not quite like any social networking websites that came before it. MySpace offers the user profiles that one would expect of a social networking website, but it also offers blogs, photo sharing, groups (sort of clubs for MySpace users), and even its own internal email system. Essentially, MySpace is a combination of blogging services like LiveJournal, photo hosts like Flickr, and social networking websites like Friendster. It also allows the user to customise his or her MySpace profile in ways that one never could his or her LiveJournal. That might explain its popularity. Founded in 2003, it has become the fourth most popular website in English. Of course, MySpace has seen a good deal of controversy in its short lifespan. There was a case in which a student set up a MySpace account claiming to be the principal of his school. And there have been the widely publicised cases of sexual predators using MySpace to find young victims. As a result MySpace has beefed up its security of late, particularly with regards to those under 18.

Another up and coming website that depends upon user generated content is Flickr, founded in 2002. While there were photo sharing websites prior to Flickr, there had been none that allowed users to so easily organise their photos. The degree of organisation found in Flickr is also reflected in the ability of users to apply tags (a keyword or term which helps identify an item). The user's ability to organise his or her photos is greatly aided by Organizr, a web application which greatly eases the user's abilities to organise photos into sets (groups of pictures that fall under the same heading), modify descriptions, modify tags and so on. The end result of all this is that Flickr permits users to find photos related to any given subject much easier than they ever could before. Besides making organising photos easier, Flickr also allows its users to control the access to their photos. Photos can be private (that is, they are only viewable by one's friends and relatives) or they can be public (accessible by anyone). One of the social networking aspects of Flickr is that users can joing groups dedicated to specific sorts of photos (say, photos from sci-fi conventions, for example). Quite simply, users can add their photos to the group's pool of pictures and even limit access to those photos to members of that group alone. In many respects, Flickr is as much an online community as it is a photo sharing website.

Given that photo sharing websites have long been a part of the web, it was probably only a matter of time before a video sharing website would arise. YouTube was founded in 2005. YouTube allows users to upload, view, and share videos. YouTube uses Adobe Flash for the format of its videos. This allows for content on YouTube to be easily embedded on blogs and other websites through a video feed. Like many of the newer user generated content website, YouTube has some aspects of social networking websites. Each user has his or her own profile though which other users can communicate with him or her through an internal email system. As might be expected, the profiles also include a list of videos the user has uploaded to YouTube. Another social networking aspect of YouTube is that users can leave comments on any given video. Like MySpace, YouTube has seen its share of controversy. While QuickTime has long been a favoured format for video on the web, QuickTime videos do not adapt well to YouTube, ending up with poor synchronisation. I might also add that, in my humble opinion, when compared to such technologies as Quicktime and RealAudio, Adobe Flash loads much, much too slow. A much greater source of controversy as been the uploading of copyrighted material to YouTube. While YouTube has restricted this from the beginning, users have done so anyway. This has resulted in companies from Turner Media to Sunrise (the anime company responsible for such classics as Cowboy Bebop and Witch Hunter Robin) having to ask that certain copyright protected material be removed from YouTube.

The current trend towards user generated content has even resulted in a website that allows users to post their own content for cellphones (ringtones, wallpaper, and music). myNuMo is brand new, just having come out of beta. Its format is similar to that of Flickr and YouTube. Each user has his or her own profile (although they are much simpler than those on Flickr and YouTube) showing what ringtones, wallpaper, and music they have created. myNuMo differs from both Flickr and YouTube in that users cannot comment on ringtones or wallpapers, although they can rate them from 1 to 10. Being relatively new, it is difficult to tell how popular myNuMo will become, but if the success of Flickr and YouTube is any indication, it might prove very popular.

Even the traditional media have embrassed user generated content to some degree. The magazine Entertainment Weekly allows users to comment on the movie and television reviews on their sites; essentially they can review the reviews. Channel 4 in England has a service called 4Docs, through which users can upload their homegrown documentaries. Of course, Yahoo snatched up Flickr and added it to its myriad services.

Of course the ultimate queston is precisely how signifcant user generated content really is. Often times the idea of user generated content brings to mind Sturgeon's Law (the adage coined by sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon): "Ninety percent of everything is crud." I have yet to find a blog on MySpace worth reading. And the only video on YouTube I have watched (even though took forever to load...) has been the promotional film that introduced Batgirl from the Sixties Batman TV show to ABC executives. While I have found very little worthwhile material on the new generation of user generated websites, however, I must say that I am over all in favour of user generated content. True, ninety percent of it may be crud, but then there will always be that ten percent that is actually interesting. Indeed, since I have started using Blogger there have been those blogs I keep finding myself returning to.

While I am in favour of user generated content, I must also say that it must be closely supervised. MySpace and YouTube have both learned this the hard way. In the past the service has been plagued by students setting up false teacher/faculty profiles, sexual predators surfing the website for victims, and even plans for a Columbine style attack posted to the website by a few Kansas teenagers. It seriously makes me wonder if MySpace should not raise the minimum age for usage of the site to 18. While YouTube's problems don't seem to me to have be nearly as severe, they have had a problem with copyright protected material being uploaded to the website. Moreso than any other part of the web, it seems to me that user generated content requires greater security and more supervision of what is being posted to websites.

If I sound at times overly critical of some user generated websites, I must point out that I have used them in the past. Like any long time web user I have used Geocities and eBay. Of the recent user generated websites I have used Flickr to share photos with my friends and family (all of my pictures are marked as private). I do have a MySpace profile, but I use it to primarily promote both my writing and my blog (being fairly private, I am not interested in social networking...). I do then have some experience in creating my own user generated content.

At any rate, if the current boom in user generated content is not a fad, it looks as if it could be more common in times to come than it has been in the past. In fact, the time may come when MySpace outdistances both Yahoo and Google. Whether this is ultimatlely a good or bad thing I think only time will tell.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Robert Cornthwaite Passes On

It seems as if this month of July has been one for celebrity deaths. The latest celebrity to die is veteran character actor Robert Cornthwaite. Cornthwaithe is perhaps best remembered by audiences as scientist Dr. Carrington in the original version of The Thing. He died of natural causes at the age of 89 on July 20.

Cornthwaite was born in St. Helens, Oregon on April 28, 1917. He became interested in acting as a teenager. At Reed College in St. Helens he made his first appearance on stage in a production of Twelfth Night. During World War II he served in the Army Air Corps.

After the war Cornthwaite resumed his acting career. He made his film debut in 1950 in an uncredited role in the movie Union Station. Ironically, his first major role would also possibly be his most famous. In 1951 he appeared as Dr. Carrington in The Thing. Cornthwaite most often played the role of the learned professional, most often scientists, physicians, and lawyers. In 1952 he appeared as Dr. Zoldeck in the classic comedy Monkey Business. He also played Dr. Pryor in the 1953 classic War of the Worlds. He also appeared in the films Colossus: the Forbin Project, Futureworld, and Matinee. His last appearance on film was in the low budget comedy The Naked Monster as, fittingly enough, Dr. Carrington.

As the Fifties progressed, Cornthwaite started appearing more and more often in television. In fact, he is perhaps one of the most seen faces on television. Making his television debut in 1953 on Cavalcade of America, he would continue to work in television as late as 1996 (in an episode of The Pretender). With a television career as long and prolific as his, Cornthwaite appeared on several classic shows. Among the shows he made guest appearaces on were Studio 57, Disneyland, The Rifleman, Maverick, The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, Thriller, The Andy Griffith Show, Get Smart, The Monkees, Ellery Queen, Beauty and the Beast, and Cheers. He was a regular on the TV series The Adventures of Jim Bowie and Picket Fences. In all Cornthwaite appeared in over 250 movies and TV shows.

I always liked Robert Cornthwaite. With his silver mane (he went grey while still young) and aristocratic mien he was perhaps the ideal actor to play scientists and physicians. What is more, his talent was not limited to those sorts of roles. During his career, Cornthwaite played in everything from comedies to Westerns. He even played the chief henchman to the villainous Archer (played by Art Carney) on the Sixties comedy Batman! Quite simply, Robert Cornthwaite was literally one of a dying breed, a talented character actor with the versatility to play a large number of different roles.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Action Movies of the Late Eighties and Early Nineties

In the very late Eigthies a new cycle of motion pictures emerged, led by the likes of Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. These action movies generally featured law enforcemnt officers (police officers, FBI agents, Federal Marshals, Texas Rangers) as the protagonists or, at least, very well trained amateurs (such as Steven Seagall's cook in Under Siege) in those roles. The plots were often larger than life, featuring over the top stunts, plenty of action, and plenty of violence to boot. Although this was not always the case, in many cases they also featured some sort of gimmick (terrorists taking over a skyscraper in Die Hard is a perfect example).

To a degree these sort of movies were nothing new. The late Sixties saw the emergence of a new sort of police drama, with over the top action and a fair level of violence. Thge first of this sort of film may well have been Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen and released in 1968. The movie centred on Lt. Frank Bullitt, a no nonsense police officer who must find the man who killed a witness in his charge. Among other things, it featured what may be the greatest car chase in the history of film. Bullitt was very influential, so much so that other films of its type were soon released. The most notable of these is probably Dirty Harry, released in 1971. Dirty Harry starred Clint Eastwood as Inspector Harry Callahan, a San Francisco cop who would just as soon shoot criminals as arrest them and who almost never went by the rules. The movie went well over the top, with more violence than was even in Bullitt. In the end it would produce a number of sequels, perhaps more than any other police franchise. Between Bullitt and Dirty Harry, the Seventies saw a wave of police action movies, including such classics as The French Connection and Serpico. Eventually it seemed as if every actor in Hollywood had played a hard nosed cop. Even an aging John Wayne, well beyond the age of retirement for most police departments, played one twice!

By the early Eighties the number of these police action movies had dwindled to only a few a year. Released in 1982, 48 Hours had the unique take of teaming a police officer with a convict. The film was very successful, but did not create a rush towards similar films. Beverly Hills Cop, released in 1984, was a comedic take on police action films. It too was extremely successful, but it failed to generate a rush towards police action films as well. All of this would change in 1987 when several police action movies would come out of nowhere. One of these was Extreme Prejudice, directed by Walter Hill. The film focused on a Texas Ranger at odds with a drug lord. The film did well neither with critics nor audiences. Stakeout was a good more successful, featuring yet another pair of buddy cops on, as might be expected a stakeout. Beverly Hills Cop 2 also came out that year. It actually did as well as the original, but was nowhere near as good. Of the police action movies of 1987 it would be Lethal Weapon that would make the most noise.

In some respects Lethal Weapon was nothing new. There had been buddy cop movies done well before its release. Even its spectacular stunts were old hat to some degree. But Lethal Weapon took the unique course of teaming a reasonable, sane police officer (played by Danny Glover) with an officer who made Dirty Harry look positively sane (played by Mel Gibson, I suspect beating culprits black and blue was nothing unusual for him...). The formula worked and the movie was a resounding success. It would not only produce a number of sequels (three in all--sadly, only the first was any good), but a number of imitators as well. It was in part responsible for starting the cycle towards police action movies that lasted well into the Nineties.

The other film responsible for that cycle would be released the next year. Die Hard was something which had never been seen before on the screen. In the movie terrorists take over a brand new skyscraper. Unfortunately for them, a New York police officer (played by Bruce Willis) happened to be in the building when they siezed it. The movie then becomes a battle of wits between the heoric cop and the villains. In addition to a totally original premise, the movie featured one of the most memorable screen villains of the Eighties, Hans Gruber (played by Alan Rickman--now best known as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter movies). Die Hard proved extremely successful. Not only did it produce two sequels, but arguably it created a whole new subgenre of action films in which a lone hero must battle villains who have siezed a confined space. Under Siege, Sudden Death, Passenger 57, and several other subsequent action films owe their existence to Die Hard.

The success of both Lethal Weapon and Die Hard led to a remarkably large number of action movies which featured both officers of the law and sometimes talented amateurs fighting crime in films with spectacular stunts and a good deal of violence. Sadly, most of these films were fairly unremarkable and largely depended upon some gimmick more than realistic characters or a good plot. Next of Kin, released in 1989, featured a Chicago cop who is aided by his hillbilly brother in avenging another brother who was murdered by the mob. The concept had possiblities, but it was very poorly executed. Trespass, released in 1992, pitted two corrupt firemen, who wanted to loot an abandoned building, against the mob. The action is routine and, worse yet, there really isn't anyone to root for in the film (the firemen are about as appealing as the mobsters). Sometimes the plots of the films were just plain ludicrous. Point Break centred on a young FBI agent who goes undercover to nab a group of bank robbing surfers (perhaps I should not point out that two of the aforementioned films starred Patrick Swayze...).

This is not to say that some good films did not emerge from this cycle of police action/amatuer crimefighter films. Although many of Steven Seagal's films are virtually unwatchable in my humble opinion, I must admit that I really liked Under Siege. Okay, it is essentially Die Hard on a battleship (the U.S.S. Missouri, nonetheless). Okay, Seagal still cannot act. Okay, it is a bit predictable. But there is plenty of action and the plot features some interesting twists. What is more, it doesn't feature quite so many gaps in believability as other Die Hard imitators. I must also admit to having always liked The Last Boy Scout. For one thing, it is a buddy cop movie without the cops. Bruce Willis plays a cyical, down on his luck private eye, while Damon Wayans plays a former, faded NFL quarterback. The chemistry between the two is fairly good (and neither of them is crazy, so the film is hardly a Lethal Weapon imitation...). The film also features some of the best dialogue of any films in its genre, not to mention some spectacular action scenes.

Now I certainly would not say that either Under Siege or The Last Boy Scout are classics, but they are enjoyable popcorn movies that are better than many of the films in their genre. If a classic emerged from the late Eighties, early Nineties police action films, it was one that came about rather late in the cycle. Speed was released in 1994 and had a premise as original as that found in Die Hard. Quite simply, an archvillain (played marvelously by Dennis Hopper) has placed a bomb aboard a bus that will go off if the vehicle goes over 50 miles per hour. It is then up to a LAPD cop (played by Keanu Reeves) to save the day. The film featured some great performances from the aformentioned Dennis Hopper and, as the understandably stressed bus driver, Sandra Bullock. As to action, Speed is essentilally one long action sequence. It is rarely that something is not happening. What is more, despite its premise, the film never stretches the bounds of believability.

It is worth noting that this cycle did create its fair share of stars. Bruce Willis had seen success with cult TV series Moonlighting, but it was arguably films like Die Hard and The Last Boy Scout which turned him into a movie star. Although the Mad Max movies had made Mel Gibson a star, it was arguably Lethal Weapon that secured him film immortality. And while the cycle made many actors stars (or at least bigger stars than they had been), it was the primary means of support for some actors. Neither Steven Seagal nor Jean Claude Van Damme have really had a career since the cycle ended.

The police action/amateur crimefighter action movies of the late Eighties and early Nineties peaked in the years of 1989 and 1990, when more films of those types were released than most other years. It was perhaps a sign that the cycle was coming towards its end when, in 1993, a parody was released. National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1 really is not a particulary good movie, but it did serve as a sign of the times. Any time a genre has been done as much as the police action/talented amateur films of the late Eighties/early Nineties had been, that genre is often seen as ripe for parody. And when that time comes, it usually means the cycle had grown worn and tired, and is more than ready for retirement. The following years would still see several more films of this type released. The cycle was still ongoing as late as 1995, when Broken Arrow (another good film of this type, directed by the master John Woo) and Die Hard With a Vengeance were released. But the cycle gradually faded away, to be replaced by big budget, special effects bonanzas (such as Independence Day) and, still later, superhero movies. Given the continued popularity of the Dirty Harry movies, Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard, I rather suspect the genre will return to the big screen soon.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Jack Warden R.I.P.

Character actor Jack Warden died Wednesday at age 85 in a New York hospital. He was best known for playing gruff characters, whether they were cops or coaches.

Jack Warden was born John H. Lebzelter on September 18, 1920 in Newark, New Jersey. He was raised in Louisville, Kentucky. Warden worked various jobs as a young man. He worked as a professional boxer, a bouncer, and a tugboat deckhand. Eventually he joined the Navy in 1938. Following the Navy he was part of the Merchant Marine, but left it to serve in the Army. It was following World War II that he took up acting.

Warden made his screen debut in 1951 in an uncredited part in You're in the Navy Now. He would go onto have several more roles in motion pictures. He appeared in 12 Angry Men, Run Silent, Run Deep, Shampoo, All the President's Men, and Used Cars. His best known movie role was perhaps in 1978's Heaven Can Wait (a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan). He was twice nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, once for his role in Shampoo and once for his role in Heaven Can Wait.

Warden also appeared on stage. He made his debut on Broadway in the play Golden Boy in 1952. He also appeared in A View from the Bridge (1955), The Man in the Glass Booth (1969), and Stages (1978).

Despite his work on film and stage, it was perhaps from television that Warden was best known. He made his debut on television on The Philco Teleivison Playhouse in 1948. He was a regular on numerous series, including Mr. Peepers (on which he was the coach), Norby, The Wackiest Ship in the Army, The Asphalt Jungle, N.Y.P.D., Jigsaw John, and Crazy Like a Fox (on the last two series he had the lead role). He guest starred on an incredible number of TV series over the years, including Studio One, Climax, Bonanza, The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, Route 66, Bewitched, The Fugitive, and Ink. Warden was nominated twice for the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for his role on Crazy Like a Fox. He had earlier won the Emmy in 1972 for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in Drama for his role in the TV movie Brian's Song.

I must admit that I always liked Jack Warden. Like most people I was first exposed to him through his many guest appearances on television. I also remember watching Jigsaw John (a rather well done, but short lived police mystery series). Of course, later I would get to see his roles in various movies, such as Shampoo and All the President's Men. When it came to playing either comedy or drama, Warden was flexible. He was convincing in a drama as Washington Post editor Harry M. Rosenfeld in All the President's Men, yet at the same time he could do equally as well with comedy as twins and rival car dealers Luke Fuchs and Roy L. Fuchs in Used Cars (which remains one of the funniest movies I've ever seen). I think there is little doubt that Jack Warden was one of the greatest character actors of his time, certainly no one played gruff characters quite as well as him. He will certainly be missed.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Fad TV

For many of us living in the United States, the good news is that the heat wave of the past week has finally broken. Here in Missouri today has been relatively cool for the season (highs in the eighties). It also has been a bit gloomy, which suits me fine. These days I'd still feel gloomy even if it was sunny. Anyhow, I suppose I should get on with a real blog entry.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word fad as "A fashion that is taken up with great enthusiasm for a brief period of time; a craze." Given its ephemeral nature, television may naturally be given to fads. The various cycles, such as the one towards Westerns in the Fifties and the one towards police procedurals in the Naughts could well be considered minor fads in and of themselves (at least within the television industry itself). This having been said, television has produced its own fair share of fads that have extended beyond the small screen. Like any other fad, a "fad show" is one that sparks intense interest for a short time before going out of fashion.

Indeed, regular network broadcasts had only been around for less than ten years when the first, full blown television fad emerged. Many baby boomers may have fond memories of the craze surrounding the five Davy Crockett segments which aired on Disneyland in the mid-Fifties. The first episode, Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter aired on December 15, 1954. Two more epsiodes featuring Fess Parker as the frontier man aired in short order. They proved so successful that Disney produced two more adventures featuring Crockett, the last one airing on December 14, 1955. The episodes were even edited together as a motion picture and released to theatres where the resulting film did very well. But the Davy Crockett segments did something nothing else on television had before--it became an outright craze among youngsters. Merchandise, from coonskin caps to the episodes' theme song ("The Ballad of Davy Crockett") to bath towels, flew off store shelves. In the end $300 million worth of Davy Crockett related merchandise was sold. Despite the intense interest on the behalf of the nation's youth and the incredible sales of its merchandise, the Davy Crockett phenomenon was truly a fad. By 1956 the Davy Crockett had played itself out. Whereas coonskin caps had been in huge demand the previous year, they were just languishing on store shelves by 1956.

Of course, technically the Davy Crockett segments on Disneyland were a mini-series (perhaps the first on American television), not a TV series proper. Most television fads have centred on TV shows. And perhaps the quintessential fad show was the Sixties live action TV series Batman. By the mid-Sixties ABC had consistently been in third place among the networks. Desperate for a hit, they took notice of the renewed interest in comic book superheroes and the current Pop Art fad (in which "serious" artists turned pop culture artefacts, including comic book pictures, into "art") and struck upon the idea of a show centred upon a superhero. The superhero they chose was Batman, a character who had been around for over 25 years and was second in popularity only to Superman. To produce the series they looked to television veteran William Dozier, who had been a programmer at CBS and production head at Screen Gems. Dozier decided the best route to go as afar as a Batman TV show would be comedy. Essentially, the series would work on two levels--as high adventure for children and outright comedy for adults. To this end, the TV show was highly stylised. The show's direction was often unusual, including Dutch tilt angles (a shot in which the horizon of the frame is not parallel with the bottom of the frame--it was often used on the show when the villains were scheming). The fight scenes were littered with animated "Pows" and "Whams." And with the exception of some of the villains, the acting was always played dead serious, no matter how ludicrous the situation. Further setting Batman apart from anything that had gone before it, it was perhaps the only comedy on American television at the time without a laughtrack.

While many ABC executives had little faith in the new show, ABC put a good deal of promotion into Batman. It was advertised on other ABC shows prior to its debut and ABC even went so far as to hire a skywriter to create the words "Batman is coming" above the Rose Bowl. Even so, it was a bit of a shock even to ABC when Batman debuted on Janurary 12, 1966 with almost a 50 percent share of the audience. The ratings for the series continued to be phenomenonal for the rest of the season. In the end, Batman (which aired twice a week) ranked twice in the top ten shows for the 1965-1966 season--the Wednesday night airings ranked #10 and the Thursday night showings ranked #5. Furthermore, there was an incredible demand for Batman merchandise. Everything from toy Batmobiles to toy Batphones to record albums emerged as merchandising for the series. Indeed, as a very young child I can remember that the Montgomery Ward catalogue had around two or three pages dedicated to Batman merchandise. In its first season alone, Batman produced around $75 million in merchandise. Further demonstrating the show's success, in the summer of 1966 a feature film based on the series was released. No surprise, it was a success at the box office. The show was covered in major magazines from Life to The Saturday Evening Post.

Unfortunately for ABC and William Dozier, the craze soon ended. The show's ratings declined in the second season to the point that ABC seriously considered cancelling the show. It was saved only by the addition of Batgirl. This was not enough, however, as the show's ratings continued to fall in the third season. In its first season Batman attracted 55 percent of the audience, with about 66 percent of the viewers being adults. By the third season, only ten percent of Batman's audience were adults. As a very expensive show with dwindling ratings, ABC chose to cancel the series. It left the air on March 14, 1968. It almost received a reprieve when NBC expressed interest in picking up the show provided the sets were still standing. Unfortunately, they weren't. Only a little over two years after its debut, Batman had left network airwaves.

Of course, Batman was not the first fad show of the Sixties. Before Batman, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. were the men of the hour. Unlike many fad shows, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was not a hit from the very beginning. Debuting in the fall of 1964, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. suffered from such poor ratings that it was not even on NBC's tenetative 1965-1966 schedule as of December 1966. In an effort to turn the show's fortunes around, its producers launched a publicity campaign. At the same time there was a lot of good word of mouth on the part of the show's loyal viewers. By May 1965, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. had become an outright fad. In its second season The Man From U.N.C.L.E. hit its peak, regularly ranking in the weekly top ten TV series. It produced a lot of merchandising, from games to toy U.N.C.L.E. guns to clothing. At its peak, the show received 10,000 fan letters a week. Like Batman later, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. would be covered by many major magazines.

Unfortunately, the success of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was not to last. While its ratings had been phenomenal in its second season, they plummeted in the third season. Much of this may well have been due to the dramatic shift in the series from tongue in cheek adventure to outright comedy in its third season, but much of it might also have been due to the fad simply having run its course. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. returned for a fourth season, when it once more returned to serious spy drama, but it only lasted until mid-season. It last aired on any network on January 15, 1968.

If the rises and falls of Batman and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. seem dramatic, they are perhaps nowhere as dramatic as that of Twin Peaks. Created by famous director David Lynch, Twin Peaks was hyped heavily by ABC prior to its debut. And while it rarely beat its rival on NBC (the classic Cheers), Twin Peaks did very well in the ratings in its first season. It was also the most talked about show on American television at the time. Twin Peaks was covered in many major magazines, from People to Newsweek. Unfortunately, its success would not last. In its second season, ratings for Twin Peaks fell dramatically. In February of 1991, it ranked 85th out of the 89 shows then on the air in primetime. That April Twin Peaks was placed on an indefinite hiatus. Its final episodes would not air until that June. Twin Peaks, the most talked about series of the 1989-1990 season, had left the air after only a little over a year. It only lasted from April 1990 to June 1991.

Of course, there have been other "fad shows" than these. The Monkees, Charlie's Angels, and many reality shows could be argued to have been fad shows. Fad shows usually have a good deal in common. In most cases (The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is an exception), fad shows are hits from the beginning. Batman, Charlie's Angels, Twin Peaks, and many other fad shows received phenomenal ratings upon their debut. Many fad shows (Twin Peaks was an exception to this rule) also to tend to appeal to both children and adults. This was particularly true of Batman and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. Another phenomenon seen with many fad shows is that eventually they become cult shows as well. Both The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Batman had relatively short network runs, but they lasted in syndication and developed strong cult followings. Unlike the pet rock or mood rings, most fad shows seem to survive cancellation (that is, the official end of the fad) to become lasting parts of pop culture.

Beyond anything else, the one thing that nearly all of them have in common is that they lasted only briefly, achieving phenomenal ratings in a relatively short time before dropping in the ratings to the point that they are cancelled. It is true that there are other factors that probably played a role in the cancellation of most fad shows. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. took a turn towards comedy in its third season, as well as an overall drop in the quality of its episodes, that probably shortened its run. In its second season Batman fell into a formula in which one episode differed very little from another. In its third season it was cut back to one night a week. Both of these things were probably factors in their demise. As to Twin Peaks, it was a serial when serialised dramas were not popular, it mixed genres (everything from comedy to science fiction) to a degree unseen in most shows before, and ABC moved the show all over its schedule. What was probably the major contributing factor in the demise of these and other fad shows, however, is simply that people tired of them. All fads have a limited lifespan, generally of about a year or less. Furthermore, the lifespan of any fad is usually related to the intensity with which that fad is taken up. At its peak, over one hundred million hula hoops were sold, yet the fad lasted less than a year. That the intensity of any given fad usually reflects the brevity of its lifespan is shown in how short the runs of many fad shows are. Batman lasted only a little over two years. Twin Peaks only lasted a little over a year. Quite simply, like any other fad, people eventually became burned out on them.

It seems to me that since the Sixties there have been fewer and fewer shows which have become fads. I suspect most of this is due to the fact that network television's influence had delined in the intervening decades, largely due to competition from cable television, video games, personal computers, DVDs, and other technological developments. Obviously people still take an intense interest in TV shows, as the success of both Lost and Desperate Housewives demonstrate. That having been said, it remains to be seen if Lost and Desperate Housewives are simply fad shows that last only a few seasons or shows that will have long network runs.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A Shroud of Thoughts Subject Index

Well, today I still feel hurt and empty. I suppose I feel that way for quite some time. It is hard to be happy when one's life has gone so far awry from what one wanted. Anyhow, I suppose I should get on with this post.

A Shroud of Thoughts has existed for over two years. In that time I have posted anywhere from three to seven times a week. Even with Blogger's search and the Technorati searchlet, I imagine it can sometimes be hard for my few readers to find topics in the particular subjects in which they are interested. To help with this problem I have created the Shroud of Thoughts Subject Index. Using this index, anyone can look up various posts related to various subjects on A Shroud of Thoughts. It is nowhere near complete, and given the fact that I update many times a week it probably never will be, but I intend to add as many entries as possible. Anyhow, the subject index is at: Shroud of Thoughts Subject Index

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A Tale of Two Cities

The past few days have found me unhappier than I have been in some time. The fact is that I think I might never be happy again. There are certain things that can happen in a man's life that will insure that happiness never again crosses his path, and I fear one of those tihngs has happened in mine.

Anyhow, today I thought I would discuss one of my favourite novels, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (for those who have not read it or seen any of the movie adaptations, I have to warn you that there are spoilers ahead). Its title comes from the two cities in which the novel is set--London and Paris. A Tale of Two Cities takes place during the French Revolution, and Dickens pulled no punches in describing the horrors committed by both the revolutionaries and the French government (he drew upon The French Revolution: a History by Thomas Carlyle). Set in a two cities in a tumultuous time A Tale of Two Cities centres on two men who are nearly exact doubles in appearance, but quite unlike in personality. Sydney Carton, arguably the hero of the novel, is a cynical English lawyer with a bit of a drinking problem. Charles Darnay is a romantic French noble with as much elegance and class as Carton lacks. It is their misfortune that they both fall in love with the same woman, Lucie Manette, daughter of the prominent Doctor Manette.

The central theme of A Tale of Two Cities is perhaps duality. This is even seen in its opening words, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." It can be seen in the two settings of the book, London and Paris. London is the relatively peaceful, civilised centre of the British Empire. On the other hand, Paris is positively in chaos, this being the height of the Reign of Terror. It is also seen in the two primary female characters. Lucie Manette is gentle caring, and loving, while Madame DeFarge is the French Revolution personified--brutal, sadistic, and vengeufl. The theme of duality becomes much more obvious in the book with the introduction of Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, two men who look very much alike but differ in their characters. Initially, Carton seems to be the inferior of the two. Although he could have been a truly great man (and one has to wonder if he wouldn't have been had he won Lucie), as a lazy, alcoholic barrister Carton seems a stark contrast to Darnay's honour and courage. Ultimately, however, it is Carton who performs the ultimate act of heroism in the novel. When Darnay is captured by the revolutionaries and sentenced to the guillotine, it is Carton who takes his place and ultimately dies in in his place (his final words, "Tis a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done..." are perhaps the most famous final words of any character in any medium). There have been those who have read into Carton's sacrifice a continuation of the novel's themes of redemption and renewal. They interpret Carton in his sacrifice as having become a Christ-like figure dying for the happiness of others and in effect becoming immortal himself. I disagree. Carton's act was not so much Christ like as it was romantic. Carton died at the guillotine to insure the continued happiness of the woman he loves; his sacrifice was the ultimate expression of his love for her. In the case of Carton's death, Dickens was using the theme of redemption and renewal to show how even the most pathetic charcter (in this case, Sydney Carton) can be transformed by love into something more.

Carton is not the only character who experiences redemption and renewal in the novel, and the theme of redemption and renewal runs throughout the work. Dr. Manette is impisoned for eighteen months, during which time he has very nearly become a vegetable. Once released, however, Manette once more becomes a respected citizen and a man of distinction. Indeed, emphasising the theme of redemption and renewal in the novel, one character makes the statement that Manette has been "...recalled to life."

Another theme in the novel is that acts of evil can sometimes be committed in what otherwise just causes. Dickens clearly had some sympathy for the French people of the time. The evil Marquis Evremonde is clearly the sort of corrupt noble who thinks of nothing of the exploitation of the common man. It is not only nobles like Evremonde who commits atrocities, however, as Dickens also portrays the degradation commmitted by the revolutionaries during the Reign of Terror. Madame DeFarge is the personification of these atrocities. She thinks of nothing of sending innocents to the guillotine, simply because they are part of the aristocracy. In many ways, she is Evremonde's double--as sadistic and overbearing as he is.

A Tale of Two Cites is arguably one of Dickens' greatest novels and it was a change of pace for him. While many, if not most of Dickens' novels were set in his present day, A Tale of Two Cites is a historical novel set at the time of the French revolution. It is also one of Dickens' most tragic works--there is no happy ending to behad in A Tale of Two Cites. It is certainly well worth reading.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Mickey Spillane, Creator of Mike Hammer, Dies

Mickey Spillane, the creator of hard boiled detective Mike Hammer, died today at the age of 88. He wrote thirteen novels featuring Hammer, as well as a dozen other books.

Mickey Spillane was born Frank Spillane in Brooklyn on March 9, 1918. As an infant Spillane had the singular experience of being christened in two different churchs. His father was a Catholic, so he was christened with the middle name "Michael" in the Catholic Church. His mother being Protestant, he was also christened with the midlde name "Morrison." It would be the name "Michael" that would win out, however, so that he would forever be remembered as "Mickey."

Spillane began his writing career in comic books and pulp magaznes. He wrote stories for such characters as Captain Marvel, Captain America, and the Human Torch. His writing career was interrupted by World War II, when Spillane enlisted in the Air Corps. Once back in the States he created a new comic book character, detective Mike Danger. Comic book publishers initially rejected the character, and no Mike Danger stories would be published until 1954 when they were published in Crime Detector #3 and 4. The character would later be revived in comic books in the Nineties by writer Max Allan Collins.

In the meantime, however, Spillane would change the character's last name to "Hammer" and write a novel around him. Although it bombed in hardback, I, the Jury was a resounding success in paperback. Mike Hammer was very much in the tradition of hard boiled detectives. Where he differs from such characters as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, however, is that he is often brutal and almost always filled with rage. Where Spade or Marlowe might bend the rules at times, Hammer was not below outright breaking the law to see that justice was served. The success of Mike Hammer in print led to several movie adaptations (among them I, the Jury in 1953 and Kiss Me Deadly in 1955), three TV series (a syndicated Fifties series starring Darren McGavin, an Eighties CBS series starring Stacey Keach, and a Nineties syndicated series), a newspaper comic strip, and radio shows. Perhaps the greatest measure of the success of Mike Hammer is that it can be argued that the character was an influence on such future characters as Dirty Harry, Mel Gibson's character in Lethal Weapon, and many others.

Spillane wrote more than the Mike Hammer novels. He also wrote a dozen other books, among them The Day The Sea Rolled Back, a novel for young adults which won a Junior Literary Award. He has also been honoured with awards from the Mystery Writers of America and the Private Eye Writers of America.

Spillane was undeniably a controversial writer. The Mike Hammer novels were often accused of being overly violent, encouraging vigilantism, and misogynistic. Spillane was also an outspoken conservative and that conservativism sometimes showed up in his books. Spillane's Mike Hammer novels were never the darlings of the critics, who even disliked his writing style. That having been said, the Mike Hammer novels are a sort of guilty pleasure. They are set in a world that is utterly black and white, where there is a clear line between good and evil. What is more, evil doers always got their just deserts in the Mike Hammer series. While I must admit that I find much that is objectionable in the Mike Hammer books (and keep in mind that I am an afficanado of pulp fiction and hard boiled detectives), I cannot deny there is an appeal in books where there is a clear difference between good and evil, and where the bad guys always pay for their crimes in the end. While I know that I probably disagreed with Spillane on a good many things, I can't help but thing that the world would be poorer without his books.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Underrated Movies

I must admit that this week I had some concerns about A Shroud of Thoughts becoming The Death Blog, given the number of celebrities who died (June Allyson, Syd Barrett, Barnard Hughes, and Red Buttons). I must also admit that today is the anniversary of an encounter four years ago which would change both my life and myself forever. Given that the encounter did not ultimatley lead to what I longed for, today is somewhat bittersweet for me.

I then thought that today I would address a happy topic, namely movies that I consider to be underrated. These are films that either did not do well at the box office, were not well received by critics, or both. Regardless, these are films that many of my friends and myself (who I believe have fairly good tastes in movies) have always appreciated. So without further ado, here is a short list of movies I think have been underrated.

Rock & Rule (1983): This animated feature from Canadian company Nelvana was barely released in 1983. It only made around $8000 before disappearing to the netherworld of American premium cable channels and the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Fortunately, those who caught it on television in the Eighties and saw Rock & Rule at various art houses over the years, remembered it. And Rock & Rule is worth remembering. It is an animated, musical fantasy set in an apocalyptic future, which also happens to feature some of the best work by Cheap Trick and Blondie (including a duet between Cheap Trick's Robin Zander and Blondie's Deborah Harry). The cult following Rock & Rule drew over the years permitted it a DVD release. I can only hope that this gives it the large and appreciative audience it so rightly deserves.

The Name of the Rose (1986): This film, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, was based on the inernational bestseller by Umberto Eco of the same name. Like the novel, it centres on a noncomformitst, Franciscan monk and his apprentice who investigate a series of mysterious deaths in a remote abbey. When The Name of the Rose was first released, it received some very negative reviews from critics on both sides of the Atlantic. And while it did well in Europe, it bombed at the box office here in the United States. Regardless, The Name of the Rose is a truly good movie. Like the novel, it combines such diverse genres as mystery, thrillers, and medieval period pieces in a plot that explores the variety of religious belief in Europe of the Middle Ages. While not as challenging as the novel (which also explores the importance of books, language, philosophy, and other subjects in 600 pages), it is a challenging movie nonetheless. I rather suspect that this is the reason that many critics initally gave the movie poor reviews--they just did not know what to make of the film. And while The Name of the Rose did not do well in its first run in the United States, it has since become a cult film with a fairly large following. Fortunately, there are many who realise just how good the film is.

The Perfect Storm (2000): Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, The Perfect Storm was based on a true story. In October 1991 the fishing vessel Andrea Gail set sail on its final voyage from Gloucester, Massachusetts. Little did the men of the Andrea Gail know that they were sailing into what would come to be called "the Perfect Storm" or "the Halloween Storm," a Western Atlantic storm more intese than any before or since. Based on the book by Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm sometimes got the facts wrong, but it made up for it with a tale of bravery in the face of danger. The Perfect Storm is no mere disaster movie, owing more to such tales of man versus nature as London and Hemingway once wrote. Sadly, while it did well at the box office, it received only lukewarm reviews from critics and was overlooked at the Oscars.

Down With Love (2003): Down With Love received fairly good reviews. Unfotunately, released in July 2003, it did not fare well at the box office against that summer's blockbusters. I find this sad, as Down With Love is a truly unique movie. It is a 21st century homage to the sort of sex comedies that Rock Hudson and Doris Day once made. As such it captures both the era and the spirit of those films quite well. Indeed, if it was not for a few 21st century innuendos that are a bit too much on the head, one could almost convince himself or herself that it was made in 1963. And while many recent romantic comedies seem to have been made for women alone, like the Rock Hudson and Doris Day movies, Down With a Love is a movie both sexes can enjoy. In fact, it is one of the most romantic movies of recent years (Ewan McGregor's speech at the end is priceless). While it did not do well on its initial release, Down With Love has fortunately earned the cult following it deserves.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004): Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow has a place in film history as the first movie to place live actors in a computer generated world. This in itself is remarkable, especially considering Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow features some truly amazing visuals. Sadly, it recieved mixed reviews (some critics, such as Roger Ebert, loved it, others did not) and bombed at the box office. What so many missed is that it was not only a technological wonder, but a damn good movie. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is deft blend of influences from those Thirties flyboy comic strips (think Smilin' Jack), pulp magazines, the Fleischer Superman cartoons, Golden Age comic books, and Thirties screwball comedies. Out of these diverse elements came a truly original story with some great action sequences and some great exchanges between leads leads Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law. I rather suspect that if it is not already a cult film,, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow will become one rather soon.

I have always found it hard to understand why these films either failed at the box office, failed to receive critical acclaim, or both. In some instances I think it could have been because audiences and critics and sometimes both did not quite no what to make of them. Rock & Rule, The Name of the Rose, and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow are what I call genre melange--works which combine various genres together. Sometimes audiences (and often critics as well) are charmed by genre melange, as in the case of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. In other cases, such as many of the films here, I think the audiences and critics were just confused. In the case of Down With Love, I think it was a film in a genre which many viewers hadn't seen in a while and others had not seen at all. As a result, many probably did not know quite what to make of it. Regardless, I think all of these films deserve more acclaim than they have gotten.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Red Buttons R. I. P.

Comic Red Buttons died yesterday at age 87 from vascular disease. He had been ill for quite a while. Buttons was best known as a comedian, but received an Oscar for his dramatic turn in the movie Sayonara.

Red Buttons was born Aaron Chwatt in Manhattan on February 5, 1919. He would receive his stage name at age 16 while working as a bellhop at Ryan's Tavern in New York City. With his bright red hair and bellhop uniform, the orchestra leader there, Charles "Dinty" Moore, took to calling him "Red Buttons." It was that year that Buttons got his big break, performing in the Catskills with Robert Alda (who would also later become a successful actor, as well as Alan Alda's father). In 1939 Buttons performed in the Minsky brothers' notorious burlesque. This lead to Jose Ferrer casting him in the Broadway play The Admiral Had a Wife in 1941. Unfortunately, the play never made it to the stage. Set in Pearl Harbour, it was feared that the play might be considered offensive after the December 8th attack the Japanese made on the place.

Buttons was not off Broadway for long, however, as in 1942 he was cast in the play Vickie. He would later appear in the 1943 Broadway show Winged Victory. That same year he would make his movie debut in the film adaptation of Winged Victory, playing the same role. Draughted into the Army Air Corps in 1943, Buttons' career was interrupted by World War II.

Following World War II, Buttons resumed his career. He played a role in the Broadway play Barefoot Boy with Cheek. He also appeared in an uncredited role in the movie 13 Rue Madeline. The following year he appeared on Broadway in Hold It.

Despite his appearances on Broadway and on film, however, Buttons' greatest success would be on television. He made his debut in the medium on an epsiode of Suspense in 1951. The following year he received his own variety show, The Red Buttons Show. The series ran from 1952 to 1955 and was a huge success. Both the catchprase "Strange things are happening" and "The Ho-Ho Song (of which the previously mentioned phrase was part of the lyrics) would enter the pop culture jargon of the day. Buttons continued to appear on television for the rest of his career, making guest appearances on such varied shows as The Dinah Shore Show, Playhouse 90, Death Valley Days,Ben Casey, Rosanne, and Family Law. He would have another series of his own in 1966 with the short lived spy parody The Double Life of Henry Phyfe. He would later be a recurring charcter on ER. It would be his last appearance on either the small or big screen.

While Buttons had a successful TV career, he continued to appear in many motion pictures. As mentioned above, he won an Oscar for his role in 1957's Sayonara. He also appeared in the movies The Longest Day, One, Two, Three, Hatari!, They Shoot Horses, Don't They, and It Could Happen to You. He appeared on Broadway one more time in 1995 at the age of 76 in the one man show Buttons on Broadway.

Buttons also received a Golden Globe for his role in Sayonara. He was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Goldenn Globe his roles in Harlow and They Shoot Horses, Don't They. He was also nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Emmy for his role in ER.

There can be no doubt that Red Buttons was one of the most talented and versatile comics of the 20th century. His "Ho-Ho Song" may largely be forgotten now, but its influence can be seen in the novelty song (which has a cult following to this day) "They're Coming to Take Me Away" by Napoleon XIV (the lyrics of the two are remarkably similar). Many of the characters he played in skits in his show, such as the Sad Sack and Keeglefarven (a clumbsy, none too bright German) are remembered to this day. As mentioned above, Buttons was versatile. While he was a gifted comedian, he could just as easily play serious, dramatic roles. As an actor he was at home playing serious roles such as Airman Joe Kelly in Sayonara or more comedic roles such as Peanuts in Movie Movie. It is truly sad that he has passed on.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Barnard Hughes Passes On

Award winning actor of stage of television, Barnard Hughes, died Tuesday at the age of 90 following a brief illness. He was best known for playing curmudgeons and irasicble grandfathers.

Hughes was born in Bedford Hills, New York on July 16, 1915. He attended Manhattan College in New York City. Eventually he would become part of the Shakespeare Fellowship Repertory company in New York City. He made his debut on Broadway in Herself Mrs. Patrick Crowley. He would go onto appear in more than 400 roles on stage. On Broadway he would appear in such plays as The Ivy Green (1949), Advise and Consent (1960), Hamlet (1964), Much Ado About Nothing (1973), Da (1978), The Iceman Maketh (1985), and Waiting in the Wings (1999). Off Broadway he appeared in Uncle Vanya, A Doll's House, and Translations. He won a Tony Award in 1978 for his role in Da.

Starting in 1954 with an appearance on Kraft Television Theatre, Hughes began his long television career. He would make guest apperances on such shows as The United States Steel Hour, Way Out (a short lived series based on the short stories of Roald Dahl), The Defenders, Route 66, Cannon, All in the Family, and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. He was a regular or semi-regular on the shows The Guiding Light, Dark Shadows, The Secret Storm, and Blossom. He played lead roles in the series Doc, Mr. Merlin, and The Cavanaughs. Among his most notable television roles was that of Bob Newhart's father on The Bob Newhart Show. In 1978 he received an Emmy for a guest appearance on Lou Grant.

Hughes also appeared in films, beginning with a bit part in Playgirl in 1954. He would appear in such films as Midnight Cowboy, Cold Turkey, Maxie, and The Fantasticks. He had featured roles in Tron, The Lost Boys, and Doc Hollywood, and a starring role in Da, based on the play of the same name.

I always liked Barnard Hughes. In fact, I remeber him from the short lived Seventies sitcom Doc. He played Dr. Joe Bogert on the series, a curmudgeonly old doctor. I thought the series was very good in its first season. Sadly, they changed the format in the second season (only Hughes remained of the original cast), which effectively ruined the series. Regardless, Hughes's perfomance was still worth watching. It was his gift that even in lesser vehicles, Hughes would give stellar performances. Whether he was playing in a Shakespeare play like Hamlet or a genre movie like The Lost Boys, Hughes always gave the parts he played his all. I am then very saddened at this death.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Death of a Mad Genius--Syd Barrett

Syd Barrett died at age 60 many days ago from complicatons associated with diabetes. In 1965 Barrett co-founded the band Pink Floyd with Nick Mason, Roger Waters, and Richard Wright. Barrett was the band's guitarist in its early days. He also wrote much of the band's material.

Barrett was Roger Keith Barrett born in Cambridge on January 6, 1946 to pathologist Arthur Barrett and his wife Winifred. He attended the Cambridge County School for Boys (now called Hills Road Sixth Form College). His nickname "Syd" was taken from a local drummer named "Sid Barrett." Barrett changed the spelling, but took the nickname as his own.

In 1965 Pink Floyd was founded as "The Tea Set." It eventually became "the Pink Floyd Sound (the name possibly deriving from two blues singers from Piedmont--Pink Anderson and Floyd Council), later shortened to "Pink Floyd." They began with covers of American rhythm and blues before plunging into psychedelia. Establishing their own sound, they became one of the most successful bands in London.

This led to the single "Arnold Layne," which made the British top 20 despite being banned by the BBC. The sucess of the single led to a recording contract with EMI . Two follow up singles ("See Emily Play" and "Apples and Oranges") were released, as well as the classic album Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Barrett not only wrote "Arnold Layne" and "See Emily Play," but also eight out of the eleven songs on the album. As a guitarist, Barrett ventured where only a few at the time (such as Jimi Hendrix) dared to go. He experimented with distorition, feedback, and dissonance. He was one of the earliest artists to use an echo machine (a device with which musicians could produce an artifical echo).

Piper at the Gates of Dawn proved to be very successful. It reached #6 on the British charts. It did not do nearly as well in America, reaching only #131 on the Billboard album charts, although it did establish a cult following for Pink Floyd in the Untied States. To this day it still makes lists of the greatest rock albums of all time. Sadly, with the band's success came a deterioration in Barrett's mental state. His behaviour became increasingly erratic. Eventually David Gilmour (like the rest of the band, he was from Cambridge) was hired as a second guitarist to cover for Barrett. In January 1968 Gilmour officially replaced Barrett as guitarist and leader of Pink Floyd. Barrett did contribute "Jugband Blues" to their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, but his participation in Pink Floyd was effectively over.

Barrett attempted a solo career, releasing two albums (The Madcap Laughs and Barrett in 1970). Unfortunately, his mental state effectively prevented him from furthering his musical career. He appeared on the BBC radio show Top Gear in 1970 and gave his only live solo concert at the the Olympia Exhibition Hall in London that same year. In 1972 Barrett formed the band Stars, but left not long after tthe group was formed. He made a failed attempt to record another album in 1974. This marked the end of Barrett's music career. Barrett retired to Cambridge where he lived out his life with his mother. He spent his time painting and working on his garden.

A compliation of Barrett's work would, Opel, would be released in 1988. His work would also be featured on several compilatons of Pink Floyd material.

The precise nature of Barrett's mental illness has always been a bit of a mystery. It is uncertain that whether he was schizophrenic or suffered from some other mental disorder. Earlier this year David Gilmour theorised that Barrett would have probably suffered a nervous breakdown even if he had not used such psychodelic drugs as LSD, but that the drugs probably accelerated his decline.

Despite his short career, Barrett would prove to have a lasting influence on rock music. David Bowie has admitted that Syd Barrett was a big influence on his work. Indeed, he even covered "See Emily Play" on his 1973 album Pin Ups. In addition, Barrett's work has been covered by Placebo, R.E.M., The Smashing Pumpkins, and Soundgarden. Marc Bolan (of T. Rex), The Jesus and Mary Chain, Pearl Jam, and Voivod have all cited Barrett as an influence. Barrett's various techniques, such as free form playing, distortion, and the use of the echo machine would prove to have a lasting influence on rock music in the Seventies and Eighties, not only upon pscyedelia but upon punk and post-punk as well. Among perhaps Barrett's most lasting influence was the impact he would have on his own band, Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd recorded the album Wish You Were Here (1975) as a tribute to their former leader. It must also be pointed out that mental illness recurs as a theme in Pink Floyd's music, partiuclarly in their two greatest albums Dark Side of the Moon (1973) and The Wall (1979).

Despite his madness, I think there is little doubt that Syd Barrett was a genius. His songs, particularly "See Emily Play," "Dark Globe," and "Astronomy Domine," remain listenable to this day. There are those who even believe Pink Floyd was at its best as their front man, surpassing even such later successes as Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. While I am not sure I would go that far (there are very few albums that can best Dark Side of the Moon, in my opinion), I will say that Barrett's work with Pink Floyd is among the band's best and Piper at the Gates of Dawn still numbers among their greatest albums. It is sad that Barrett's mental illness prevented him from having more of a music career. It is sadder still that his death now prevents him from making further music. Barrett is as much of a legend in rock music as he was a man, but he was also one of the few men in the genre who deserved to be a legend.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

June Allyson R.I.P.

June Allyson died Saturday at the age of 88 of complications from acute bronchitis and pulmonary respiratory failure. She was the wholesome star who often played the role of wives in movies.

Allyson was born in the Bronx as Ella Geisman. She was raised by her mother, her parents having divorced when she was very young. At age 8 she had an accident that would leave her in a steel brace for several years. She took up swimming and dancing as therapy. This would lead to her career in entertainment. She started entering dance contests upon graduating high school. In 1937 she appeared in her first film role, in Ups and Downs, a musical short. She would appear in several more musical shorts throughout 1937 and 1938. In 1938 she played a role in the chorus on Broadway in Sing Out the News. She would appear on Broadway in specialty parts in several more musicals until 1940. She played the role of Minerva in the Broadway musical Best Foot Forward in 1941. This led to her being cast in the same in role in the 1943 film (starring Lucille Ball) based on the play. In 1944, with Two Girls and a Sailor, Allyson became a leading lady.

Allyson played in several more musicals, including Two Sisters from Boston and Good News. She also played straight comedic roles and dramatic roles, in such films as The Sailor Takes a Wife, The Three Musketeers, and the 1947 version of Little Women. Eventually she would play the wife in several movies, such as The Stratton Story and Strategic Air Command. In nearly all of her films Allyson played the non-threatening, optimistic, sweet natured girl next door (Jo in Little Women was typical of her roles). Only once did she play an unsympathetic role, as Jose Ferrer's sadistic wife in The Shrike. Audiences couldn't accept her in the role and the movie bombed.

In the late Fifties, Allyson increasingly appeared less in film and more on television. She made appearances on such shows as Zane Grey Theatre, The Dick Powell Show (she was married to Powell for many years), Burke's Law, The Name of the Game, The Sixth Sense, and Hart to Hart. She was spokesman for Depends adult undergarments for many years in the Nineties. She had her own series, The June Allyson Show, from 1959 to 1960. In 1970 she returned to Broadway in the play Forty Carats as the replacement for Julie Harris in the role of Ann Stanley.

It has often been said that in the Forties, while men might desire Rita Hayworth, it was June Allyson that they would want to take home to their mothers. I'm not so sure of that, as I suspect that they would rather take Betty Grable home to mother (Grable was both wholesome and sexy), but Allyson was certainly a taltented performer. She was a good singer and a fair dancer, good enough that she could turn in enjoyable performances in her musicals. In comedies and dramas she was perfect for the role of the wholesome, sweet natured girl next door. It was almost as if she was born to play the role of tomboy Jo in Little Women. If Allyson wasn't the typical movie star, she was a movie star nonetheless.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

I think it is safe to say that sequels do not have a good reputation. This is for good reason. Usually sequels never match the original movies they follow. Indeed, a lot of times they are far, far worse (just think of Jaws II). Fortunately, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is not one of those sequels.

I cannot say that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is better than Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of he Black Pearl, but it is nearly as good. Like the first Pirates of the Caribbean, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest blends historical piracy with tidbits of pirate folklore and mythology, while at the same time creating its own mythology. Gore Verbinski's direction is as solid as it was on the first movie. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest delivers what one wants from a good pirate movie: astounding swordfights, ship to ship battles, colourful characters, and daring escapes. There is even a good deal of comedy thrown in for good measure. I cannot say that there is any sequence that tops the raid that Barbossa's crew made upon Port Royal in the first movie, but there are a few that come close. The first few minutes are particularly impressive.

Of course, like the first movie, much of the film's quality is due to the performance of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. A lot of actors would be tempted to camp it up in a sequel, but Depp doesn't. While Sparrow is still flamboyant, Depp still knows when to rein Sparrow in and be more reserved. Keira Knightley also does a good job as reprising her role as Elizabeth Swann. Indeed, her performance is even more impressive than the one she gave in the first movie. Knightley not only plays the independent, strong willed love interest, but gets to do some fighting in this one as well. Of the leads, only Orlando Bloom seems a bit stiff, but then that seems to he the personality of Will Turner (he was a bit stiff and reserved in the first film as well). Naomie Harris is impressive as the witch woman Tia Dalma.

I do have to warn anyone going to see Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. It does end in a cliffhanger, and one that is a surprise to boot. Most of the audience I saw it with did not seem to mind, but then I realise that there are those who (for whatever strange reason) don't care much for cliffhangers.

Anyhow, I would recommend Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest to anyone who loved the first movie, loves pirate movies, or just loves any well done movie that is just plain fun.

Saturday, July 8, 2006

Comedian Jan Murray Passes On

Comedian Jan Murray died July 2 at the age 89. He was perhaps best know as the host of the Fifties game show Treasure Hunt and for his many guest appearances.

Jan Murray was born Murray Janofsky in the Bronx on October 4, 1916. As a child he discovered his gift for comedy after watching routines at the local vaudeville theatre. By the time he was 18 he was doing stand up comedy on the vaudeville stage. He later performed at the Catskills and still later became a headliner in Las Vegas.

In 1950 he moved into television as the host of such series as Sing It Again. In 1955 he was the host of his own show, Jan Murray Time. He hosted Treasure Hunt from 1956 to 1959. On the show contestants could pick out a treasure chest--some of which contained large money prizes, while others which would contain some gag prize. After hosting several shows, Murray became a frequent guest star on several series. Among the shows on which he made appearances were The Lucy Show, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Name of the Game, Love American Style, Ellery Queen, and Hunter. He sometimes served as a guest host on The Tonight Show and a panellist on Hollywood Squares. Murray also appeared in such movies as Thunder Alley, The Angry Breed, and History of the World Part I.

I don't remember Jan Murray as a host of various TV shows and game shows, not having been born yet, but I do remember him from his many guest appearances and his stints on Hollywood Squares. Even in dramas his roles were usually comedic ones. And as might be expected of someone who had honed his art on stages in the Catskills, his timing was perfect. Although he may not be one of the best known comedians of the past fifty years, he was certainly one of the best.

Friday, July 7, 2006

The Emmys and the New Fall Season

Thursday this year's list of Emmy nominees was announced. To say that I am disappointed is putting it mildly. Lost did receive several nominations. It was nominated for Casting for a Drama Series, Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series, Directing for a Drama Series, Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Drama Series, Guest Actor in a Drama Series (for Henry Ian Cusick), Single-Camera Sound Mixing for a Series, Special Visual Effects for a Series, and Writing for a Drama Series. But somehow Lost was passed over when it came to nominations for Best Drama Series. Indeed, Lost was passed over in favour of Grey's Anatomy, a medical drama that is about as cliched as they come. Furthermore, none of the leads for Lost were nominated in any of the actor categories, even though the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences saw fit to nominate Geena Davis for Commander in Chief, even though she was totally miscast and unconvincing. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Mr. Eko), Terry O'Quinn (John Locke), Evangeline Lilly (Kate), and Josh Holloway (Sawyer) all deserved to be nominated for the acting categories.

Of course, Lost was not the only series to be snubbed. HBO's Entourage, possibly the best comedy on the air, was not nominated for Best Comedy, even though the undeserving Curb Your Enthusiasm and Two and a Half Men were. Entourage was snubbed in the Best Actor in a Comedy category as well. Neither Kevin Dillon as Drama or Jeremy Piven as Ari were nominated.

While both Lost and Entourage were snubbed, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences must be convinced that Grey's Anatomy is the best thing since white bread. The show was not only nominated in the Best Drama category, but earned ten other nominatios as well. Outside of a few acting nods (I do have to admit that the cast is sincere in their performances), it deserved none of them. Grey's Anatomy is a standard soap opera disguised as a stardard medical drama. That having been said, I am happy to see House getting some recognition. It was nominated for Best Drama, Art Direction for a Single-Camera Series, Casting for a Drama Series, Music Composition for a Series (Dramatic Underscore), and Single-Camera Sound Mixing for a Series. Curiously, however, it did not receive any nominations for its two strongest points: its writing and Hugh Laurie as Gregory House.

While I am disappointed in the Emmys, I must say that the new fall season is shaping up well. For once the networks seem to be something different than doctor and lawyer shows (although there is Shark with James Woods...how could he?!). On CBS there is Smith, a drama focusing on a team of high stakes thieves. The leader is played by Ray Liotta and it is produced by John Wells of ER and West Wing fame. It looks promising. Also on CBS is Jericho, show centred on a town of the same name which may or may not be the only city surviving a nuclear holocaust. While I must admit that the format sounds limited, it could be interesting if done correctly.

NBC also seems to be showing some originality. Its new series Heroes focusing on a diverse group of people who one day wake up with super powers and may have to save mankind. The show is created by Tim Kring, who also created Crossing Jordan. While Crossing Jordan is not my cup of tea (it's not bad, just not something I'd watch regularly), I must admit that the concept behind Heroes is intriguing. Also on NBC is Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The show is produced by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin and is a behind the scene look at a late night sketch comedy show. Given it's produced by Sorkin, it could well be worth a look.

Earlier in the week I did a three part series on road shows. Well, it looks like there will be another one this fall. Runaway is a show in which an entire family must go on the run. While I admit it sounds a bit far fetched to me (a whole family!), there hasn't been any road shows on the networks for a while. It airs on the new CW network (it's the results of the UPN/WB merger). ABC also has an show that could be interesting called The Nine. The show centres on nine hostages in a bank robbery and their subsequent lives. I'll admit that the concept sounds somewhat limited to me, but then it could be interesting if it is done well. In other good news, ABC moved Grey's Anatomy to Thursdays, where it will be against CSI. In other words, it probably won't last another season to see any more Emmy nominations.

While the fall season could be better (they always can be), I am glad to see that there are some original series debuting. Indeed, beyond Shark there are no shows focusing on lawyers and I can think of no police procedurals debuting this fall. With any luck maybe the networks have learned that viewers don't always want the same old types of shows all the time.

Thursday, July 6, 2006

Pirate Movies

Anyone who has read this blog for very long know that I have had a life long fascination with the Golden Age of Piracy (roughly the period from 1690 to 1730). As might be expected, then, I have always enjoyed a good pirate movie (indeed, it is the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest tomorrow which spurred me to make this post). Sadly, while there have literally been dozens of pirate movies released since the Silent Era of movies, there have been very few, truly good pirate movies.

As stated above, pirate movies have been around since the Silent Era. In fact, the first film version of Treasure Island was released in 1912. It is quite probable that Treasure Island is the most filmed pirate novel in the history of both literature and movies. In the Silent Era alone there would be two more versions of the classic book, one made in 1918 and another made in 1920. The advent of talkies would see the classic 1934 version directed by Victor Fleming. It featured Wallace Beery as Long John Silver and Jackie Cooper as Jim Hawkins. Of course, many consider the quintessential film version of Treasure Island to be the movie released by Disney in 1950. Treasure Island was not only the first live action Disney movie ever made, but also one of the first Disney films to be shown on television (it was first shown on Disneyland in 1955). Character actor Robert Newton gave the best performance of his career and there are those who consider him to have given the best portrayal of Silver on screen. Jim Hawkins was played by Bobby Driscoll, who would later be the voice of Disney's Peter Pan (his life was cut short after his career faltered and he got into hard drugs). Of course, Disney's Treasure Island was not the last version of the novel on film. Since then there have been several more, including some TV adaptations. Perhaps the most memorable of these is the hilarious Muppet Treasure Island, featuring Tim Curry (Frank N. Furter of Rocky Horror Picture Show fame) as Long John Silver and The Muppets in other key roles.

Of course, the only pirate movies made in the Silent Era were not adaptations of Treasure Island. With swashbucklers very much in vogue during the Twenties (in a large part due to Douglas Fairbanks' films), there were several other pirate movies made at that time. Perhaps the most famous was The Black Pirate, released in 1926 and featuring Douglas Fairbanks in the title role. The story was pure Fairbanks, in which a young man joins the pirate band who killed his father in order to avenge his father's death. Two years before the first screen adaptation of Rafael Sabatini's classic Captain Blood was released with J. Warren Kerrigan as Peter Blood. In 1924 there was also the first adaptation of another classic Rafael Sabitini novel, The Sea Hawk.

The cycle towards swashbucklers ran its course during the Twenties and as a result there would be some time before pirate movies would become fashionable again. The success of the 1934 version of treasure Island brought attention to the genre again, although it would be actor Errol Flynn who was responsible for reviving the pirate movie in the era of talkies. In 1935 Flynn received his first starring role in the first sound version of Captain Blood. Its plot is classic Flynn--after being sentenced to bondage in the Caribbean, Dr. Peter Blood became a pirate in order to wreak vengeance on those who wronged him. Captain Blood was a smash hit and Flynn would follow up his success with The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk. Released in 1940, Flynn's version of The Sea Hawk was not an adaptation of Sabitini's novel, but rather a tale of an English privateer in the age of Elizabeth I.

The success of The Sea Hawk and Flynn's other films would spark a new cycle towards swashbucklers that would last into the Forties. As might be expected, some of those swashbucklers were pirate movies. Indeed, in 1942 one of the three greatest pirate movies of all time was released. The Black Swan featured Tyrone Power as pirate Jamie Waring, who goes to the aid of former pirate Henry Morgan in ridding the Caribbean of pirates when Morgan becomes governor of Jamaica. This movie has nearly everything one could want from a pirate movie: ship to ship battles, fantastic sword play, a beautiful love interest (Maureen O'Hara), and a dastardly villain (George Sanders at his best). While it departs from history (as most pirate movies do), it still great fun. Not nearly as good as The Black Swan, but still enjoyable, is Captain Kidd (1945). Charles Laughton played Kidd in this movie that dispenses with history for a plot in which Kidd schemes to rob a treasure ship. While Captain Kidd is fun but historically inaccurate, The Spanish Main from the first year is just plain bad. Paul Henried (Victor Laszlo from Casablanca is unconvincing as pirate Captain Laurent Van Horn and the plot is largely forgettable. That having been said, it does boast some impressive sword play. Of course, by 1948 the genre was ripe for parody. Released that year, The Pirate featured Gene Kelly and Judy Garland in a delightful send up of the swashbuckler genre.

While the cycle towards swashbucklers in the late Thirties and early Forties would eventually wind down, there would be renewed interest in the genre in the early Fifties. Indeed, one could say that there was actually a cycle towards pirate movies in the early Fifties, starting in 1950 and lasting until 1956. More pirate movies were released during this period than any other time in the history of Hollywood. The the 1950 Disney version of Treasure Island was largely responsible for beginning the cycle. What is more, it is not the only classic pirate movie to come out at this time. Besides The Black Swan and Disney's Treasure Island, the greatest pirate movie of all time is perhaps The Crimson Pirate. It is also like no other pirate movie made before or since. Burt Lancaster played the title role and put his skill in acrobatics to good use in a plot in which Capt. Vallo (AKA the Crimson Pirate) become involved in a revolution on a small island. Not only does the film feature ship to ship battles and some incredible fight scenes, but it also incorporates technology that is rather advanced for the 18th century (high explosives, submarines, and so on)! The Crimson Pirate is an example of what I call genre melange--a work which mixes more than one genre (in this case, science fiction and pirate movies--the TV show The Wild Wild West is an other example of genre melange). Another classic pirate movie from the era was Errol Flynn's Against All Flags. Flynn played Brian Hawke, who takes up piracy off the coast of Madagascar. OF course, the success of
Treasure Island
resulted in a couple of unofficial sequels (they weren't released by Disney). Robert Newton reprised his role as Silver in 1954's Long John Silver. Unfortunately, the film is fun, but fairly unremarkable. It is at least better than Return to Treasure Island, released the same year. It was just plain bad.

Sadly, pirate movies have proven few and far between since the Fifties. Beyond a few B movies, the Sixties saw almost no films in the genre. Nineteen seventy six saw the release of Swashbuckler, a film that is not bad, but hardly remarkable either. In 1980 a very successful stage revival of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance very nearly saw a revival of the genre. In 1982 The Pirate Movie attempted to capitalise on the success of this new version Pirates of Penzance. Unfortunately, the film is fairly atrocious, with a forgettable cast and fairly bad songs. An adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance itself, released a year later, was much better, even though the filmmakers saw fit to play fast and loose with the source material. Although it is still roundly panned by critics to this day, the comedy Yellowbeard, released in 1983, is better than either of these films. Written by Graham Chapman and Peter Cook and featuring a cast of veteran British comic actors, I have always thought Yellowbeard was very funny myself. True, many of the bits fall flat, but for every bit that does so there are two or three that are very funny. Released in 1986, Pirates was the last of the Eighties pirate movies. Directed by Roman Polanski and starring by Walter Matthau, Pirates was attacked by critics much as Yellowbeard was. I'll admit that it has its lapses in logic and it does run a bit long, but overall it is simply a fun romp that any pirate fan will enjoy. Sadly, Yellowbeard and Pirates failed at the box office. A new cycle towards pirate movies was not in the offing.

Indeed, since the Eighties there have been only three(and come tomorrow, three, with the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest) major motion pictures that have dealt with pirates. The first was 1995's Cutthroat Island. Sadly, Cutthroat Island is a pirate movie done as an overblown Nineties action movie. There are more explosions than real excitement. What is worse, Geena Davis is totally miscast in the role of lady pirate Morgan Adams. Only a few good sequences and Frank Langella as the villainous Dawg Brown make it worthwhile. If the poor quality of many previous pirate movies hadn't killed the genre, it would have. Muppet Treasure Island, released a year later, was much better, but did poorly at the box office.

Fortunately, the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl would redeem the genre. Against many's expectations ("it's based on a theme park ride," it's a pirate movie), Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl became a bona fide hit. What is more, it is a genuinely good movie that actually stands up beside other classic films in the genre. Like The Crimson Pirate, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is an example of genre melange. It is not just a pirate movie. It is also a ghost story, a horror movie, and a comedy. It also features the most memorable pirate in a movie since Robert Newton played Long John Silver. As Captain Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp gave the best performance of his career.

It remains to be seen if Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest will be hit. And if it is a hit, it remains to be seen if it will start a new cycle towards pirate movies. As one who has always enjoyed watching swordfights aboard ships and the firing of cannons, I can only hope it does. There are very few film genres I enjoy as much as good pirate movies.