Thursday, August 31, 2006

Glenn Ford R.I.P.

Hollywood leading man Glenn Ford died yesterday at the age of 90. He starred in a number of classic movies over the years, from 3:10 to Yuma to The Blackboard Jungle to The Big Heat.

Ford was born May 1, 1916 in Sainte-Christine, Portneuf, Quebec to a Candian railroad executive and his wife. The family later moved to Santa Monica, California. He started acting in high school. He later acted in a travelling theatre company on the West Coast. He made his first appearance on film in 1937 in a small part in A Night in Manhattan. His first major role was in 1939's Heaven With a Barbed Wire Fence. His first starring role was alongside William Holden in 1941's Texas. It was also the first of many Westerns Ford would make.

During World War II Ford volunteered for service in the Marine Corps, interuppting his film career. It was after World War II that Ford would appear in his breakthrough role in Gilda. Released in 1946, Ford played a small time hoodlum running a casino in Buenos Aires. Rita Hayworth was the title character. The film proved to be a hit, so that Ford and Hayworth were teamed in five more films. With Gilda Ford's career took off, with most of his biggest films being relesed in the late Forties and early Fifties. Among the films he made at the time were The Big Heat, The Blackboard Jungle, 3:10 to Yuma, and The Courtship of Eddie's Father.

It was in 1963 that Ford made his first apperance on television, as a guest host on The Dick Powell Show. In the Seventies he would appear on television more and more often. He was the lead in the TV shows Cade's County and The Family Holvak. He also appeared in several TV movies, among them The Disappearance of Flight 412 and The 3,000 Mile Chase.

While Ford did a good deal of television in the Seventies, he continued to appear on the big screen. He played the title role in Santee. In Midway he played Rear Admiral Raymond A. Spruance. He appeared as Jonathan "Pa" Kent (Clark Kent's adoptive father) in Superman.

Ford was a versatile actor, capable of playing heroes, villains, and ordinary men. In 3:10 to Yuma he played the leader of an outlaw gang, yet in The Big Heat he played an honest cop investigating his partner's death. And in The Blackboard Jungle he played a caring teacher who must face down a gang of unruly high school hoodlums. All of these parts were quite different and yet he was convincing in all of them. In fact, even though he was the leading man in many of the films he made in his career, I often find it hard to think of Ford as a leading man. He seemed to me to be more of a character actor who just happened to be in the lead role. Indeed, while he may be best known for his roles in Westerns, his filmography is filled with roles in which he played not only cowboys, sheriffs, and outlaws, but criminals, lawyers, and police officers. There aren't many actors who had as a varied a career as Glenn Ford.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Some More Thoughts on the Emmys

In many respects this year's Emmy Awards was a fairly typical one. I cannot say that there were any big surprises. For the most part the shows and performers I thought would probably win did so. That having been said, I must say that for a medium that almost never gets respect (namely, television), the Emmys have always been the awards that I respect the most. At the same time, however, I have to admit that throughout their history, the Emmy Awards have always been a bit schizophrenic.

On the one hand, the Emmy Awards have always been willing to recognise shows that are off the beaten track, shows that are innovative and original. This is the reason I respect the Emmy Awards more so than awards for other media. Far too often the Oscars simply nominate those movies that one expects it would, those movies that tend to be more conservative, those movies that tend to be more pedestrian (this year Brokeback Mountain does show that there is the occasional exception). Indeed, it is very rare that genre movies (that is, sci-fi, horror, and fantasy movies) ever get nominated for any Oscar outside of Special Effects, Art Direction, or the Sound categories. Consider this. Even though Star Wars Episode IV: a New Hope is considered by many to be the best movie of 1977, it only won the Academy Awards for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Original Score, and Best Sound. Given the fact that the Oscars rarely nominate genre movies in these categories, I guess we should feel lucky that it was even nominated in the categories of Best Supporting Actor (for Sir Alec Guiness), Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (for George Lucas), Best Director (Lucas again), and Best Picture. Most genre films don't even get that far, even when they are truly the best movie of the year. The Bride of Frankenstein is now considered a classic. Some even consider the greatest horror movie of all time. I suspect many believe it to be the best movie of 1935. When it came to the Oscars, however, all it received was a nomination for Best Sound Editing! Here I must point out that as bad as the Oscars may be about snubbing certain genres of films, the Grammys are even worse when it comes to music. It seems to me that traditionally the Grammys have always favoured pop and jazz over any other music form, even (perhaps especially) rock 'n' roll. The Beatles are widely considered the greatest rock artists of all time. There are those who would even put them on a level with such composers as Gershwin and Porter. Yet, The Beatles only received eleven Grammys in their career, and four of those were such things as Best Album Cover (Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band) and Best Engeineered--Non-Classical (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road). Quite frankly, in my humble opinion, The Beatles should have swept the Grammys every year from 1964 to 1968. The list of respected artists who have never won a Grammy is astounding: Sam Cooke, Credence Clearwater Revival, Fats Domino, Jimi Hendrix, Rod Stewart, and many others.

The Emmy Awards present a stark contrast to the Oscars and the Grammys in that often times shows that are well off the beaten track, even sci-fi and fantasy shows, can and do get nominated. A few have even won. In 1961 the classic fantasy series The Twilight Zone was actually nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Program Achievement in the Field of Drama. Over the years it won Emmys for both Cinematography and Writing. Although we take it for granted today, in 1961 The Dick Van Dyke Show was a revolutionary, almost subversive idea for a sitcom. It was a sharp break from such Fifties sitcoms as I Love Lucy, I Married Joan, and Father Knows Best. Yet it won Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series, Lead Actor in a Comedy (Dick Van Dyke, naturally), Direction, and Writing. In 1966 two revolutionary comedies were nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series. Both Batman and The Monkees were far different from anything that had gone before. What is more, not only was The Monkees nominated for the award. It won. Over the years the list of decidedly different series that have either been nominated for or won Emmys is fairly impressive: The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, Star Trek (nominated for Outstanding Dramatic Series two years in a row, nonetheless), Mission Impossible, All in the Family, The Sopranos, and Lost, among others.

On the other hand, however, despite a willingness throughout their history to recognise new and inventive shows, the Emmy Awards have often settled for the tried and true. For the 1962 Emmy Awards Shirley Booth won the Emmy for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Series (Lead)for the title role in Hazel, beating out such actresses as Irene Ryan (who was nominated for Granny in The Beverly Hillbillies, one of the all time great TV characters), Mary Tyle Moore (for The Dick Van Dyke Show), and Lucille Ball (for The Lucy Show). Now anyone who has seen Hazel knows that it is simply another in a long line of "stupid dad" comedies or, in its case, stupid family comedies (Hazel the maid was smarter than the family she worked for!). In 1971 Marcus Welby M.D., a well done but fairly standard medical drama, beat out such worthier series as Ironside and The Name of the Game for the Emmy for Outstanding Dramatic Series. Cagney and Lacey was a fairly standard police drama (and not even a good one at that), whose only twist on the genre was that its leads were two women, yet over the years it won six Emmy Awards, among them the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series (which it actually won twice).

While the Emmys often go for the tried and true, they also often recognise those shows that are considered hip and popular. In some cases these shows may well be inventive and original, although the overall quality may actually be very poor. There can be little argument that The Mod Squad was not a fairly original idea when it debuted in 1968. In retrospect, however, it was actually a poorly executed series, with very little in the way of good writing or performances. Despite this, it was nominated for Emmys six different times! Other "hip and popular" shows are not quite so original or inventive, and their formats as old as the dawn of time. I realise my readers could well be bored of me harping about this series, but Grey's Anatomy is the perfect example of this. It is essentially a soap opera more than it is a medical drama. In fact, the only thing that separates it from Dr. Kildare are unusual medical cases (which has been done before--on St. Elsewhere and, more recently, on House) and sex (which Dr. Kildare really couldn't show back in 1961 when it debuted).

Of course, it is hard to tell whether the Emmys will continue to recongise original and inventive series as they historically have or if they will start staying with the tried and true or the hip and popular. One thing that concerns me is the changes in the Emmy's rules. At one time nominees were decided upon by a vote of the general membership. Under the rules that the Emmy Awards just recently enacted (this year's awards were the first ones using these new rules), blue ribbon panels determine the nominees through screening episodes selected by prospective nominees. This makes it difficult for series with serialised storylines or that tell their stories in arcs (such as Lost, Deadwood, and The Wire) to get nominated, as one or two episodes does not give one an idea of the series' over all quality. This explains why Lost was snubbed this year (The Wire always has been, so I have given up on it ever even being nominated for an Emmy), yet Grey's Anatomy received many nominations. These new rules have not only angered members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, but rank and file television viewers as well. Given this, the rules could be changed back to the way they once were, but there is no certainty that they will be.

Anyhow, as I said earlier, I have always thought that the Emmys were a bit schizophrenic. On the one hand they do often recognise original and inventive, quality series. On the other hand, they can just as easily recognise the tried and true. Given that the Oscars and the Grammys simply stick by the tried and the true, rarely giving that which is inventive or original a chance, I suppose I should be thankful that series such as Get Smart and Lost were even nominated, let alone win.

Monday, August 28, 2006

58th Annual Emmy Awards

Earlier in this blog I expressed my displeasure at the nominations for this year's Emmy Awards. And while I am still unhappy that shows that deserved to be nominated in various categories were not (Lost and Entourage), I am somewhat happy with the way the 58th Emmy Awards turned out given the circumstances.

Indeed, I am still unhappy that Lost was not even nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. And given that it was not even nominated, I do think House should have won. That having been said, I cannot protest too much over 24 taking the award. Besides House, it was the series which deserved to win the award the most that was nominated. And while I am still unhappy that Entourage was not nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series, I am happy that The Office did win. Currently it is the best comedy on the networks, in my humble opinion.

Here I should correct an error that I had made in my earlier post on the Emmy nominations. I said that Jeremy Piven had not been nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Comedy Series. Well, it turns out he that not only had he, but he also won! This makes me happy. Entourage is the best comedy on television right now and much of the reason the series is so good is indeed Piven's performance as slimey agent Ari. As to the other wins in the actor categories, I am very happy that Mariska Hargitay won the award for Outstanding Lead Actress In A Drama Series, for two reasons. First, Hargitay is easily one of the best actresses in televison and she does well in a difficult role. Second, I was worried that Geena Davis might win for Commander in Chief. Quite simply, I do not believe she should have even been nominated as she wasn't even suited for the role and hardly convicing in it. As to Alan Alda winning the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series, I think he deserved it. The role seems so utterly unlike Alda in real life, yet he was totally convincing in it.

I am unhappy that Lost, well, lost the award for Outstanding Writing For A Drama Series, although I am happy that The Sopranos beat Grey's Anatomy (which actually had two episodes nominated in this category, even the show didn't deserve to be nominated for any Emmys). I would have also preferred that Lost took the award for Outstanding Directing For A Drama Series, although I cannot complain too loudly about 24 taking it. After all, the direction on 24 is actually one of its strongpoints.

One thing that I must say that I am very happy about. Even though it received a ton of nominations, Grey's Anatomy did not win even one. I have said it before and I will say it again. Grey's Anatomy is simply a soap opera masquerading as a medical drama. It has absolutely no originality and adds absolutely nothing to the genre of medical dramas. I am still bumfuddled as to how it has become so popular and really stupefied as to how it received as many Emmy nominations as it did.

Anyhow, given that there were shows that were not even nominated in categories that they should have been, I cannot say I am wholly unhappy with this year's Emmys. Some shows that have long deserved recogniton got it (24 and, at least with regards to Jeremy Piven, Entourage), some younger shows that deserve recognition also got it (The Office), and in most of the categories the best nominee did indeed win. It is not often that happens at the Emmys.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Two Shows from 1964

In 1964 I was only a year old, so I don't have any memory of that year. One thing I do know from my study of television history, however, is that the 1964-1965 season was a good one for TV series. That season saw the debut of such classics as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Bewitched, The Addams Family, and Gilligan's Island. Very, very recently I had the opportunity to watch two shows that debuted that season. One of those lasted several years and I remember fondly from my childhood. The other lasted only one season and I had never seen before.

When I was in kindergarten and first grade, the two most popular shows among us boys were the recently cancelled Batman and the then ongoing Daniel Boone. Looking back, I suppose that Daniel Boone was Twentieth Century Fox's attempt (and a successful one at that) to capitalise on the popularity of Disney's phenomenal Davy Crockett episodes of Disneyland. The show featured Fess Parker (who had also played Crocektt) as the legendary woodsman, who had settled in Boonesborough in the wilds of Ken-tuck-E about the time of the American War for Independence. The series featured Boone's family--his wife Rebecca (Patricia Blair), his daugher Jemima (Veronica Cartwright), and his son Israel (Darby Hinton). For the first four years of the series, Boone was often accompanied by his Cherokee friend Mingo (Ed Ames). During its initial run Daniel Boone was very successful. For two years it ranked in the top twenty five shows according to the Nielsen ratings. Ultimately, it ran six years on NBC. And for several years in the Seventies it seemed to have had a fairly successful syndication run. It ran on several local TV stations. I remember myself that KOMU in Columbia, MO showed it on weekdays at 4:00 PM CST (perfect for kids who had just gotten out of school). Since that time it all but disappeared from American airwaves. It would pop up sporadically on TV schedules from time to time. I know that Pax showed it for a short time. And a few episodes were released on video some years go. But for the most part Daniel Boone has remained unseen for much of the Eighties, Nineties, and Naughts.

Fornutately, TV Land is showing a Daniel Boone marathon this weekend and will show it weekdays at 2:00 PM CDT starting this coming Monday. This has given me an opportunity to see a show from my childhood which I probably have not seen for nearly 34 years. To some degree Daniel Boone is what I expected it to be. The show is hardly historically accurate. For instance, although it is set during the years of the American War for Independence, I know of one episode that features an appearance by President George Washington! Too, it must be pointed out that Daniel Boone most assuredly did not wear a coonskin cap, as testified by his son Nathan in an interview. And it is not always accurate with regards to the portrayal of Native American cultures either. Mingo dresses like no Cherokee I have ever seen. And in a first season episode the Shawnee are actually portrayed as living in tipis! It must also be pointed out that during the first season it is clear in some episodes that some scenes were shot on a soundstage.

All of this having been said, I am not sure any of it matters. The Westerns which aired during the same era as Daniel Boone were well known for altering history (Bonanza was particularly guilty of this). And while I suppose that as someone who is part Cherokee I should be offended by the inaccuracies in the portrayal of Native cultures, I cannot say I am. This is primarily because Daniel Boone always portrayed Native Americans with respect, despite whatever inaccuracies in clothing or lodgings might occur on the series. Indeed, Mingo (who was easily the most popular character on the show) is portrayed as a reasonable, intelligent human being who speaks the English language (and several others as well) better than many of the settlers. He is not a stereotype by any stretch of the imagination! As to the shooting on soundstages that sometimes occurred in early episodes, I must point out that this was common practice on shows in the Sixties (just watch several episodes of Bonanza some time and you'll see what I mean).

The fact is that in seeing Daniel Boone for the first time in three decades I was pleasantly surprised. Daniel Boone was a very well done series. Much of this is due to the performances. Fess Parker does quite well as Boone, who, despite some similarities, is a totally different character from Davy Crockett (Boone is less the adventurer and more the family man). Ed Ames gives perhaps most consistent performances of the cast, endowing Mingo with a good sense of humour and remarkable wit. And Dal McKennon is perhaps the funniest character on the show as tavern keeper Cincinnatus. The scripts are well written, with well developed characters and little in the way of cliches. What is more, Daniel Boone was a very flexible TV show with regards to the different sorts of episodes that were written for it. The series was capable of serious drama, such as the first season episiode "The Returning," in which an old friend of Daniel's is accused of murdering a group of Cherokee. At the same time, however, it could be a purely action adventure show, such as the episode "The Returning," in which Daniel's wife is kidnapped. And the show was further capable of the occasional comedy episode (and what's more, do it well), such as the episode "The Tortoise and Hare," which centred on Boonesborough's annual foot race.

There are those times when one watches a show he or she loved from childhood, only to discover that it was truly dreadful. Fortunately, Daniel Boone is not one of these shows. While it has its occasional flaws, it is a truly well done and entertaining show. And I can easily see why five and six year old boys would have absolutely loved the series--there is plenty of action and adventure to be had for all.

The other show from 1964 which I had the opportunity to see was My Living Doll. For those of you who have never heard of the series, My Living Doll was a sitcom featuring Bob Cummings as psychiatrist Dr. Robert MacDonald. MacDonald finds himself in the predicament of having to care for a robot, designated AF 709, developed by his friend Dr. Carl Miller (Henry Beckman) when Miller must go to Pakistan on government business. Unfortunately for MacDonald, AF 709 looks exactly like Julie Newmar (who played her, of course). Furthermore, AF 709 is top secret, so MacDonald must take pains to keep anyone from learning that AF 709 is indeed a very advanced robot. MacDonald named AF 709 "Rhoda" and passed her off as Dr. Miller's niece, who was staying with him. He also "hired" her as his secretary at work (a job for which she is perfectly suited--she can type hundreds of words a minute and her memory banks hold thousands of bits of information). MacDonald also decided to teach Rhoda how to be the "perfect" woman--one who does what she is told to. In this final task MacDonald appears to have never quite succeeded, as Rhoda seems to have somewhat a mind of her own...

Produced by Jack Chertok (who also produced the classic My Favorite Martian), My Living Doll debuted on CBS on Sunday night, September 24, 1964. It had the misfortune of airing opposite Bonanza (then the number one show on American television) on NBC, and as a result it performed poorly in the ratings. CBS moved the series to Wednesday night in December. Unfortunately, this placed this series against The Virginian on NBC and The Patty Duke Show on ABC. Its ratings did not improve. To make matters worse, there was also strife on the set. Julie Newmar and Bob Cummings did not get along, with Cummings eventually walking off the set with five episodes left to air. Ultimately, My Living Doll would be cancelled after one season. This having been said, it seems possible that its ratings did not truly reflect its popularity. My Living Doll was popular enough that TV Guide did an article on the series and even featured Julie Newmar on its cover. As further proof of the show's popularity, The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang traces the origins of the phrase "does not compute (one of the show's catchphrases)," back to My Living Doll. As further proof, even though it only lasted a season, My Living Doll is still remembered by many to this day--a rarity for a show that not only ran but one season, but was never reran in syndication!

Anyhow, like most of my generation I had never seen an episode of My Living Doll. For a long time the entire run of the series was feared lost. Since that time a few episodes had surfaced. Now it appears that even more episodes of the series have been found, so that the show is now poised for an official release on DVD. At any rate, I had the opportunity to finally see six episodes of My Living Doll. And I must say that I was pleasantly surprised.

Okay, the premise of the series would certainly be considered sexist by today's standards, but then I presume most people would realise that the show was made in 1964 when feminism was just getting off the ground. Keeping that in mind, My Living Doll is actually a fairly entertaining series. In all I would say that in its quality it is on par with Chertok's more famous series, My Favourite Martian. In fact, the episodes which I saw often included some very sophisticated and very funny bits of comedy. In "The Uninvited Guest" Rhoda develops the equivalent of a modern day computer virus after reading Alice in Wonderland (it seems that Lewis Carroll's mathematically precise rhymes interefered with her programming). In "Beauty Contest," Dr. MacDonald uses a televison remote control to interfere with Rhoda during the talent portion of a beauty contest in which his sister (who did not know Rhoda was a robot) entered her (MacDonald didn't want Rhoda to win for fear of her secret being discovered). The entire premise of "Something Borrowed" is hilarious--naive Rhoda accepts a marriage proposal from a many times married (and many times divorced) millionaire! Of course, it should be no surprise that the writing on the series would be sterling--it was written by individuals who also worked on such series as Bewitched, Gilligan's Island, and, of course, My Favourite Martian.

I must also point out that My Living Doll also benefited from a solid cast. Although he didn't get along with Julie Newmar (or anyone else, for that matter), Bob Cummings did well as Dr. MacDonald. His easy going charm suited the character quite well. Doris Dowling did very well as MacDonald's sister Irene, who was absolutely clueless about Rhoda's true nature. By far the most impressive performance is given by Julie Nemar as Rhoda. Never mind that Newmar just oozes sex appeal even when she is standing still, she can play a robot very convincingly. Much of this is no doubt due to Newmar's background as a dancer. Being much more aware of her movements than an actor without a background in dance, she could easily move like something not quite human (she put this skill to good use as The Catwoman on Batman as well, where she moved like, well, a cat...). Newmar also has a much better vocal and emotional range than many actresses of her time or any other. In the episode "Something Borrowed" she went from a New England lockjaw to a Southern "hillbilly" accent without breaking a sweat! I have to say that it is a shame CBS cancelled My Living Doll even though it was clear Cummings would no longer be a part of the series--it could have easily continued without him as long as Newmar played Rhoda!

To sum things up, My Living Doll compares favourably to other series of its sort that aired during the same era. When it is officially released on DVD, I would fully recommend anyone buying it, particularly those who love the imaginative comedies of the Sixties.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Gene Kelly as Director

Today would have been Gene Kelly's 94th bithday. Most people are familiar with Kelly as a dancer, choreographer, actor, and singer, and the star of such classic films as On the Town, An American in Paris, and Singin' in the Rain. But Kelly also had a career directing movies, some of which were the very classics in which he starred.

In some ways it can be said that Kelly more or less eased himself into the director's chair. As early as Cover Girl in 1944, he was choreographing dance sequences in his movies (with regards to Cover Girl, Kelly choreographed the famous Alter Ego sequence with Stanley Donen). Starting with Anchors Aweigh, Kelly choreographed nearly every dance sequence in every movie he made. With On the Town, Kelly would not only receive credit as actor and choreographer, but would share the director's credit with Stanley Donen. Kelly and Donen had met when the former was the star of the 1940 musical comedy play Pal Joey and the latter was a member of the musical's chorus. Together they had worked on Cover Girl, Living in a Big Way, and Take Me Out to the Ballgame (for which Donen had also written the story).

For their directorial debut, On the Town, Kelly and Donen would make cienmatic history. On the Town is the first feature length musical to be shot on location (what's more, that location was New York City). This was largely due to Kelly's insistence that they do so. On the Town then looked different from any musical before it. Audiences certainly took to the film--for a time it was MGM's top grossing film besides Meet Me in St. Louis.

With the success of On the Town Kelly and Donen became an important part of MGM's "Freed Unit," a team of directors, composers, writers, and actors headed by Arthur Freed. It was the Freed Unit that provided MGM with some of the greatest musicals of all time. Kelly and Donen more than did their part. Their next film together would be the legendary Singin' in the Rain. Quite simply, Singin' in the Rain is considered by many to be the greatest musical of all time. Although it won no Oscars (worse yet, it was only nominated for two--Best Music and Best Supporting Actress for Jean Hagen), Singin' in the Rain has received much acclaim since then. In both 1982 and 2002 Singin' in the Rain appeared in Sight and Sound's top ten best films of all time. In AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies list, it was counted as the 10th greatest movie of all time. The United States Library of Congress has named the movie "culturally significant" and it was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. It probably would not be an understatement to say it was the highlight of both Kelly and Donen's careers.

Sadly, the first project which Gene Kelly directed by himself would not be nearly as successful. Invitation to the Dance was Kelly's dream project. Essentially the movie is three stories told entirely through dance (the first, "Circus," centred on a lovelorn clown, the second "Ring around the Rosy," told of a bracelet passed from owner to owner, while the third story, Sinbad the Sailor combined animation and live action in a story featuring the hero of Arabic legend). If this wasn't revolutionary enough, there was no dialogue in the entirety of the film. Sadly, MGM executives thought the film would not make money and released it four years after it was made. This is sad, as it is one of Kelly's most interesting movies. Indeed, "Sinbad the Sailor" in particular features some of his best work.

Kelly's next stint as director would also be the last time he would work with Stanley Donen. The two once more shared the director's credit on It's Always Fair Weather. The film not only reunited Kelly with Donen, but with screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who had written the classics On the Town and Singin' in the Rain. In fact, Comdem and Green had originally conceived of It's Always Fair Weather as a sequel of sorts to On the Town. That having been said, It's Always Fair Weather is a very different film from On the Town. While On the Town was happy and upbeat, It's Always Fair Weather is quite a bit more cynical . This perhaps explains why It's Always Fair Weather has never been nearly as popular as On the Town, much less Singin' in the Rain. In my humble opinion, however, it is a classic nonetheless. Indeed, it features some of the best sequences in any of Kelly's films, including a dance with trashcan lids, Cyd Charisse's dance to “Baby You Knock Me Out," and, lastly, Kelly's dance on rollerskates. It's Always Fair Weather failed at the box office and was one of the last great Hollywood musicals ever made.

By the time of It's Always Fair Weather Kelly and Donen's relationship had become strained. Not only would they never work together again, but they would not be friends either. From that point on when Kelly directed a film, it would be on his own. The Happy Road was the film Kelly directed following It's Always Fair Weather. It was a comedy in which an American boy and a French girl run away from boarding school. Kelly played the American boy's father. The film did not do spectacularly well at the box office and I rather suspect that it has been forgotten by all but the most ardent Gene Kelly fans.

Kelly's next film would be a bit better remembered. The Tunnel of Love was a romantic comedy starring Doris Day and Richard Widmark as a couple desperate to adopt a child. The film is full of the sort of miscommunication and misunderstandings that would fill Doris Day's latter work. Although I am not sure I would consider it a classic, it is a very funny film and a credit to Kelly as a director. The Tunnel of Love is historic as the first film which directed in which he himself did not star. In fact, he doesn't even have a cameo!

Kelly's next turn in the director's seat would come in 1962. Gigot was a comedy set in France during the turn of the twentieth century. The central character is Gigot, a mute janitor played by Jackie Gleason (Gleason had also conceived the story), who has the misfortune of befriending a prostitute and her daughter. Gigot is touching and funny by turns, often both at the same time. The film also features one of Gleason's best performances of his career, in a role in which he had no lines. Like The Tunnel of Love, it is also a credit to Kelly as a director.

It would be another five years before a film directed by Gene Kelly would be released. That movie was A Guide to the Married Man. a comedy in which a man (Robert Morse) gives a co-worker (Walter Matthau) lessons on how to cheat on his wife without getting caught. Arguably, A Guide to the Married Man is Kelly's best non-musical comedy. Indeed, Kelly proves once and for all that the timing he learned as a dancer and choreographer can be easily adapted to comedy. The film features plenty of one liners and some of the most outlandish humour ever seen in a movie made in the Sixties. Best of all are the performers of Matthau and Morse, who are perfect in their roles. For movie and TV buffs, the film also features tons of cameos, from Jack Benny to Sam Jaffe. Although I haven't often seen it cited as such, I would say it is indeed a classic.

Sadly, Kelly's next film would be quite a comedown from A Guide to the Married Man. In the Sixties Twentieth Century Fox attempted to follow the success of The Sound of Music with other huge musicals. They then hit upon the idea of doing a film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, Hello, Dolly. Kelly, well known for his work in musicals, was signed to direct. Sadly, the end result would be a disappointment. Even Kelly's direction seems rather ordinary. But then, in his defence, the film was perhaps doomed from the start. Barbara Steisand was cast as Dolly Levi, a role for which she was not suited. What's worse, there is absolutely no screen chemistry between her and her co-stars (of course, it must be pointed out that Walter Matthau absolutely hated Streisand...). To make things even worse, even the script was poor--the plot moved at a snail's pace. Beyond being saddled with a project which gave him little to work with, I also seem to recall (although I may be mistaken) that Helllo, Dolly was made about the time when Kelly's wife (Jeanne Coyne) fell ill (she would die of leukaemia in 1973). It could then well be that his mind was not on his work.

Fortunately, Kelly's next film would be a good deal better. The Cheyenne Social Club stands as the only Western he ever directed, as well as a classic teaming of two acting greats--Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. It is also one of Kelly's better comedies. The plot revolves around a cowhand (played by Stewart) who just happens to inherit a brothel from his long lost brother. The interplay between Stewart and Fonda (who were very old friends by that time) is priceless. And the comic timing in Kelly's direction is as good as ever. I first saw this movie as a child (for all I know it may have been the first film directed by Kelly that I ever saw) and I have never tired of it since.

Sadly, The Cheyenne Social Club would be the last entire film Kelly would direct. He did direct the new sequences of That's Entertainment II, but for all extents and purposes The Cheyenne Social Club would be the last film he directed. I do find this sad to a large degree. The conventional wisdom has always been that in the team of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, it was Donen who had the bulk of the directorial talent. And, given Donen's career (without Kelly he directed Royal Wedding, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Charade, among other films) it is hard to argue that line of thought. But it can not be said that Kelly was not a talented director in his own right. While The Happy Road and Hello, Dolly may have misfired, Kelly directed several other movies on his own that hold up quite well. Indeed, I would say that Invitation to the Dance, A Guide to the Married Man, and The Cheyenne Social Club could be counted as classics. Although he is best known as a dancer, choreographer, singer, and actor, Kelly then deserves his fair share of credit as a director as well.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Samuel L. Jackson in Snakes on a Plane

The Seventies was perhaps the Golden Age of disaster movies. There was Earthquake. There was The Towering Inferno. There was The Poseidon Adventure. There was the seemingly never ending series of Airport movies. Nearly all of these movies featured ensemble casts of hasbeens or, if you wish to be more polite, retrocelebrities. Nearly all of them had plots so goofy that they veered well into camp. And nearly all of them had fairly high death tolls for their characters. The Seventies was also a decade with B horror movies full of, well, snakes. There were movies about people who turned into snakes (Ssss and Night of the Cobra Woman). Movies about people who controlled snakes (Snakes and Jennifer). And, inevitably, movies about snakes on the rampage (Rattlers). While the casts of these B movies were often filled with unknowns, they also featured their fair share of, um, retrocelebrities (Les Tremayne was the star of Snakes). And the plots were also so goofy that they veered into camp. And like the disaster movies, they could have some pretty big death tolls.

As a movie in which hundreds of deadly snakes are released on a plane, Snakes on a Plane is both a disaster movie and a horror movie full of snakes at the same time. Given this, it is perhaps the perfect Seventies movies, despite the fact that it was made in the Naughts. Indeed, it even features its share of retrocelebrities (Julianna Margulies of ER, Rachel Blanchard of the TV show Clueless, Todd Louiso, who may be best known from High Fidelity, and Lin Shaye, perhaps best known as the mom from Detroit Rock City). It also has one of the goofier plots to come down the pike in a while. The one thing that separates Snakes on a Plane from the disaster movies and B movies of the Seventies is that it is actually good.

Snakes on a Plane succeeds where the disaster movies failed in that it does not take itself too seriously. Director David Ellis and his writers apparently realised that they had a concept on their hands that was best played for fun. This is a film that is largely played tongue in cheek, with its fair share of over the top moments. What makes the movie even more fun is, that like any good place of camp (whether intentional, as in the Sixties Batman series, or unintentional as, well, some of those old disaster movies), the cast plays it straight. While the audience might see some humour in the situaton, it can be guaranteed that the characters don't.

Indeed, perhaps the best description of Snakes on a Plane is the way flight attendant Claire Miller (Margulies' character) describes turbulence on a plane--it is like a rollercoaster ride. Snakes on a Plane moves at a fast pace. There are plenty of frights in the film, even if one is not an ophidophobe (there is one scene in one of the plane's restrooms that I can guarantee will have the men in the audience squirming in their seats...). There is also plenty of action and suspense, as FBI agent Neville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson playing one of his baddest heroes) must not only battle hundreds of snakes, but keep the plane in the air as well. Even the climax, which stretches the bounds of believability pretty far, is exciting. The film even has a good deal of sex appeal (I must admit that I find the blonde flight attendant Tiffany, played by Sunny Mabrey, to be a total babe).

Regardless of what others might say, I personally believe Snakes on a Plane is a great film. Indeed, it is perhaps the most fun I have had at the movies all year (even counting Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest). This is a film that delivers what it promises--a good, solid, popcorn movie full of frights and thrills. There simply aren't enough of those these days.

Of course, I am guessing some of you may be asking, "If it is so good, then why wasn't its weekend box office better (for those of you who haven't heard, it only made 15.3 million dollars)?" As you might expect, I think it simply fell victim to its own hype. For literally months now there has been a good deal of buzz on the World Wide Web about this movie. And I think that buzz may well have resulted in a backlash against the movie. Indeed, I can't really blame people if they decided not to see the film after all the hype. After all, the last time I can remember that there was this much hype about a small film was The Blair Witch Project, which was a total dud in the minds of many (including myself). Regardless, I am encouraging everyone to ignore the hype, ignore those reviews that claim this is not even a good movie, and go see this film. Believe me, you'll be thanking me on your way out of the theatre.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Nero Wolfe...Merely a Genius

From childhood I have always enjoyed mystery novels and movies. Among the best mystery novels and novellas were those written by Rex Stout featuring the deductive genius Nero Wolfe. The novels and novellas are written in a breezy, friendly, and easy to read tone (told from the point of view of Wolfe's aide Archie Goodwin). They also feature some of the most complex and original mysteries ever to see print.

Nero Wolfe was created by Stout in the Thirties and first appeared in the novel Fer-de-Lance in 1934. Wolfe was unlike any detective ever seen in print. Perhaps the most noticeable thing about him was his sheer size. Wolfe stood 5 foot 11 inches tall and weighed 278 pounds (that's nearly 20 stone, for those of you in the Commonwealth). And while many fictional detectives were known for their eccentricies, Wolfe is arguably more eccentric than most. Although hardly agorophobic, Wolfe rarely left his brownstone and had a general rule (sometimes broken, but not often) of not doing business outside it. He kept a rigid schedule from which he almost never departed (what's more, Wolfe would become very upset if forced to depart from it). He was an absolute lover of luxury. Wolfe was a gourmand who employed his own personal cook (Fritz Brenner, who prepared all of his meals) and sometimes even cooked himself. He drank only the best beer (Remmers) and copious amounts of it. Atop his brownstone Wolfe kept 10,000 orchids, cared for by Theodore Horstmann. Wolfe also despised exercise of any sort (a walk around the block would be considered strenuous by him). Of course, above all else, Wolfe was a deductive genius and knew he was such (in Fer-de-Lance Wolfe tells his aide Archie Goodwin, "I am merely a genius, not a god."). Given his enormous ego, Wolfe could be tempermental and given to fits of pique over the smallest things (such as his strict schedule being violated, someone questioning his ability as a detective, and so on). Of course, it must be pointed out that Wolfe was not always overweight and fearful of exercise. When young he was apparently a man of action.

Given Wolfe's dislike of leaving his brownstone and his many eccentricies, it is a wonder he ever became a detective. After all, common sense dictates that a detective would have to visit crime scenes, interview witnesses, and look for clues. In Wolfe's case, all of this is accomplished by his employee Archie Goodwin. Goodwin is often described as Wolfe's legman, although he is a bit more than that. Goodwin is also Wolfe's personal assistant, bookkeeper, and driver. Goodwin is a licensed private investigator and has enough talent as such that he could run his own agency (in fact, he does just that in the novel In the Best Families). Indeed, in many respects Goodwin is a much more traditional private eye than Wolfe is. Like many hard boiled detectives, Goodwin was a snazzy dresser with an eye for the ladies and a keen disrespect for authority. He was intimately familiar with the streets of New York City, and was skilled with both is fists and a gun (he kept a .32 in his suit). He was also gifted wtih an eidetic memory, so that he could recall nearly everything he had seen or heard, and could type faster than most stenographers. In some respects, Archie Goodwin could be considered the protagonist of the Nero Wolfe series moreso than Wolfe himself. The novels and novellas are narrated from his point of view and he appears in nearly every scene.

In creating Nero Wolfe, Rex Stout had a stroke of genius in that he blended three different subgenres of the detective novel. As someone who dislikes leaving his brownstone, Wolfe is almost literally an armchair detective. This links him to other such armchair detectives as Dr. Priestley and Hercule Poirot. At the same time, however, the Wolfe books have strong links to the genre of the hard boiled detective (such as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe). Like many of the hard boiled detectives, Wolfe (and to a lesser degree Goodwin as well) is a cynic who generally takes cases only for exorbitant fees. And while Wolfe almost never engages in physical confrontations (one gets the feeling he would think such beneath him), Goodwin sometimes gets into more than enough fights for both of them. Finally, it must be pointed out that Wolfe also fits the archetype of the deductive genius, of which Sherlock Holmes is the best known example. Like Holmes, Wolfe could solve a case with what might seem to others a few diverse clues.

Naturally, the series featured several continuing characters besides Wolfe and his household. In fact, Wolfe sometimes employed other operatives besides Archie. Most often this was Saul Panzer, often considered the best private detective in New York. Wolfe would ocassionally make use of Orrie Cather, a bright man who though he could replace Goodwin as Wolfe's assistant. And while Wolfe was often impatient with women, he did employ female detectives Dol Bonner and Sally Colt. Bonner actually appeared in a short story of her own, as well as a Tecumseh Fox (another Stout private detective) novel.

Naturally given Wolfe's profession, he occasionally crossed paths with the police. Most often this was in the form of Inspector Cramer, the head of Homicide in Manhattan. Cramer is a relatively intelligent, hard working, and honest cop who is often annoyed by Wolfe's eccentricities. Despite this fact, Cramer and Wolfe respect each other and, though both would probably be loath to admit it, probably even like each other. Cramer is assisted by Sgt. Purley Stebbins. Stebbins can be gruff, but he was also honest, brave, and hard working. While he and Archie occasionally get into it (Stebbins does not care for private eyes), it ultimately seems that they like each other. This is not the case with another police officer appearing in the series, Lieutenant George Rowcliffe. It is not that Rowcliffe is dishonest, but he is not particularly bright and his methods often leave a lot to be desired (he has no problem badgering witnesses). Wolfe and Rowcliffe had been at odds ever since Rowcliffe executed a search warrant on Wolfe's brownstone.

In addition to the police, Wolfe also dealt with other professionals. His lawyer was Nathaniel Parker. Parker is actually one of Wolfe's few friends, the two having known each other for years. Another of Wolfe's friends is Dr. Vollmer, who lives down the street from the brownstone. Vollmer is often called upon to examine the dead bodies that have a habit of turning up in Wolfe's cases.

Nero Wolfe was a success almost from the beginning. Stout wrote nearly one Nero Wolfe novel a year until his death. He also wrote several novellas featuring Wolfe and Goodwin. The first two novels (Fer-De-lance and The League of Frightened Men) were made into movies (Meet Nero Wolfe from 1936 and The League of Frightened Men from 1937). Sadly, Stout was disappointed in how the movies turned out and forbade any more film or television adaptations of the Nero Wolfe stories. There were several radio shows based on the series (one in 1943, one from 1945-1946, one from 1950 to 1951, and finally one that aired on the CBC in 1982). Despite Stout's wishes, Nero Wolfe would finally make it to television following his death. In 1977 Paramount made a failed pilot starring Thayer David as Wolfe and Tom Mason as Goodwin. In 1981 there was a short lived series that aired on NBC. While William Conrad (best known as Cannon of the series of the same name) was perfectly cast as Wolfe, I always thought Lee Horsley was hardly suited to play Archie Goodwin (he is a bit too stout--I always thought of Goodwin as being lankier). Worse yet, they decided to update the series to the Eighties. By far the best adaptation of Nero Wolfe in any medium was one that aired on A&E from 2001 to 2002. The series was set in a time period that appeared to be the Forties or Fifties. What is more, Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton were perfect as Wolfe and Goodwin respectively. It is a shame that A&E decided the series was too expensive to produce (apparently Dog the Bounty Hunter is cheaper....) and cancelled it.

Of course, given the success of Nero Wolfe it is not surprising that there has been some speculation given the character. Some of this has involved Wolfe's activities as a young man, but perhaps there is no more controversial subject than that of Wolfe's lineage. In a 1956 issue of The Baker Street Journal John D. Clark put forth the theory that Wolfe was the illegitimate son of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler (as Holmes called her, THE woman, featured in the Homes story A Scandal in Bohemia). In his fictional biography of Wolfe, Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-fifth Street: The Life and Times of America's Largest Private Detective, William S. Baring-Gould seconded this theory. And while Rex Stout wrote the introduction to this biography, he never confirmed nor denied the theory that Wolfe was indeed Holmes' son. That having been said, there are a few clues that could point in that direction. Wolfe resembles Sherlock Holmes's older brother Mycroft to a large degree. Both are deductive geniuses (in fact, Mycroft's talent at deduction was supposed to be greater than Sherlock's). Both are overweight. And both tend to avoid exercise. In fact, some have suggested that Mycroft would be a more likely candidate as Wolfe's father than Sherlock. Another possible clue is what may or may not be a coincidence in the vowels occuring in the same order in the names ShErlOck HOlmEs and NErO WOlfE. It must be also be pointed out that Wolfe's birthplace is Montenegro. It is concievable that a woman of the world such as Adler could have gone there after a tryst with Holmes. Of course, the most blantant clue is the portrait which hangs in Nero Wolfe's office. Although I can't recall that Stout ever came out and said that it was indeed a picture of Sherlock Holmes, he gave enough clues that nearly everyone has read very much of the series knows that it is indeed the famous detective. It is possible that Wolfe had the portrait in his office simply as a source of inspiration. But, then again, it is also possible that Wolfe kept the picture in his office for some far more important reason--namely, the man in the portrait was his father. Even though the evidence is nearly non-existent, I have always liked the idea that Nero Wolfe was the son of Holmes. It would seem to me fitting that the two greatest detectives in the English langauge should somehow be related.

As to the idea that it was Mycroft Holmes and not Sherlock Holmes who was Nero Wolfe's father, I have never liked that idea for two basic reasons. For one thing, I am one of those people who actually believes Sherlock was in love with Irene Adler (call me a romantic, but only a man smitten would speak of a woman the way Holmes does her....). It seems entirely realistic to me that at some point the two could have had a romantic relationship and even had a son together. For another, I honestly don't think Mycroft would exert himself enough to even ask a woman to dinner, much less anything else.... After all, we are talking about the one fictional character (well, maybe besides Maynard G. Krebs) who hates exercise and work more than Nero Wolfe himself!

Rex Stout died in 1975, but his most famous creation has outlived him. Robert Goldsborough wrote seven further adventues of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. John Lescroart wrote two books about a son of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Alder named Auguste Lupa, who is strongly hinted to be none other than Nero Wolfe as a young man. A fan club dedicated to Nero Wolfe, the Wolfe Pack, has been around since 1977. They meet every year in New York City. Like possible father, Sherlock Holmes, I rather suspect Nero Wolfe's popularity will continue unabated. No doubt the rotund detective will still be popular in 2076, a full century after Stout's death.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Bruno Kirby Passes On

Character actor Bruno Kirby died August 14 at the age of 57. He was best known for playing the archetypal New Yorker in various movies and TV shows. He died from complications resulting from leukaemia.

Bruno Kirby was born Bruno Giovanni Quidaciolu, Jr. on April 28, 1949 in New York City. His father, Bruce Kriby, is also an actor (best known as Sergeant Kramer on Columbo). Bruno Kirby made his film debut in The Young Graduates in 1971. Throughout the Seventies he played small parts in such films as The Harrad Experiment, Baby Blue Marine, and Between the Lines. He made guest apperances on such series as Room 222, Columbo, and Kojak.

Kirby came into his own in the Eighties. In 1981 he played Albert Brooks' fellow film editor in Modern Romance. In 1984 he appeared as fast talking chauffer Tommy Pischedda in This is Spinal Tap (in my opinion, his best role). He would go onto appear in such movies as When Harry Met Sally (one of his best known roles, as Jess), City Slickers (where he played Ed Furillo, another one of his best known roles), and Donnie Brasco. He was a regular on It's Gary Shandling's Show. He also made guest appearances on Frasier, Mad About You, and Entourage.

I always liked Bruno Kirby. As a character actor he had a definite gift for comedy. He was perfectly cast in both When Harry Met Sally and City Slickers, perhaps the best foil that Billy Crystal ever had. It is certainly sad to know that he is gone, and gone all too soon.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A Bygone Era

Today I feel a bit down. Much of this is due to the fact that it is allergy season. Much of it is due to the fact that I am none too happy with the state of my life. I realise that more often than not when I mention the way I feel in this blog I am unhappy. Believe it or not, there was a time when I was happy, but that seems to have been long ago.

Anyhow, today my mind turns to an episode of The Andy Griffith Showw called "Man in a Hurry." In this episode a businessman from out of town, Malcolm Tucker, becomes stranded in Mayberry on a Sunday when his car stalls. He becomes increasingly frustrated as he tried to get his car fixed. It seems that the local mechanic, Wally, takes Sunday off and simply won't fix the car until Monday. Today this episode might seem a bit quaint to many, but there was a time when many places in America simply shut down on Sunday. Indeed, there was a time when businesses even in big cities would close on that day.

Of course, much of the reason for this was the fact that at one time the separation of church and state in the United States was not quite as clearly drawn as it is now. As a result many areas of the United States passed what is known as blue laws. These were laws that were meant to enforce observation of the Christian Sabbath. Because of these blue laws many businesses were strictly forbidden from operating on Sunday (exceptions were often made for grocery stores and drug stores). Even today many states still forbid the selling of alcohol on Sunday. Here I must point out that even when blue laws did not forbid a business from opening on Sunday, many such businesses would voluntarily close on this day. An example of this is from the aforementioned Andy Griffith Show episode. It is clear from the episode that Mayberry does not forbid the repair of cars on Sunday, yet Wally does not open his shop on that day. Quite simply, between blue laws and business simply closing on Sunday voluntarily, there was a time in the United States when very few businesses would be open on Sunday.

I am not Christian, but I must admit that there is an appeal in setting aside a day when very few businesses are open. Something I have observed that has changed from when I was a youngster is that American life moves at a much faster pace than it once did. There was a time when, like Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show, life was downright laconic in American small towns. That time has long since passed. While the pace is much slower in small town America than it is in, say, New York City, it is still much faster than it once was. Setting aside a day when the majority of population could relax and rest and take a break from things could well be a good idea. Whether that day is Sunday really wouldn't make any difference to me. To me it's not the particular day off that would matter, it is simply having a day off when the usually fast pace of American life could, if not come to a halt, at least slow down.

Of course, I must admit that if this came to pass, I might well eat my words. I must admit that while I like the idea of people having a day off, I never much cared for blue laws. I like the convenience of being able to buy things on Sunday, without having to wait for Monday before I can do so. I rather suspect most Americans probably share in this view. Perhaps rather than having a day off Americans should just slown down. If Americans have greater health problems than other countries it could well be because so many of us insist on living at a pace to which the human body is not suited. Productivity and efficiency are admirable traits, but there comes a time when stopping and smelling the roses is important as well.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Bob Thaves R.I.P.

Cartoonist Bob Thaves, creator of the comic strip Frank and Ernest, died of respiratory failure at age 81 on April 1, 2006.

Thaves attended the University of Minnesota where he received both a Bachelors degree and a Masters degree in psychology. He was still in college when he started selling cartoons to various magazines.

It was in 1972 that Frank and Ernest was first published. The single panel strip featured the observations (often filled with puns) of two old men named, of course, Frank and Ernest. Frank and Ernest were not always featured as human beings. In fact, they could appear as nearly anything--animals, vegetables, home appliances, and so on. The comic strip was revolutionary in other ways as well. It was the fist newspaper comic strip to feature comic book style, block lettering, the first to utilise digital colouring, and the first to feature its creator's email address. It was among the first comic strips to have its own web site. In 1997 Thaves's son Tom began collaborating with him on the strip. He has now taken it over completely.

Thaves also drew a similar, single panel strip, King Baloo, in the Eighties.

Over the years Thaves won many awards. He won the National Cartoonist Society Newspaper Panel Cartoon Award in 1983, 1984, and 1986. He won the H. L. Mencken Award for Best Cartoon in 1985. And in 1990 he was named Best Punster.

Growing up I enjoyed Frank and Ernest. The gags did not always work. Sometimes the puns were truly atrocious. But it had an honesty and genuine quality to it lacking in many comic strips of the late Twentieth Century. It certainly looked like no other comic strip before or since it. It is sad to know that Thaves is gone.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Late Great Mike Douglas

Talk show host and television pesonality Mike Douglas died yesterday. It was his 81st birthday. For 21 years Douglas was the host of The Mike Douglas Show, one of the most popular talk shows in the history of television.

Mike Douglas was born Michael Delaney Dowd, Jr. on August 11, 1925 in Chicago. During the latter part of World War II he served in the Navy. Afterwards he was a "staff singer" for Chicago station WMAQ-TV. He went onto become a singer for Kay Kyser's big band. It was Kyser who gave him his stage name, "Mike Douglas." After Kyser retired in 1951, Douglas continued singing in night clubs and on the road.

It was in 1961 that Cleveland TV station WKYC hired Douglas as an afternoon talk show host. The programme was a winner in the ratings and in 1963 it went into national syndication. In 1965 the show would move with the station to Philadelphia. The format of The Mike Douglas Show was simple. Douglas would interview various guests, usually interspersed with songs sung by Douglas himself (he often claimed his show was not a talk show, but a music show with interviews in between the numbers). A unique feature of The Mike Douglas Show is that he would sometimes feature weeklong guest co-hosts. Among the co-hosts for the show were Fred Astaire, Jim Nabors, and, perhaps the most famous co-hosts of them all, John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

On his show Douglas interviewed everyone from entertainers to politicians. His guests included Gene Kelly, Burt Reynolds, Muhammed Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., and Richard Nixon. The Mike Douglas Show could also boast several firsts. The show featured early appearances by Barbara Streisand. It featured the first interviews with rock group KISS. It also featured the first television appearance of Tiger Woods, showing off his golf swing at age 2.

At its height The Mike Douglas Show reached around 6 million viewers a day. It won five Emmy Awards. The show moved to Los Angeles in 1978. It left the air in 1981.

Mike Douglas also did the singing for Prince Charming in the Disney animated classic Cinderella. In 1953 he was one of the singers on The Music Show. He also made various appearances on television shows throughout his career.

For me Mike Douglas is a bit of a fond childhood memory. The Mike Douglas Show aired the entirety of my childhood (I was 18 when it finally left the air). Much of the appeal of the show was not knowing precisely what to expect in the way of guests. Rock groups such as The Rolling Stones and Jefferson Airplane might be on one moment, while an important figure such as Richard Nixon could be on the next. Douglas sang at least one song on nearly every show and the show also featured comedy skits from time to time. In many respects Mike Douglas was right in saying that people were mistaken in thinking his show was a talk show. In truth, it was probably best described as an afternoon variety show. Of course, the show itself would not have been a success without Douglas. A talented singer, Douglas was the perfect talk show host--affable, gracious, and always wanting to make his guests look as good as possible. Very talk shows have matched Douglas's skill as a host. And for that reason very few have matched his success either. There certainly won't be another like him.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Nowhere Man

Nowhere Man

With UPN and the WB soon to be extinct (the two are merging to form the new network CW), I thought it might be a good idea to write about a series from the early days of UPN. Many of you might remember that when UPN first began, its focus was on hour long action series with the goal of attracting a young male audience. In its first few months such series as Star Trek: Voyager, Legend, and Marker aired on the young network. Most of those series were forgettable, with two exceptions. One was Star Trek: Voyager. The other was a series called Nowhere Man. Although only running one season, it would go onto become a bit of a cult series. The complete series was released on DVD December 26, 2005, giving me a chance to see it again nearly ten years after it originally aired.

For those of you who never saw Nowhere Man (which I am taking for granted is most of you), Nowhere Man starred Bruce Greenwood as Thomas Veil. Veil was a documentary photographer who abruptly finds his entire life "erased." His friends and family (even his wife) don't recognise him. The keys to his home and his studio will no longer open any doors in those places. His ATM and credit cards no longer work. In fact, any record of his existence is gone. Veil does not know precisely why this happened, but he suspects that it might have to do with a photograph he took in South America. It seems some secret organisation, a conspiracy with people in high places, want the negatives to that photograph. And they will do anything to get it from him. As a result, Veil must flee for his life, travelling from place to place in an effort to uncover the truth about the conspiracy and why his life was erased. Effectively, it was a cross between The Fugitive and The Prisoner.

Nowhere Man was created by Lawerence Hertzog, a TV writer with credits including Stingray and Hart to Hart. He would later work on the USA Network's La Femme Nikita. The series came about after UPN executive Michael Sullivan appraoched Hertzog about creating a series for the new network. With literally on a few months before the nework debuted, Hertzog was under pressure to deliver a quality series to the network on time. Hertzog apparently worked well under pressure, as Nowhere Man was easily the best show on UPN besides Star Trek: Voyager. Indeed, the series was well received by critics, even getting a sterling review from no less than The New York Times.

In its short run (only 25 episodes were ever made) Nowhere Man produced some of the most remarkable episodes in Nineties series television. In "Something About Her" the Organisation (as the conspiracy was called in many episodes of the show) created virtual memories of a romance that never happened in Veil's mind in an attempt to get information out of him. In "The Spider Webb" Veil finds out that his life after it had been erased is serving as the basis for a cheap, public access TV series. "You Really Got a Hold of Me" featured another man (played by Dean Stockwell) whose life had been erased and had been on the run for 25 years. "Forever Young" featured a nursing home which was conducting experiments in the restoration of youth to the elderly. "Stay Tuned (one of two episodes that could be seen as homages to The Prisoner)" centred on a small town where nearly every single resident is entralled with a local politician and his TV show. "Through a Lens Darkly" saw Veil return to Missouri and an old house where he is tormented by memories of his childhood sweetheart.

While much of the quality of Nowhere Man was due to its writing, the series was also helped by the qualtiy of its guest stars. Many of them were well established actors. In the pilot Michael Tucker (of L. A. Law) played a psychiatrist. In "You Really Got a Hold on Me" Dean Stockwell played the man who had been on the run from the Organisation for 25 years. In "Father" Dean Jones played Veil's father. Dwight Schultz, of A-Team and Star Trek: the Next Generation fame, guest starred in the episode "Hidden Agenda." The final episode, "Gemini Man," featured Hal Linden (of Barney Miller fame) as a United States senator. The series also featured actors who would later become stars. Carrie Moss (later to become famous for The Matrix trilogy) guest starred in "Something About Her." Maria Bello was featured in the episode "An Enemy Within." Nowhere Man also benefited from some of the most talented directors in the business. Film director Tobe Hooper directed the pilot and the second episode, while veteran TV directors James Whitmore Jr., Stephen Stafford, and Ian Toynton all directed episodes.

None of this is to say that Nowhere Man was a perfect TV show. While it produced some truly great episodes and the majority of its run was good at best, it did produce some truly awful episodes as well. "A Rough Whimper of Insanity" attempted to capitalise on both the Internet and Virtual Realtiy (both fads at the time) and failed in doing either. "It's Not Such a Wonderful Life" featured a Chrismtas reunion with Veil's wife with the expected results. "Heart of Darkness" is a fairly pedestrian episode dealing with a paramilitary organisation. Fortunately, such episodes were generally few and far between.

As mentioned previously, Nowhere Man received fairly good reviews. It also did well in the ratings given that it was on a brand new and very small network (at least when compared to such major players as NBC and CBS). Sadly, good ratings would not be enough for the show to survive. During is first season on the air UPN saw changes which would result in a decision to focus on urban comedies instead of action series as it originally intended. There were many in the upper eschelons at UPN who simply did not like Nowhere Man to begin with. With the series out of favour with many network heads and not exactly reflecting the new direction UPN chose to take (it was hardly an urban comedy), Nowhere Man was cancelled at the end of its first and only season. The bitter irony is that Nowhere Man and many of the other action series which aired on the network in its first year received higher ratings than the urban comedies it would later air. In fact, I have to wonder if much of the failure of UPN (the ultimate result of which was its merger with the WB) was due to its decision to change directions in its first season.

Fortunately, Nowhere Man would not be forgotten and has remained a cult series ever since it first aired. This would, of course, result in the relatively recent release of its entire run on DVD. The DVD set is remarkable for a TV show, especially one that run only one season. The set features several extras. Many of the episodes have audio commentaries, and sometimes video commentaries as well. There are several featurettes on various aspects of the making of the series. There is even a short featurette on purported CIA mind control techniques on the last disc of the set entitled "Fact or Fiction (I personally found this a bit far fetched, if interesting--conspiracy theorists may feel free to disagree with me)." Among the best part of the extras are the scripts for every single episode of Nowhere Man, which one can download to his or her computer.

Although it had its share of bad episodes, Nowhere Man was a remarkable series for its time. In fact, in some ways it was a bit of ahead of its time. First, since Nowhere Man first aired there have been several successful, cerebral action series. The USA Network had La Femme Nikita (which Lawrence Hertzog himself would work on). ABC has had Alias and Lost. F/X has The Shield. Nowhere Man would fit in perfectly with all these series. In fact, I rather suspect that had it aired just a few years later, it may have found a home on one of the various cable channels. Second, when Nowhere Man first aired, identity theft was relatively rare. In the ten years since the show originally aired, identity theft has increased dramatically, making the series even more pertinent than it once was. Its questons regarding the nature of identity and the tension between the individual and the group remain as relevant as ever. While it is regrettable that Nowhere Man only lasted one season, it remains one of the most fascinating series of the Nineties and probably will not soon be forgotten.

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Arthur Lee R.I.P.

Arthur Lee, best known as frontman and guitarist for Sixties rock group Love, died August 3 at the age of 61 from acute myeloid leukaemia.

Arthur Lee was born in Memphis on March 7, 1945. While he was still young, Lee's family moved to Los Angeles. It was in the early Sixties that he formed his first band, an instrumental group called Arthur Lee and the LAGs. They released one single, "The Ninth Wave," on Capitol Records in 1963. It would be Arthur Lee who would hire guitarist Jimi Hendrix for his first recording session. Producing "My Diary (a song which Lee also wrote)" for Rosa Lee Brooks, he hired the young Hendrix to play guitar on the record. Lee also wrote songs for Ronnie And The Pomona Casuals ("The Slow Jerk") "I've Been Tryin'" for Little Ray.

Drawn to the folk rock sound of The Byrds and the British Invasion bands (such as The Beatles), Lee formed a band called The Grass Roots with drummer Don Conka, guitarist Johnny Echols, and bassist Johnny Fleckenstein. Bryan MacLean, who had been a road manager for The Byrds, would be asked to join as vocalist and another songwriter. It was not long before the band as to change their name (there was already another Los Angeles band called The Grassroots). Considering such names as "Summer's Children" and "Dr. Strangelove," they eventually settled on the name "Love." Their self titled first album was released in 1966 and featured an early version of the song "Hey, Joe." At this point Love sounded liked The Byrds crossed with a garage band. Later in the year they would release their only top forty hit, "7 and 7 Is," which went to number 33 on the Billboard pop charts.

Love would only release two more albums with anything close to its original lineup. Da Capo appeared in January 1967. Besides featuring the single "7 and 7 Is," it also featured such songs as "She Comes in Colours" and "Stephanie Knows Who." The album spanned musical styles from garage rock ("7 and 7 Is" and "Stephanie Knows Who") to more melodic ("She Comes in Colours"). Their third and final album, Forever Changes, was released in November 1967. The album was a mix of Love's expected garage rock, sweeter sounds produced with violins, and outright psychedelia. Although the album did well in the UK, it bombed in the U.S. What is more, by this time the group was falling apart. Eventually, everyone left the band except Lee. Lee would form new bands called "Love" well into the late Seventies.

In addition to his work with Love, Lee released three solo albums (Vindicator in 1972, Black Beauty in 1973, and Arthur Lee in 1981. He eventually dropped out of sight entirely before reemerging with Arthur Lee & Love and the album of the same name in 1992. Sadly in 1996 he was convicted of owning an illegal firearm under California statutes and sentenced to 12 years. He would serve only five, being released in 2001. In 2002 he would start touring with a reconstituted Arthur Lee and Love.

Arthur Lee was an influence on such asrtists as Pink Floyd (in fact, he has been compared to Syd Barrett), Led Zeppelin, and Echo and the Bunnymen. Lee and his band Love lacked any one sound, as their albums often cut across such genres as garage rock, psychedelia, and blues. Although very few people today probably recognise the names "Arthur Lee" or "Love," they have had a lasting influence on rock music.

Sunday, August 6, 2006

Midnight Movies

Those of you who are in your Thirties or Forties may well remember, after a busy Friday or Saturday night, going to the midnight Movie. For those of you who are too young too remember, midnight movies were a weekend ritual which originated in the early Seventies and persisted in some form or another until the late Eighties. Currently there only a few threatres across the country (most located in urban areas) which still show midnight movies.

While midnight movies are generally considered to have originated in the Seventies, in some respects they were nothing new. The spook shows of the Twenties and Thirties could well be considered their predecessors. spook shows were a peculiar form of entertainment usually consisting of one or two horror movies, a magic show (often containing Grand Guignol special effects, hypnosis routines, and spiritualistic routines, and often costumed monsters and ghosts). Often they were hosted by characters one would later find on late night horror movie television shows (in the spook shows they were often called "ghostmasters"). Spook shows were themesevles descended from the Spiritualist Movement. With the popularity of the Spiritualist Movement in the late 19th Century many magicians would incorporate seance routines into their acts. Most of these magicians made it clear that they were not contacting the dead and that their seances were for entertainment purposes only. Regardless, they often called their midnight shows "spook nights." With the introduction of motion pictures, these spook nights became spook shows. Spook shows continued in popularity until the Sixties and Seventies, when television and other home entertainment media took their toll.

Discounting the spook shows (which did not occur on a regular schedule), the first true midnight movie is generally considered El Topo. An underground film made in 1970 by director Alejandro Jodorowsky, El Topo is a bizarre and violent blend of spagetti Western, Eastern philosophy, Christian symbolism, ultraviolence, and surrealistic imagery. The film opened in 1968 in Mexico to immdediate controversy. It would not be released in the United States until December 18, 1970 and might not have been seen at all had it not been because of Ben Barenholtz, owner of New York City's Elgin Theatre. Barenholtz caught the film at a prviate screening at the Museum of Modern Art. Barenholtz was struck by the film and succeeded in persuading the film's distributor(music producer Alan Douglas) to allow him to show the film midnights at the Elgin. It was Barenholtz's thoughts that the midnight showings would attract the hip crowd to whom the movie would mostly likely appeal. He turned out to be right. El Topo made its debut at the Elgin on December 18, 1970, running until June 1971. With virtually no advertising, it became a smash hit at the theatre.

With the success of midnight movies at the Elgin, other theatres would eventually follow suit. In fact, for much of the Seventies, at least in large metropolitan areas, it would be hard to find a theatre which did not have midnight movies on its bill. Among the theatres best known for their midnight movies were the Elgin in New York City (where it all started), the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee, and the Orson Welles Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

While midnight movies proved popular, however, there seems to have been no consistency in what would make for a successful midnight movie. El Topo was an art film, albeit a strange and violent one. A few art films would be successful on the midnight movie circuit. Indeed, director David Lynch's first movie would turn out to be one of the most successful midnight movies of all time. Eraserhead is a surreal film in which dream sequences intermix with a decidely strange reality. What it is ulitmately about is anyone's guess (my best friend has the theory that it is about the horror of being a young parent in modern industrialised society, but he could be wrong....). It would run at the Elgin for years.

Of course, only a few midnight movies would actually qualify as art films. Sometimes they could best be described as "trash." This might well be the best description for Pink Flamingos, the first successful film from director Roger Waters. Pink Flamingos has been described by Waters himself as "an exercise in bad taste," and that is perhaps the best possible description for it. There is something guaranteed to shock, offend, or sicken nearly eveyrone (the climax alone will proably make most people sick). The movie's sheer shock value led to it becoming one of the more sucessful midnight movies of all time.

The power to shock may also lie behind the success of what may be the quintessential midnight movie, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Based on the stage musical The Rocky Horror Show and released in the United States in the United States on September 25, 1975, it was a colossal failure in its first run. This was perhaps with good reasons. For one thing, the movie covered ground where the typical viewing audience feared to tread; transvestitism, bisexuality, incest, voyeurism, and even cannibalism all appear in the film. For another, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was an odd blend of sci-fi/horror spoof and musical, with references to everything from Forbidden Planet to Lili St. Cyr. Having been a failure in its first run, Twentieth Century Fox decided to give the movie a new life as a midnight movie. On April 1, 1976, The Rocky Horror Picture Show made its debut as a midnight movie at the Waverly in Greenwich Village. The movie proved to be a hit at the Waverly and was soon showing up at other theatres. With the movie's success there also developed a strange relationship between the film and its fans. Starting out with fans simply talking back to the screen, eventually there would evolve a full fledged ritual in which fans would dress as their favourite characters, dance the Time Warp, and even recite lines of dialogue. Quite simply, The Rocky Horror Picture Show became what could be considered the first audience participation movie! Showing at some theatres for literally decades, it is arguably the biggest midnight movie of all time.

Of course, pivotal in the success of The Rocky Horror Picture Show may well have been its music. Music would be central to the success of many midnight movies. In fact, one of the earliest successes on the midnight movie circuit was The Harder They Come, a 1972 Jamaican movie starring reggae singer Jimmy Cliff. Among other things it helped popularise reggae in the United States. Another successful midnight movie to feature music was more in The Rocky Horror Picture Show mould. Directed by Brian Palma and featuring songs by Paul Williams, Phantom of the Paradise was a spoof combinging The Phantom of the Opera with the Faust legend. Like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Phantom of the Paradise failed in its initial release, but recieved a new life as a midnight movie. It remains a cult film to this day. Forbidden Zone was another sci-fi/fantasy spoof that was also a musical. Released in 1980, it featured an early appearance by Danny Elfman and his band Oingo Boingo.

Other midnight movies centred upon the music of popular rock groups. Quadrophenia was a 1979 film based on The Who album of the same name. Pink Floyd: The Wall was based on the Pink Floyd album of that name. In some respects, Pink Floyd: The Wall may have been the ideal midnight movie. It was a surrealistic art film with shocking imagery and rock music.

Of course, not all midnight movies were fairly recent releases (independent movies like Eraserhead or failed pictures from major studios like The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Older movies wound up on the midnight movie circuit as well. George Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead received a new life as a midnight movie. Its sequels would follow in its footsteps. Another older film to be a hit as a midnight movie was 1936 film entitled Tell Your Children. It was originally released as a serious drama about the evils of marijuana. It would later be bought by exploitation maven Dwain Esper, who rechristened the film Reefer Madness and spiced it up with some more salacious inserts. Rediscovered in 1971, with its poor production values and wild overacting (not to mention some pretty inaccurate demonstratons of the effects of pot), Reefer Madness became something of a camp classic as a midnight movie.

As I said earlier, there seems to have been no consistency with regards to what would make a successful midnight movie. Indeed, it perhaps should not surprise me that films produced by the Hollywood studios that did fairly well at the box office would have afterlives as midnight movies. The Goonies was produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Richard Donner. Released in 1985, it placed among the top ten grossing movies of that year. Surprisingly it would later become a hit as a midnight movie, perhaps largely due to the children of the Eighties. It is perhaps one of the few instances in which a family film has also become a midnight movie. Stand By Me, the 1986 Rob Reiner film based on a Stephen King novella, is another example of a film successful in its original run that later became a hit midnight movie.

It was in the late Seventies that midnight movies began to go into decline. In the Eighties they would go into an even sharper decline. The enormous growth of cable in the late Seventies and early Eighties and the advent of the VCR were perhaps responsible for midnight movies fading in popularity. Eventually, even such famous midnight movie venues as the Elgin and the Orson Welles would close their doors. Today only a few theatres in a few large cities still have regular midnight showings of movies. The era of midnight movies would be remembered on various cable channels. From 1981 to 1988, the USA Network aired Night Flight, a TV series that not only showed music videos and film shorts, but many midnight movies as well (I remember them showing Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains). More recently premium channel Encore has had midnight movie marathons and even produced a documentary based on the book Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream.

Given that midnight movies are a fond memory of my youth, I find it sad that they are no longer as common as they once were. I never regularly attended midnight movies, as the theatres here in Randolph County never showed them. But I did get to see a good many midnight movies at the Kennedy, a beautiful old theatre done in Colonial Revival design that was once in Kirksville. Unlike theatres in larger cities, it generally did not show specific midnight movies for weeks or months (let alone years) at a time. One Friday and Saturday one might be able to watch Quadrophenia; the next weekend the midnight show might be Black Christmas. Of course, there were midnight movies that had many return engagements at the Kennedy--most notably The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Quadrophenia. More often than not, many members of the audience would be drunk (I must confess, I was one of those--I was in college, okay...) or worse. I remember one weekend in December when my brother, our friends, and myself had been awake for over 72 hours. That Friday we went to the Kennedy to watch a midnight double feature of A Boy and His Dog and Scanners. We returned the second night to watch the same double feature because our friend Carol (the only one of us who had gotten some sleep) had been drunk the night before and couldn't remember the movies. As it turned out, all of us fell asleep during A Boy and His Dog (except Carol--he was wide awake) and had the misfortune to wake up during the expoding brain portion of Scanners--not the first thing you want to see in that twilight between sleep and wakefulness! Regardless, I did enjoy watching the midnight movies at the Kennedy. And many films that were hits as midnight movies rank among my favourite films (Phantom of the Paradise, Pink Floyd: The Wall, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and so on). I do think it is a shame that only a few theatres now show midnight movies. Quite honestly, I think they offered an experience that no VCR, DVD player, or cable channel ever can.

Thursday, August 3, 2006

Kurt Kreuger R.I.P.

Actor Kurt Kreuger died July 12, 2006 at the age 89 from a stroke. Kreuger was perhaps best known for playing both Nazis and film noir villains in several movies.

Kreuger was born on July 23, 1916 in Michenberg, Germany. He grew up in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Kreuger studied both economics and medicine, but ultimately chose acting for a career. Kreuger made his film debut in Mystery Sea Raider (directed by Edward Dmytryk) in 1940. In 1941 he appeared on Broadway in the drama Candle in the Wind. The next few years Kreuger would appear in various bit parts, usually as various German or Nazi military officers. His breakthrough role came in Sarhara in which he played Captain von Schletow, the German fighter pilot shot down and held captive by an American tank crew. Unfortunately, Kreuger found himself typecast as a Nazi in Hollywood films. He played Nazi officers in None Shall Escape, Hotel Berlin, and Paris Underground.

Fortunately, following World War II, Kreuger began to appear in parts other than Nazis and assorted German officers. Starting with The Spider in 1945, Kreuger would play a succession of bad buys in film noir movies. He played what could have been a break through role in the Preston Sturges film Unfaithfully Yours. In the black comedy, Kreuger appeared as Anthony, a scoundrel who openly flirts with the wife of insanely jealous symphony conductor Sir Alfred de Carter (played by Rex Harrison). Unfortunately, Harrison's lover at the time, Carole Landis, committed suicide and Twentieth Century Fox, fearing a scandal, failed to promote the movie. It died at the box office and in doing so left his careers in the doldrums. After another role as another German officer in Spy Hunt in 1950, Kreuger left the United States and Twentieth Century Fox in hopes of a film career in Europe.

In Europe Kreuger appeared in such films as Die Blaue Stunde directed by Veit Harlan and La Paura directed by Roberto Rosellini. Unfortunately, none of the films he made in Europe were successes. Starting in 1955 with a guest appearance on Crusader, the majority of Kreuger's work was in television . He made guest appearances on such series as The Five Fingers, 77 Sunset Strip, Perry Mason, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Combat, Mission Impossible, The Wild Wild West, and Get Smart. Eventually he went into real estate, in which he literally made millions of dollars.

Kreuger's later film work included the role of U-boat navigator Von Holen in The Enemy Below, the sadistic Captain Marcheck in Legion of the Doomed, and James Clark in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre. While at 20th Century Fox in the Forties he was their third most request male pinup.

Much over the years was made of Kreuger's blond good looks, although I think it was more important to note that he did have considerable talent. His performances in Sahara and Unfaithfully Yours were impressive. It is sad that he spent much of his career typecast as Nazi officers (a fact which he always resented), as he was capable of so much more. Er wird vermißt.

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Annoying Commercials

Even if you haven't seen it, if you spend any time at all on the Web you have probably heard of the commerical for HeadOn, a headache relief product. The commercial itself is very simple. It features a model against a simple background applying Head On to her forhead and repeats the slogan "HeadOn, apply directly to the forehead" three times. The commercial has created considerable buzz in that many believe that it is the most annoying commercial currently on television. Personally, I don't find it that annoying, especially not compared to other commercials.

Indeed, when it comes to commercials for pain relievers, the ad for HeadOn is positively pleasant in my opinion. Historically, I rather suspect that the most annoying commericals of all time may well have been those promoting Anacin. Starting in the Fifties with commercials that portrayed headaches as sledgehammers attacking the brain, I swear that the Anacin commercials were designed to give viewers headaches. Not only were they often accompanied by annoying graphics (such as the tiny sledgehammers or, in other commercials, lightning bolts), but the loudest and most annoying sounds possible in a commercial. As a child I simply could not stand these ads. But even now I can't complain that they did not sell their products. Their commercials having induced headaches in viewers, a lot of people probably rushed out to buy Anacin for "fast relief."

Of course, when it comes to loud, annoying commercials, I suspect no one has mastered the form like the automotive industry. I am sure you have seen these various commercials over the years; they usually air during the local news. Most of the time the volume on these commercials is as loud as they can legally be. In fact, I swear that their volume is usually three to four times louder than the average television programme. I have never been able to watch one without turning down the sound on my TV set.

While the old Anacin ads and the average car commercials are annoying because of their volume, other commercials are simply annoying because they are either repetitive, they are aesthetically unpleasing (poor grammar, bad rhymes, et. al.), they are seen by viewers as just plain stupid, or all of the above. A case of a series of commercials that is most likely all of the above are the ads for Dr. Scholl's Massaging Gel Pads. First, the ads are saddled with what could be the worst advertising slogan of all time--"Are you gellin'?" I have to wonder if Dr. Scholls' advertising agency did not think they were creating a catchphrase that would spread like wildfire and that "gellin'" would become an established part of American slang. If they did think so, then they were seriously mistaken. Most people I know seem to think the use of the word "gellin'" in any context beyond "to become a gel (which is a semisolid body...)" is just plain stupid. Second, as if the catchphrase itself wasn't annoying enough, they have to rhyme it in every way possible ad nauseum: "Are you gellin'?" "Like a felon;" Are you gellin'" "Like Magellan..." In the end I don't so much want to buy Dr. Scholl's Massaging Gel Pads as slap the folks in the commercials upside the head...

Of course, Dr. Scholls isn't the only big advertiser who has been saddled with a bad catchphrase. I'm sure many of you remember Anheuser-Busch Budweiser's "Whassup" campaign from several years ago. The original commercial simply consisted of a bunch of guys talking on the phone and repeating "Whassup" over and over. I think what is even sadder is that, unlike the Dr. Scholls "Are you gellin'?" slogan, for a time "Whassup" actually entered Amercian slang of the time. It even became a bit of phenomenon on the Internet for awhile, with parodies appearing almost immediately. Why the "Whassup" commercials caught on I will never know, as I find them among the most annoying commercials of all time. Indeed, they grated on my nerves even more when it seemed as if every child in my life insisted on repeating "Whassup" over and over again.

I think annoying ad slogans can often be made worse by annoying music. A perfect example is the most recent Old Navy commercial. Running throughout the commercial is one of the worst rap songs I have ever heard (which is saying a lot considering how much I hate rap), repeating the line "We've gotta get our fash' on" (or variations thereof) over and over. Besides using a song that is just plain bad, the commercials are all the more annoying for the slogan "Get your fash' on." Now I have always enjoyed good puns myself, but "Get your fash' on" is not a good pun by any stretch of the imagination.

The sad thing is that the song in the old Navy commercial isn't even the worst piece of music in a commercial these days. That honour would go to that horrible "Woo-hoo" song in Vonage's commercials. The song is repetitve and shrill and simply downright unpleasant to me. In fact, I can't see how people can even think of calling the HeadOn commercial the most annoying commercial on television when those Vonage ads are so much annoying. Their commercials don't make me want to run out and subscribe to Vonage. They do make me want to mute the television everytime that they come on.

Of course, I do not think that there will be a time when there are not annoying commercials on television. The sad fact is that, as much we might hate them, irritating commercials can often accomplish their goals better than more pleasant ads. Prior to the notorious commercial for HeadOn, I seriously doubt that very many people had even heard of the product. I now rather suspect that the majority of Americans have. And at least some Americans probably will buy HeadOn when they need headache relief. In that respect, the ad for HeadOn has done its job in promoting its product. As long as annoying commercials succeed in creating product awareness, they will continue to be part of the television landscape.