Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Amled, prinsen af Jylland (AKA Royal Deceit)

Most people in the English speaking world are familiar with William Shakespeare's play Hamlet. What they may not know is that the tale of Hamlet did not originate with Shakespeare. It appears in the fourth book of the Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus, a history of Denmark published in the 13th century. Saxo's tale is in many ways similar to that of Hamlet, but differs in many ways as well. In Saxo's version the father of Amleth (Hamlet is the Anglicised version), King Horvendill, is murdered by his brother Feng. And just as in Shakespeare's version, Amleth feigns madness. But in Saxo's version, Amleth never contrives to reveal Feng's guilt through staging a play. Instead, he bides his time, all the while discreetly disposing of Feng's followers. In the meantime, Feng is suspicious of Amleth and puts him through various tests in order to prove he is not mad. Needles to say, Amleth passes all of these tests, thus insuring his charade of insanity is maintained. Of course, it is unlikely that Saxo's version of the tale is the original and the story of Amleth probably predates the Gesta Danorum. The tale may have been part of the lost Skjoldunga Saga (an earlier history of the Danish kings or "Skoldungs") and probably formed a part of the Danish oral tradition.

Over the years, Shakespeare's version of the tale has been filmed many times. Insofar as I know, Saxo's older version of the Amleth legend has only been filmed once. Esteemed director Gabriel Axel had long wanted to adapt Saxo's story of Amleth for the big screen. In 1994 his dream saw fruition as the movie Amled, prinsen of Jylland, known throughout much of Europe as Prince of Jutland and in America as Royal Deceit. Amled, prinsen of Jylland is a very loyal adaptation of Saxo's version of the tale, as Amled (played by a young Christian Bale) feigns madness in order to avenge his father's death at the hands of Fenge (Gabriel Byrne).

The movie's strong point is simply the performances of its cast. Christian Bale is believable as Amled, convincing even when he is feigning madness. And Gabriel Byrne is suitably duplicitous as Fenge, making him an all too realistic villain. As might expected, Helen Mirren gives her usual good performance in the role of Geruth, Amled's mother. For those who enjoy seeing now famous actors in their early roles, there is Kate Beckinsale in one of her earliest film roles and Andy Serkis (best known as Gollum from The Lord of the Rings movies) in his very first film role.

The screenplay by Gabriel Axel and Erik Kjersgaard (who was also the historical advisor on the film) is also quite good. Rather than rush the plot, Axel and Kjersgaard give the movie a very deliberate pace, allowing things to unfold in time. They also give the characters some very fine dialogue fitting a story of murder and vengeance. And the locations, all of them in Denmark, are beautiful.

This is not to say that Amled, prinsen of Jylland is a perfect film. It does have its flaws, nearly all of them due to the fact that it was shot on a very low budget. Even in the Dark Ages, the nobility would have dressed a bit more elaborately than Amled and his family do. Indeed, it seems as if there was only one Thor's hammer pendant shared among the cast members! The battle scenes feature armies of no more than 40 to 50 men at most. While the Battle of Hastings took place several hundred years later than Amleth lived (if he ever really existed), it is notable that the English fielded an army estimated at seven to eight thousand and the Normans had an army of approximately the same size. It is in these ways that the low budget ultimately undermines some of the film's realism. At the same time the low budget also undermines the film's story. We are never shown the murder of Amled's father and brother--we are merely told that they are killed in the narration.

Beyond the constraints that the budget created, in many ways Amled, prinsen of Jylland feels like a movie that was never quite completed. The editing is sometimes only adequate and at yet other times downright poor. And much of the plot is told in the narration (the perfect example being the fact that the murder of Amled's father and brother are never portrayed in the film--we are simply told that they were murdered by the narrator).

Despite these flaws, Amled, prinsen af Jylland is certainly worth viewing, although it is certainly not suited to all tastes. Those accustomed to slick, Hollywood productions with a fast pace might well be put off by the movie. That having been said, for those who do not mind movies with lower budgets and that are not quite as lavish as those put out by the major studios might well appreciate this film. I would particularly recommend it to anyone interested in Germanic mythology, Danish history, or the Dark Ages. It has some very good performances and a compelling story that is very different from that we know from Shakespeare's play.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Three More Deaths

As if recently losing both Jack Palance and Robert Altman were not enough, there have been three more deaths of people were at least somewhat famous. Their names may not have been recognised by the general public, but these were individuals who had an impact on my life nonetheless.

The most famous of the three is probably Broadway lyrics and Hollywood screenwriter Betty Comden. She died 23 at the age of 89 from heart failure. Comden was part of a team with Adolph Green. Together they wrote the lyrics and often the books many Broadway shows. They were perhaps most famous for writing the screenplays to the classic movie musicals On the Town, Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and It's Always Fair Weather.

Betty Comden was born in New York City on May 13, 1917. She was studying drama at New York City University when she met Adolph Green, who was struggling to become an actor. The two formed their own troupe, called the Revuers. Comden and Green were not the only members of the group who would one day be famous. There was a young musician who accompanied them on piano named Leonard Bernstein who was part of the troupe, as well as a comedian who would one day become well known as Judy Holiday. The Revuers met with enough success to receive movie offers and made their movie debut in a very small part of Greenwich Village from 1944.

Their first real success would not be in the movies, however, but on Broadway. With Bernstein they collaborated on the musical On the Town, which centred on three sailors on leave in New York City. It ran from December 1944 to February 1946. Comden and Green's next few Broadway shows were not very successful, although by this time they had also met with success in Hollywood. They had written the screenplays for Good News and The Barkleys of Broadway. What cemented their success in Hollywood, however, was an adaptation of the show that brought them their first success on Broadway. They wrote the screenplay for the classic movie musical On the Town, starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as two of the sailors on leave in the Big Apple.

It would be the movies that would see Comden and Green reach the pinnacle of their artistic success. Singin' in the Rain starred Gene Kelly as silent star Donald Lockwood and Donald O'Connor as his sidekick in the last days of Hollywood's Silent Era. It is considered by many to be the greatest movie musical of all time, and it is definitely one of the most iconic. Even people who have never seen the film can recognise Kelly's dance with the umbrella to the title song.

Comden and Green followed up their success with Singin' in the Rain with screenplays for The Band Wagon and It's Always Fair Weather. Sadly, even after the success of Singin' in the Rain, Hollywood musicals were in decline. The bulk of Comden and Green's work would then be on the stage. Among their successes were Bells are Ringing, the revue A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Applause, and Wonderful Town.

The collaboration between Comden and Green produced some of the greatest theatrical musicals and movie musicals ever made. In fact, the success of their partnership led many to believe they were married. In response Comden and Green would always say they were...just not to each other. While they were never romantically involved, they shared a comic flair and a gift for dialogue unequalled on either Broadway or in Hollywood. I must admit, On the Town, Singin' in the Rain, and The Band Wagon number among my favourite movies.

Although not nearly as famous as Comden and Green, the creations of TV writer and producer Chris Hayward loom large in American pop culture. Hayward died November 20 at the age of 81 after a long illness. Hayward is perhaps most famous as the creator of Dudley Do-Right and one of the writers for Jay Ward's classic Rocky and Friends (later and better known as The Bullwinkle Show).

Hayward was born in Bayonne, New Jersey on June 19, 1925. His first work in television was on Jay Ward's Crusader Rabbit, the first cartoon created exclusively for television. He would come onto his own as a writer working on Ward's Rocky and Friends, for which he created the Dudley Do-Right segment. As a writer he would also write for such series as My Mother the Car, Get Smart, He and She, and Alice. He was a producer on Get Smart and Barney Miler. With Alan Burns he developed The Munsters and created the series My Mother the Car. He was nominated for Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series (for Barney Miller) and Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series (for the episode "The Hero," co-written with Danny Arnold) in 1976. He won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the episode "The Coming Out Party" of He and She, co-written with Alan Burns.

In addition to writing for television, Hayward was also a singer and songwriter. He had actually arranged music for dance orchestras and even sung on both the radio and on records.

Hayward was arguably one of the best television writers of the Sixties and Seventies. He possessed a dry wit and a gift for satire that would not be seen again until the debut of The Simpsons. He wrote some of the best episodes of the best shows of their time (Get Smart, He and She, and Barney Miller). And while there are many who believe that My Mother the Car is the worst show of all time, don't believe it for a minute. I have seen a few episodes of the notorious series, and at least two of them possessed the wry humour for which the team of Chris Hayward and Alan Burns were known.

The third important person who died was not nearly as famous as either Betty Comden or Chris Hayward, nor was he a creator of pop culture artefacts as they were. Instead, Dr. Jerry Bails was a student of pop cutlure--one of the first to take seriously the study of the medium of comic books. Jerry Bails died the night of November 23 at the age of 73 from a heart attack.

Jerry Bails was born on June 26, 1933. Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, he fell in love with comic books while still young. In particular, he became a devoted fan of the Justice Society of America (the JSA, for short), the first team of superheroes ever created. As a child he bought nearly every issue of All Star Comics, the magazine which featured the Justice Society. Even as he studied for his Bachelors degree in Physics at the University of Kansas City, even as he studied for a Masters degree in Math, he never forgot the Justice Society of America. When DC Comics revived their superhero line in 1956 with the creation of a new Flash (the original had been a member of JSA), Bails actively campaigned for the return of the original Justice Society of America to the pages of comic books, along with fellow Missourian and future comic book writer Roy Thomas.

It was in 1961 that Jerry Bails published the first issue of the fanzine Alter-Ego. Alter-Ego was pivotal in the history of comic book fandom in two ways. First, it focused not only on current comic book heroes, but the superheroes of the Golden Age. This would generate more interest in the Golden Age heroes and would eventually pave the way for their return. If the JSA has their own series now, it is largely because of Jerry Bails. Second, Alter Ego allowed comic book fans to network with each other. As a result, comic book fandom started to organise.

Bails was the author of The Who's Who of American Comic Books, The Collector's Guide to the First Heroic Age of Comics, and Technology and Human Values. With Howard Keltner he co-wrote The Authoritative Index to DC Comics.

Dr. Bails was a central figure in the history of comic book fandom. He was a powerful force in organising fandom. He was also pivotal in the revival of DC Comics' Golden Age characters in the Sixties. And I have little doubt that it was largely because of Dr. Bails' efforts that the serious study of comic books as a medium is now accepted today. While he may not have created pop culture artefacts himself, he was certainly important in recording their history and insuring their study.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Casino Royale

Ever since I first saw Dr. No on TV, I have been a Bond fan. I have seen all of them, usually multiple times (even the bad ones like Moonraker and Licence to Kill). Unfortunately, while I loved Pierce Brosnan as 007, I have thought for some time that the Bond franchise was going stale. The World is Not Enough in particular seemed like a compilation of stunts and set pieces from other Bond movies. It seemed as if EON Productions had run out of anything original to do with regards to the Bond films. Fortunately, this is not the case with Casino Royale.

This is not your father's James Bond movie. Gone are the numerous explosions, outlandish gadgets and the villain's secret fortresses. There are a few explosions in this film, but they number far fewer than those in past Bond movies (especially those from the Roger Moore era). And while there are gadgets to be had in this movie, they are much more realistic than gondolas that can transform into hovercraft or invisible cars. At the same time, however, this is very much your father's James Bond movie (or your grandfather's James Bond movie, if you're very young). James bond is not simply a charming rogue with an over active libido. He is a brutal killer, the assassin for Queen and country of the original novels and the earliest Sean Connery films. Indeed, the chases and explosions of many past Bond films have been replaced with some of the most visceral fight scenes in any 007 movie. To a large degree Casino Royale reminds me of both Dr. No and From Russia with Love, where the action often consisted of Bond's physical confrontations with deadly opponents. Even the opening credits seem to belong to the era of Connery; they reminded me of the opening credits of any number of spy films from the Sixties.

Indeed, Casino Royale is not only the first Bond movie in some time to have been based on one of Ian Fleming's novels (namely, the first Bond novel ever written), but it is also the first in a long time to be somewhat loyal to the novel upon which it is based. The basic plot of the novel, in which Bond must bankrupt the villain Le Chiffre in a card game, survives in the movie. Some scenes (including a particularly brutal one between Bond and Le Chiffre) and even lines from the book made it into the movie. I don't know how Ian Fleming would have felt about many of the Bond movies, but I have a feeling he would have liked Casino Royale.

Of course, the big question on many people's minds is how Daniel Craig actually played Bond. My answer to this question is that he does very, very well. Craig has a more difficult job than many of the actors who have stepped in the role, playing Bond at the beginning of his career as a 00 agent. Craig must not only show us why Bond came to treat women as ultimately disposable, why he prefers his martinis shaken and not stirred, and, to sum it up, how he became "Bond, James Bond," but retain enough of the personality of Bond in his later years that we can realistically believe this is 007. Personally, I think he succeeds admirably. In fact, Craig adds some depth and even a touch of sensitivity to his portrayal of Bond, something that was sometimes lacking even in the Sean Connery Bond movies.

Craig's task of portraying Bond realistically at the start of his career is aided a good deal by his fellow cast members. As Vesper Lynd, Eva Green is no mere bit of scenery, but creates a character who is intelligent and has a mind of her own. Mads Mikkelson is suitably villainous as Le Chiffre, who is definitely not the interchangeable power mad megalomaniac of many Bond movies. Le Chiffre has a life of his own, complete with his own goals and motivations. He is certainly not a straw man created for Bond to knock down. It is because the characters in Casino Royale are so well developed that director Martin Campbell gives us one of the best set pieces in any Bond film--the card game in which Bond faces off against Le Chiffre. Between the performances of Craig and Mikkelson and Campbell's direction, it is easily one of the most taut, most suspenseful set pieces in the franchise's history.

As I said earlier, the past few years I could not help but think the Bond franchise was going stale. Casino Royale is then precisely what it needed--a fresh start by going back to Ian's Fleming's novels and the early Connery movies, while at the same time giving us something new as well. I can only hope that EON Productions can follow up Casino Royale with a series of Bond films that are as good--and as different--as it is.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Robert Altman Passes On

Legendary director and fellow Missourian Robert Altman died last night at the age of 81. His cause of death has not yet been disclosed.

Altman was born in Kansas City, Missouri on February 20 1925. He attended Rockhurst High School and Southwest High School there in Kansas City before being sent to Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Missouri. During World War II Altman enlisted in the United States Army Air Force at 18 years of age. His training was in Los Angeles, and brought him in contact with Hollywood and filmmaking for the first time. After the war he settled in Los Angeles to try to break into the film business.

Altman tried his hand at acting, appearing in one scene in 1947's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. While he was no success at acting, he did have some small success in writing. He wrote a story outline for the movie Christmas Eve for United Artists and the script to The Bodyguard to RKO. He moved to New York to try his hand at writing and failed to make a go at it. He then returned to Hollywood, but saw little success. He returned to Kansas City bankrupt.

It was in Kansas City that Altman joined the Calvin Company, then the largest maker of industrial films in the nation. For six years Altman worked as a director for them, directing such films as Modern Football and The Sound of Bells. In 1953 he created and directed the anthology series Pulse in the City. The series was filmed on the cheap around Kansas City and actually ran for one season on the DuMont Network. Tiring of industrial films, Altman left the Calvin Company and directed his first feature film. The Deliquents was a low budget exploitation film produced by Kansas City theatre owner Elmer Rhoden Jr. Following The Deliquents, Altman would co-direct The James Dean Story, a documentary on the recently deceased star, with George W. George.

Although The Deliquents was no great success, it did attract the attention of Alfred Hitchcock. Impressed with Altman's work, Hitchcock hired him to direct several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. For the next several years Altman found himself in demand as a television director. Among the many series for which he directed episodes were Peter Gunn, The Millionaire, Maverick, Bonanza, and Route 66. Perhaps his most notorious piece of work for television was an episode of Bus Stop entitled "A Lion Walks Among Us". The episode featured pop star Fabian as a psychotic killer. Although it might be considered tame by today's standards, the episode caused an uproar when it first aired--it was even mentioned on the floors of Congress as an example of television's depravity. Regardless, Altman's career in television continued unabated. Perhaps his most remarkable work would be on the TV series Combat! Altman is credited by many with giving the show's look and feel. The series would prove to have a lasting influence on future Hollywood directors.

By 1965 Altman returned to making feature films. Such movies as Countdown and The Cold Day in the Park met with little success. It was in 1969 that Altman's luck changed. He was offered the script to a movie called M*A*S*H, which had been rejected by over 15 other directors. Altman directed the movie in his own peculiar style, which concentrated on the characters and sometimes contained a strong defiance of authority. And while M*A*S*H was a comedy, Altman did not shy away from the blood and guts of war. Indeed, M*A*S*H was so revolutionary that it was the first major studio movie to drop the F-bomb. M*A*S*H proved to be a smash hit and one of the top grossing films of the Seventies.

For much of the Seventies Altman would direct nearly a film a year. Some were more successful than others, although all of them were certainly far from the typical studio fare. Brewster McCloud centred on a youth who lived in a fallout shelter at the Houston Astrodome and spent his days fashioning wings so he could fly. McCabe and Mrs. Miller was a very revisionist Western. The Long Goodbye turned Raymond Chandler's novel on the head. Perhaps his best film of the decade was the one which best characterised his work. Nashville followed a political convention unfolded in the capital of country music. It was nominated for Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (twice for Lily Tomlin and Ronee Blakley).

During this era Altman did have his share failures. He directed a big budget musical adaptation based on the comic strip character Popeye. Although for many years it was his second highest grossing film, there were those who saw it as an artistic flop. It could well be for that reason that Altman's career was not nearly as fruitful in the Eighties as it was in the Seventies. He worked in television again, most notably on the mini-series Tanner 88. He also directed the well recieved Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. While the Eighties may not have been Altman's decade, it seemed that the Nineties would be.

Indeed, his movie The Player, released in 1992, nearly revitalised his career over night. The film lampooned Hollywood and received a good deal of critical acclaim. It was even nominated for three Oscars (Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. Altman's films in the wake of The Player, such as Short Cuts and Cookie's Fortune, might not always do well at the box office, but they were usually well done and well received. Gosford Park would become Altman's second highest grossing film and would be nominated for several Oscars (it won Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen). Altman's last film was his adaptation of the popular radio show, A Prarie Home Companion.

Altman has often been characterised as a maverick with regards to Hollywood. Even when he made films for the studios, he almost always insisted on doing things his way. And while he had his fair share of duds (Pret-a-Porter comes to mind), Altman had an astoundingly good track record when it came to movies. The list of classics, near classics, and simply good films he made is impressive: M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Thieves Like Us, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park. His films were generally very naturalistic, particularly with regards to dialogue--he is the only director I can think of whose characters often talk over each other, as people do in real life. At the same time, however, Altman did have his own particular style. His films always placed more emphasis on the characters than the plot, and he was known to be more interested in his character's motivations than particular plot points. Altman was then an actor's director. This allowed him to work with many well known actors. It also allowed him to do several of a particular type of film of which he was the master--movies with several storylines, often intertwining, featuring a large number of characters. Other directors have tried their hands at these types of movies, but it seems to me that only Altman succeeded at them on a regular basis.

And while Altman was most famous for his work in movies, it must be kept in mind that he had a thriving career in television prior to his work in film. Altman was fired many times from various TV shows (indeed, he was fired by none other than Alfred Hitchcock himself), but his reputation allowed him to get even more jobs on various series. As a television director Altman insisted on doing things his own way and that made the episodes he directed different from those directed by more mainstream directors. Even today the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Combat! that he directed stand up as remarkable pieces of television.

Robert Altman is one of my favourite directors of all time. I cannot say that I like all of his films (Pret-a-Porter is an example), but I have liked most of them. Indeed, M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, and Short Cuts rank among my favourite films of all time. And then there are the many TV episodes he directed. If Combat! is one of my favourite shows, it is largely because of Altman. Indeed, it amazes me that Altman never won an Emmy and the only Oscar he ever won was the Lifetime Achievement award he won this year. While critics and audiences recognised Altman's talent, it seems to me that the industry never did. Ultimately I guess this is not important. Film buffs, critics, and film historians have long recognised his talent and long recognised his place in film history. He might not have won many awards, but Robert Altman will be remembered long after others who won more awards have been forgotten.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Forbes Richest Fictional Characters

Every year about this time Forbes releases its list of the 15 richest fictional characters. They figure out the wealth of the various characters by looking at equivalent real world businesses and the price share movements of known commodities in real life. For many years Santa Claus, whose worth was always calculated as infinite, made the top of the list. This year he was not placed on the list because of the ongoing controversy (especially among children) as to whether Ol' St. Nick is fictional or not.

Anyhow, here is the list:
1. Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks
2. Montgomery Burns
3. Scrooge McDuck
4. Richie Rich
5. Jed Clampett
6. Mr. Monopoly
7. Bruce Wayne
8 .Tony Stark (Iron Man, to those who don't read comics)
9. Prince Abakaliki of Nigeria (the fictional billionaire of the well known scam)
10. Thurston Howell III
11. Willy Wonka
12. Lucius Malfoy
13. Tony Montana (of the 1983 film Scarface)
14. Lara Croft
15. Mario

While I am no expert at finances, I must say that I do have some problems with the list. I am not at all sure that Daddy Warbucks should have made the number one spot. The reasoning of Forbes is that his fortune would be made even greater by the conflict in Iraq. I am not so sure, however, that the war in Iraq would bring in more money, however, than oil or chocolate bars. Indeed, using that reasoning, I think Tony Stark (whose Stark Industries manufactured weapons) would rank higher on the list than he does. Too, I am not sure that Warbucks is even still alive. According to official Little Orphan Annie canon, he was born in 1894. He would have to be 112 by now. Indeed, Annie herself (who probably inherited his fortune) is probably about 90 by now...

I have to admit Jed Clampett is probably pretty old by now as well, but then hillfolk are known for extraordinary longevity (just how old was Granny?). Given that he is probably still alive and spry as ever, I honestly think he should have made the top of the list. While known to spend his fortune in ways others might consider unwisely and generous to a fault, his fortune is based in oil. Given the price of gas lately, I rather suspect Clampett is raking a good deal of money of late. Too, Clampett owns Mammoth Studios. DVD sales from its old movies, not to mention the rise of movie downloads on the Internet, have probably increased his fortune even more.

I also have to question Willy Wonka making the list. As I understand, he no longer owns his famous chocolate company. As I understand it, he handed over his company and his famous factory to a fellow named Charles Bucket years ago. Since then Wonka has only served with his company in an advisory position. I would then say that Mr. Bucket (who insists most people just call him "Charlie") should be on the list in Wonka's place.

I also have to question Tony Montana being on the list. Although one of the wealthiest drug lords of the late Seventies and early Eighties, he met an untimely end in 1983 when gunned down from behind. Since Montana has long been dead, he should have hardly made the list.

Anyhow, I really don't have a problem with the rest of the list (although I think one could debate whether Bruce Wayne is richer than Richie Rich (I think he is myself...I mean, the Batmobile and all those gadgets had to cost a pretty penny...). And I must say that it is the one thing in Forbes I read each and every year. Anyway, for others interested in it, you can find it here.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Long Journey of Casino Royale to the Big Screen

Friday saw the release of Casino Royale to theatres across the United States. An overly busy Saturday and my best friend's rapidly shrinking wallet prevented me from seeing it this weekend. While I can't offer you a review, then, I thought I would give you a brief rundown on the long journey Bond's first novel had to take before even a somewhat faithful adaptation would reach the big screen.

Casino Royale was first published in Britain on April 13, 1953. The novel's plot was simple. SMERSH operative Le Chiffre was running a baccarat game in the Casino Royale with the plan of raising money for SMERSH. Bond, who is an expert at baccarat is assigned to defeat Le Chiffre in a game, accomplishing two goals for MI-6. First, SMERSH would be denied the winnings to finance any further operations. Second, it was hoped that SMERSH would kill Le Chiffre for his failure, thus taking care of a troublesome Soviet operative. For its time the novel Casino Royale was very controversial. For the Fifties the novel included a good deal of sex, violence, and torture. The controversy fueled the book's sales and, although hardly a best seller, it was a modest success. It was at least successful enough for Fleming to write a second Bond novel, Moonraker, published in 1955.

It was also successful enough to attract the attention of Americans. In 1954 CBS bought the rights to adapt Casino Royale as an episode of the anthology series Climax. This adaptation did retain the central plot of Bond seeking to bankrupt Le Chiffre in a baccarat game. Played by Peter Lorre, Le Chiffre's character differed little from that in the novel. In other ways, however, the Climax adaptation of Casino Royale departed a good deal from the novel. In particular, not only was Bond played by thoroughly American actor Barry Nelson, but the character was Americanised through and through. No longer is Bond a British agent for MI-6, but an American agent for "Combined Intelligence." And the character who introduced himself in the novel with the classic words, "Bond, James Bond" was actually referred to as "Jimmy Bond!" This being American television, any sex in the novel was excluded from the teleplay and the violence toned down considerably. "Casino Royale" aired on Climax to little fanfare and was swiftly forgotten by everyone except possibly those involved in the project, Ian Fleming, and CBS executives. In the late Fifties CBS would actually approach Fleming with the idea of a 007 TV series. The deal fell through and the outlines Fleming had written for episodes would later be turned into short stories for the anthology For Your Eyes Only.

It was only a year later that Fleming sold the screen rights to the novel to Hollywood producers Michael Garrison (who would go onto create the classic TV series The Wild Wild West) and Gregory Ratoff (a one time Russian director who wold go onto act, direct, and produce in America). Ratoff tried to interest Twentieth Century Fox in the project to no avail. After Ratoff died in 1960, Garrison and Ratoff's widow sold the rights to movie producer Charles K. Feldman (he had produced such films as A Streetcar Named Desire and The Seven Year Itch). According to the Howard Hawks biography The Grey Fox of Hollywood, Feldman actually got as far as interesting the famous director and screenwriter Leigh Brackett in the project. Hawks had one man in mind to play Bond--none other than Cary Grant. Ultimately, Hawks chose not to adapt Casino Royale for the big screen.

As a result, the first Bond novel would not be the first book to be adapted for the big screen. Instead, that honour would go to Dr. No, produced by Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman's EON Productions and released in 1962. This did not end Feldman's quest to see a serious adaptation of Casino Royale on the big screen. He went to EON Productions with the goal of a joint production of a movie based on the first 007 novel. Having experienced difficulties with Kevin McClory (the screenwriter, director, and producer who had collaborated with Fleming on various draughts for proposed Bond TV and movie projects) in the production of Thunderball, EON Productions was a bit nervous about collaborating with anyone else. For this reason, they turned Feldman down. Feldman then decided to go ahead with his own production of Casino Royale. Thinking that he could not possibly compete with EON Productions' official Bond series, he hit upon the idea of spoofing not only the Bond series, but spy drama in general (which was a very hot commodity then--this was the era of The Avengers and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.).

Unfortunately, Feldman's production of Casino Royale would be troubled from the outset. Apparently, one source of trouble was legendary actor Peter Sellers, who was cast as Evelyn Tremble (the poor schmuck who was assigned to impersonate Bond). Sellers wanted the movie to have a more serious tone and for the role of Tremble to be more in the mould of Cary Grant. Sellers pressured for rewrites of the script. Already written by three men (John Law, Wolf Mankowitz, and Michael Sayers), bits and pieces would eventually be contributed by Woody Allen, Val Guest, Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, Tery Southern, and Billy Wilder. The movie would also wind up being directed by five different directors: Val Guest, John Huston, Ken Hughes, Joseph McGrath, and Robert Parrish. The film also goes down in history as the movie in which more actors played Bond than any other (David Niven, Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, and Terence Cooper, among others).

As a spoof, the only element retained from the original novel is Bond's card game against Le Chiffre in the Casino Royale, although in the movie it is actually Evelyn Tremble who plays against him and not Bond (the genuine article being played by David Niven). As product of several directors and writers, it is also a bit uneven. Upon its release Casino Royale was panned and many Bond purists hate the movie this day. This having been said, taken on its own merits, the 1967 version of Casino Royale is not a bad film. Indeed, in some ways its humour is fairly sophisticated and acts as a comment on the whole spy craze of the time. In the mid-Sixties the success of both the TV series The Avengers, Danger Man, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the Bond movies had fueled an absolute fad towards spies on both sides of the Atlantic. By 1967 Bond clones filled both American and British airwaves, as well as American and British theatres. In the 1967 adaptation of Casino Royale, this was represented by featuring multiple Bonds, only one of which was the original. Furthermore, the performances of many of the actors are actually quite good. In fact, it is this film in which Woody Allen demonstrates his potential as a comedic actor. Cast as "Dr. Noah"/"Jimmy Bond," Allen is not a mere parody of the villains typical to the official Bond franchise, but a demonstration that ultimately such megalomaniacs are merely psychologically and sexually frustrated losers. While not a great film by any means, the 1967 version of Casino Royale is not a bad movie by any means. While uneven, it does have its merits.

Fortunately, the 1967 version of Casino Royale was not the last. In fact, the most recent adaptation is the result of various corporate takeovers. The 1967 Casino Royale was produced by Columbia Pictures. In 1989 Columbia was taken over by Japanese electronics conglomerate Sony. The studio was rechristened Sony Pictures Entertainment, a division of Sony which would not include Columbia, but eventually Merv Griffith Entertainment, Chuck Barris Productions, Filmways Inc., American International Pictures, and several other companies. It was in the Nineties that Sony Pictures Entertainment expressed a desire to not only make a serious version of Casino Royale, but a third version of Kevin McClory's Thunderball (the first two being Thunderball and the 1983 film Never Say Never Again). Sony's plans were thwarted when MGM/UA took legal action, the end result of which is that MGM/UA won the sole rights to the character of James Bond. Sony then traded MGM/UA its rights to Casino Royale for the rights MGM/UA had in part to Spider-Man. Oddly enough, even though nothing now kept EON Productions from making an official version of Casino Royale, one would not materialise for some time. As it was, Sony would have their revenge. Sony and a consortium made up of Comcast, the Texas Pacific Group, and Providence Equity Partners acquired MGM/UA on April 8, 2005. The end result of this is that Sony would ultimately be the power behind the latest adaptation of Casino Royale. It was in 2005 that it was announced that the first Bond novel would finally be adapted as part of EON Productions' official Bond franchise.

I have not seen the latest version of Casino Royale yet, but from what little I have heard it is more loyal to the novel than previous versions. At the very least the card game between 007 and Le Chiffre occupies centre stage. That having been said, I also know that the movie does take some liberties. In the novel the Casino Royale is set in France. In the latest movie it is located in Montenegro. And while in the novel it is a baccarat game in which Bond faces Le Chiffre, in the newest movie, it is poker (which always seemed more Bondian to me than baccarat than anyhow...). All of this having been said, it has been years since a Bond movie has been based on one of Ian Fleming's novels or stories and even longer since a Bond movie has been even vaguely loyal to one of Ian Fleming's novels or stories (by way of example, Moonraker....). For me, then, it will suffice that the latest film adaptation of Casino Royale is loyal to the spirit of the novel, if not the letter of it. After all, no TV or film version of the novel has yet been loyal to the spirit of the book yet.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Always Have an Escape Plan: the Irrepressible Desmond Llewellyn

Q: "I've always tried to teach you two things. First, never let them see you bleed."
Bond: "And the second?"
Q: "Always have an escape plan."
(Desmond Llewellyn's last words uttered in a Bond film, from The World is Not Enough)

With Casino Royale being released in theatres throughout America today, I thought it might be a good idea to remember my favourite actor from the Bond films. That would be Desmond Llewellyn, the man who played MI-6's gadgeteer Q. While Bonds would come and go, Desmond Llewellyn played Q through 15 007 films, appearing in the franchise more than any other actor.

Curiously, for a character who would become so important in the movies, Q did not play a major role in Ian Fleming's original novels. It is established fairly early in the novels that "Q Branch" provides the weaponry and gadgetry for MI-6. It isn't until From Russia with Love that Major Boothroyd (re-christened "Q" in the films), the service's master armourer, makes an appearance.. The character of Q was then largely a creation of the movies. That he proved to be so central to the films' success is perhaps a testament to Desmond Llewellyn's talents as an actor.

Llewellyn was born in Newport, Wales in 1914, the son of an engineer for coal mines. While young he wanted to be a minister, but while at Radley College he found himself enamoured with the theatre. Llewellyn made his film debut in a bit part in Ask a Policeman in 1938. His career was interrupted by World War II, during which he served with the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a second lieutenant. He was captured by the Germans in 1940 and was a prisoner of war for five years.

Back from the war, Llewellyn appeared in various small parts on television and in movies. Among his most notable appearances may have been in an episode of The Adventures of Robin Hood and the Hammer film Curse of the Werewolf. In 1963, however, his fortunes changed. Llewellyn was cast as Q, head of Q-Branch and chief weapons engineer for MI-6, in the film From Russia With Love (the second Bond film, in case you don't know). He appeared only briefly in that film. Indeed, it wasn't much more than a bit part. Furthermore, Llewellyn had been asked to play Q as a Welshman. Llewellyn disagreed, believing that the character should be thoroughly English. He then played Q in From Russia with Love with a very bad Welsh accent--no small feat for a native Welshman! Regardless, something about Llewellyn as Q struck a chord with audiences. Not only would he appear in every Bond film, except Live and Let Die, through The World is Not Enough, but his role would increase in the movies until he was as central to the 007 mythos as M or Miss Moneypenny (perhaps moreso).

The appeal of Llewellyn as Q was perhaps the fact that he seemed one part mad inventor, one part schoolmaster, and one part secret agent. Indeed, his life appeared to be almost totally devoted to developing gadgets for Her Majesty's Secret Service. Major Boothroyd (Q's real name in the movies, taken from the master armourer of the novels) seemed happiest when he was either developing a new gadget or demonstrating one for Bond. And he always insisted that his gadgets be returned to Q Branch in pristine condition. This is not to say that Q was not gifted as a spy. He did go into the field on a few occasions, such as when he delivered Little Nellie (the high tech autogyro in You Only Live Twice) to Bond in Japan or his assignment in Las Vegas in Diamonds Are Forever or his unauthorised field work in Licence to Kill. Q also has a sense of humour, albeit a very dry one. He was known to hurl the occasional odd remark towards 007, particularly when he failed to return a gadget in working condition (which was rather often). In fact, perhaps the greatest appeal of Q was his relationship with Bond. He often treated Bond as if he was a schoolboy in dire need of further instruction or a misbehaving nephew. Despite this, the two are clearly close, and there should be no surprise at this. Both are nonconformists in positions which usually demand conformity. It is notable that Q is one of the few people at MI-6 who addresses Bond by his given name (albeit only once, in Her Majesty's Secret Service).

As the movies progressed, Q would often have some substantial bits in them. Among the most memorable for me was Q accompanying Bond in a hot air balloon at the end of Octopussy. There, as usual, Q was unflappable. Being fawned over by many beautiful women, he still remained his stiff upper lip. And while it is probably my least favourite bond film, I must admit that it was good to see Q in the field in Licence to Kill (besides Wayne Newton, he was easily the best thing in the movie). Perhaps my favourite bit with Q comes from Diamonds are Forever, in which Q has a gadget which will make the casinos' slot machines pay out every, single time... It was also often the case that Q had the best lines in any given movie. Among my favourites is one from Octopussy, "You must be joking! Double-0 seven on an island populated exclusively by women? We won't see him till dawn!" Another great Q quote came from Die Another Day, when Bond tells Q that he is cleverer than he looks, Q replies, "Still, better than looking cleverer than you are." Of course, perhaps the line that sums up Q perfectly came from Goldfinger. When Q tells Bond that his latest car has an ejector seat, 007 tells Bond that he must be joking. Q simply deadpans, "I never joke about my work, 007."

Desmond Llewellyn would appear in other roles than Q over the years. He made guest appearances on several British TV series over the years. He even had a regular role in the TV series Follyfoot as "the Colonel," the owner of a retirement farm for old or unwanted horses. It was his commitment to this series that kept him from appearing in Live and Let Die. The Colonel was in many ways a very different role from Q, although both characters are eccentric. By way of example, in the middle of the farm on Follyfoot stood tree long ago killed by a lightning strike, which the Colonel was convinced would bloom again--so much so that the required everyone who walks by it to water it!

Llewellyn also appeared in the films Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Prisoner of Rio, Merlin, and Taboo. But he would remain best known to the world as Q, the weapons master of MI-6. Strangely enough, while he played a master of technology, Llewellyn confessed to being at a complete loss with regards to technology himself. Although The World is Not Enough gave the impression that Q was going to retire, Llewellyn had no such plans. He wanted to play Q as long as he possibly could.

Tragically, Llewellyn died December 19, 1999 in a car crash at the age of 85. He died shortly after the release of The World is Not Enough. Fittingly, the video release featured a salute to the man who had played MI-6's master armourer so many years. As for myself, I can honestly say that I actually mourned Llewellyn's death in a way that I have not better known actors. I had grown up watching Llewellyn in Bond movies and Q was and still is my favourite character in the Bond mythos. To me, his loss to the 007 franchise was devastating.

Indeed, my thought was that John Cleese's character, who first appeared in The World is Not Enough, should have remained "R." For myself, there can only be and will ever only be one "Q"--that was Desmond Llewellyn. To me it would have seemed only right if they'd retired the letter in his honour.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

We're Off to See the Wizard

This Sunday TBS once more aired the classic Wizard of Oz. I rather suspect it will air on the CW (the remains of the WB and UPN) later this year. There was a time, however, that The Wizard of Oz was not seen on network television, let alone cable. November 6 of this year it was fifty years since The Wizard of Oz made its television network debut.

Though it may be hard for those of us who were not born yet to believe, there was a time when Hollywood regarded television as a bitter rival. In the early days of the medium, the major studios released almost none of their movies to the networks. The studios mellowed over time, so that they released many of their older films to television. This was the case with industry giant MGM, with two exceptions: Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. This did not keep the networks from trying to get these two films, however, as CBS tried to lease Gone with the Wind from MGM (it would take 20 years before they would get it). CBS then set its sights on The Wizard of Oz. MGM relented and let them have the classic film.

The Wizard of Oz would first air on network television as the final installment of Ford Star Jubilee on November 6, 2006. Ford Star Jubilee was an umbrella title for a diverse group of specials, so the classic film fit the bill perfectly. The movie's running time was a bit awkward for network scheduling, so the film was trimmed a bit and it was hosted by Judy Garland's daughter Liza Minelli and Cowardly Lion Bert Lahr. Regardless of the cuts made to the film for its network debut, The Wizard of Oz raked in huge ratings.

Curiously, it would be nearly four years before it would air on network television again. This time CBS aired it around the holiday season, on December 16, 1959. From that time forward The Wizard of Oz would air either around Christmas or Thanksgiving, once a year on one of the networks (CBS lost the right to air the film briefly to NBC in the Sixties and Seventies.

Like many Gen-Xers, then, the first time I ever saw The Wizard of Oz was on television rather than a theatre. In fact, it may be both the first musical I can remember seeing and the second fantasy film (the first was Jason and the Argonauts) I remember seeing. The movie certainly made an impression on me. While I know that there are many as children who found the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys frightening, personally I found the sequences with the Wizard of Oz himself more scary. Of course, keep in mind as a child I had ears that were overly sensitive to any loud noise. At any rate, as a young child it was my favourite film, so much so that Judy Garland is the first celebrity's death I can recall. I remember as a child thinking that she must still be all of 17 and asked my parents how someone so young could die. They simply explained to me that the movie was made many, many years ago and she was a lot older now. I guess that they didn't want to explain to a five year old that, in addition to old age and accidents, death can also occur because of an overdose of barbiturates....

In 1999 Turner Broadcasting, who had held the rights to the movie for several years after buying MGM's film library, decided to withdraw it from the networks so they could show it on TBS, TNT, and TCM. I never did quite like this. While I realise that practically every cable system in the United States carries TBS and TNT, and while I realise that most Americans have either cable or satellite TV, it seemed to me that there would still be a few viewers out there who would not get to see the classic film each year. Fortunately, the past few years the WB has aired The Wizard of Oz. I'm guessing it will air on the CW later this year. For me at least, The Wizard of Oz belongs on network television.

Anyhow, I watched the movie again Sunday. Despite the fact that I have probably seen it at least 35 times in my lifetime, it still holds a good deal of magic for me. There are some films that are called classics, but they don't hold up to repeated viewings. This is certainly not the case with The Wizard of Oz. It remains a film one can watch over and over again.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Small Change at A Shroud of Thoughts

Those of you familiar with this blog probably know that from the beginning I have always used weekly archives. My reasoning for this was the simple fact that I tend to post frequently (at least three times a week, usually more). If I archived monthly, then, the pages could be prohibitively slow to load for those on dial up. Unfortunately, at least on this blog, it seems that Beta Blogger does not handle weekly archives too well. About two weeks ago I noticed that the first archive was dated "May 23, 2004." Here I should stress that there were no posts made during the week of May 23, 2004--the Famous First Post was made on June 4, 2004, which would be the week of May 30, 2004. As a result of this phantom archive, every other archive was pushed a week ahead. That is, when one clicked on the link to the archive for the week of October 1, 2006, he or she would instead be directed to the archive the week of October 8, 2006! I've tried figuring out how to correct this and even emailed Blogger Support about the problem. For now, I have simply set the archives to monthly, which seems to work fine (there is no phantom "May 2004" archive, at least...). I apologise for the inconvenience to those on dialup.

Of course, this brings me to another bit of news. Over a week ago I finally got cable internet. I have been enjoying it a good deal. At last I can watch streaming video without it taking forever to buffer. Indeed, Thursday I watched the episode of Lost I'd missed because of work (they really should give time off for your favourite TV shows...) on streaming video at ABC. As to average, everyday web surfing, well, pages load a whole lot quicker on cable than on dialup. If any of you are still on dialup and cable is available in your area, I urge you by all means to make the change. It's worth it.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Jack Palance is Dead

Actor Jack Palance, best known for his many tough guy roles, died yesterday at the age of 87. He was probably most famous for his roles in Shane, where he played what could have been the most sinister villain in any Western (hired killer Jack Wilson) and in City Slickers (where he played a parody of his many tough guy roles, aging cowboy Curly).

Palance was born Vladimir Palaniuk near Hazleton, Pennsylvania on February 18, 1919. His father, an immigrant from the Ukraine, was a coal miner. While young he also worked in the mines. He would move onto professional boxing, scoring an impressive 15 wins in a row, with 12 knockouts, before losing to Joe Baksi, a future contender in heavyweight boxing. He served in World War II, and would eventually receive both a good conduct medal, a purple heart, and a Victory medal. Unfortunately, as a student pilot he would also be disfigured after bailing out of a B-24 Liberator that was on fire. Reconstructive surgery reparied much of the damage, but left him with the craggy, gaunt face for which he would become famous.

Following World War II Palance enrolled at Stanford University, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Drama. As an actor his big break came when he was Marlon Brando's understudy on A Streetcar Named Desire. When Brando left the play, Palance replaced him as Stanley. He would go onto appear on Broadway in the plays A Temporary Island, The Vigil, and Darkness at Noon. It was in 1950 that he made his first appearance on television, in an episode of Lights Out. That same year he made his screen debut in the film Panic in the Streets.

The studios swiftly recognised Palance's talent and on his third film he found himself cast opposite Joan Crawford, playing sociopathic actor Lester Blaine. The role would earn him his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. A year later Palance would appear in Shane as cold blooded gunman Jack Wilson. Palance at the top of his game, giving what may be the greatest performance as a villain of a Western ever. He was again nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Indeed, Palance may have played Jack Wilson too well. The majority of his career would be spent playing heavies. He worked steadily throughout the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, playing in both major motion pictures and B-movies. Among the most notable films in which he appeared were I Died a Thousand Times, Goddard's Le Mepris, The Professionals, Monte Walsh, Batman, and, of course, City Slickers. In City Slickers Palance played Curly, the aging cowboy who also happened to be a parody of all the tough guy roles he had played. His performance would earn him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Much of his success in that film may well have stemmed from the fact that Palance actually preferred lighter roles to playing villains. Indeed, among his more recent performances, that of retired Hollywood set painter Rudi Cox in Out of Rosenheim (known as Baghdad Cafe here in the States) was among his best.

Palance also had a long career in television, although it was primarily as a guest star or an actor in TV movies. Perhaps his most significant performance on television was that of Mountain McClintock in "Requiem for a Heavyweight," which aired on Playhouse 90. He won the 1957 Emmy for Best Single Performance by an Actor. Palance also appeared on such legendary series as Your Show of Shows, Studio One, and Suspense. He also appeared on such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show, Convoy, The Red Skelton Show Run for Your Life, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. He was the lead in the series The Greatest Show on Earth and Bronk. He was also the host of the long running Ripley's Believe It or Not. Over the years Palance appeared in several TV movies, the most significant of which were two made in conjunction with Dan Curtis. The first was an adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The second was an adaptation of Dracula. Although Palance might seem oddly cast as Dracula, I honestly believe he may have been the best man to have played the Count besides Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman.

I have often thought that Jack Palance's talent was underestimated. His appearance and raspy voice made him perfect for playing villains, yet he could do so much more. While he could be absolutely sinister as Lester Blaine or Jack Wilson, he could just as easily be funny as Rudi Cox or Curly. He could even manage to shine such lesser vehicles as Cops and Robbersons (a Chevy Chase movie, of all things)! Although best known for playing heavies, Palance was capable of so much more. He was quite simply a very versatile actor.

Friday, November 10, 2006

CBS Newsman Ed Bradley Passes On

Newsman Ed Bradley died at age 65 from complications due to leukaemia yesterday morning. He is probably best known as one of the correspondents on 60 Minutes, on which he had been 25 years.

Bradley was born on June 22, 1941 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His parents would sometimes both work two jobs just to make ends meet. He graduated from Cheney State College with a degree in education. After being a sixth grade teacher, he became a DJ and news reporter for a Philadelphia radio station in 1963. Four years later he got a job as a news reporter at WCBS in New York City. He joined CBS News and started working at their Paris bureau in 1971. A year later he transferred to Vietnam to cover the war. In 1974 he transferred to their Washington bureau. He became a regular news correspondent in 1973. In 1981 joined 60 Minutes. By CBS' standards he was relatively young at the time--he was only 40.

Over the years Bradley covered a wide range of topics. He won awards for his reports on abuse in the largest chain of psychiatric hospitals in the United States and a small town that was the victim of toxic waste. Over the years he interviewed such news makers as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, boxer Muhammad Ali, comedian George Burns, and singer/actress Lena Horne.

He made several achievements in his lifetime. He was CBS News' first black reporter when he joined them in 1971. He was also the first black CBS White House correspondent and the first black correspondent on 60 Minutes. Over the years he won 16 Emmys, as well as a Peabody award, the National Association of Black Journalists Lifetime Achievement award, and many others.

Among the correspondents on 60 Minutes, Bradley was perhaps my favourite. While other correspondents had styles that could easily be described as aggressive (for example, Mike Wallace), Bradley's style was calm, cool, and collected. I can't remember during a news story or interview Bradley ever getting angry or getting shaken up. He was also one of CBS's few correspondents who was not afraid of pop culture. He not only interviewed many entertainers over the years, but he was also a jazz fanatic and knew a good deal about modern American music and American pop culture. Indeed, he even made guest appearances on Murphy Brown and The Chris Rock Show. At the same time, however, he was always a serious journalist who never compromised his principles. For me Bradley added life to a news outlet that could, at least in the Seventies, be stodgy at times. And he made 60 Minutes all the more interesting.

Thursday, November 9, 2006

Negative Political Ads

The mid-term elections are over here in the United States. And with their end there will be no more political ads for a while. This year it seems as if nearly every single candidate used negative political ads against his or her opponent. Indeed, it sometimes seemed as if candidates were more eager to tell one what his or her opponent stood for rather than what he or she stood for himself. Regardless, while negative political ads seem to be much more common these days, they are nothing new.

Indeed, the most notorious political ad of all time is nearly as old as I am. What became known as the "Daisy Girl" commercial aired all the way back in 1964, during NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies. The commercial began with a little girl picking petals off a daisy, and counting them off as she does so. The camera then zooms in on her face as an offscreen voice begins a countdown. At the end of the countdown it zooms into one of her eyes, in which we see the reflection of a nuclear explosion. An offscreen announcer then utters these words, "These are the stakes, to have a world in which all of God's children can live or go into the darkness. We must either love each other or die. Vote for Lyndon Johnson. The stakes are too high for you to stay home." While he was never mentioned in the commercial, the message was clear. President Lyndon Johnson's opponent, Barry Goldwater, would get us into a nuclear war.

The "Daisy Girl" commercial was part of a lareger campaign by Johnson and his camp to portray Goldwater as a warmonger who would be reckless in the use of nuclear weapons. And while there were other similar ads which aired, the "Daisy Girl" commercial would air only once. It caused such controversy that it was removed from the airwaves immediately. Having seen the commercial several times, I can understand why. Even today, with both Johnson and Goldwater dead, it still has the power to frighten those of us who remember the Cold War. At any rate, Johnson's campaign to paint Goldwater as a reckless warmonger apparently worked. Goldwater lost the election by a large margin.

Of course, not every negative political ad is as intense or as blatant as the "Daisy Girl" commercial. Another commercial that was fairly negative and perhaps fairly effective as well ran in 1968, when Richard Nixon was running against Hubert Humphrey for the presidency. Nixon had chosen controversial Governor of Maryland Spiro Agnew as his running mate. In response, the Democrats ran an ad which featured a TV set with the words, "Agnew for Vice President?" The soundtrack featured a man laughing hysterically. The Democrats apparently thought the idea of Agnew running for Vice President was a joke and thought the voters would agree. As it turned out, many voters apparently didn't. Nixon won, even with Agnew as his running mate.

Another notorious negative political ad aired in 1988, when Republican George Bush, then Vice President, ran against Democrat Michael Dukakis, then Governor of Massachusetts. The ad focused on Massachusetts prison inmate "Willie Horton," who escaped from prison and killed two people--according to the commercial because of Dukakis's policy of letting prisoners go on weekend furloughs. The ad was attacked almost immediately. For one thing, it implied that if elected Dukakis would let prisoners out of jail. For another, it was blatantly manipulative. Indeed, Horton never even went by "Willie," preferring his given name "William."

Over the years it seems as if negative political ads have become more and more common, to the point where they outnumber any other sort of political ad. In fact, I rather suspect that Missouri Senatorial candidates Claire Mccaskill and Jim Talent told us more about each other's records than they did themselves. Are such ads effective? For me that is hard to tell. On the one hand, most people complain about such ads and often state they would rather hear what the candidates themselves stand for than hear the candidates attack each other. On the other hand, it often seems that when a candidate decides to run an overly negative campaign, that candidate wins (Johnson in 1964, Bush in 1988). Regardless, I can guarantee that two years from now, during the 2008 Presidential campaign, we will probably see many more negative ads.

Sunday, November 5, 2006

5 November

"Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot."

This morning it has been 401 years since Guy Fawkes was captured in a cellar beneath Parliament in England with the intention of blowing up both King James I and Parliament with 1800 pounds of gunpowder (hence the scheme's traditional name--"the Gunpowder Plot"). Fawkes was a member of a group of Catholic conspirators who, wishing to end the oppression Catholics had suffered for many years under the English Protestant monarchy (particularly the Stuart dynasty), sought to end the rule of King James and his Parliament once and for all. The intent of the plot was to detonate the explosives at the opening session of Parliament, where both the House of Lords and House of Commons would be addressed by the king. This would kill not only the king and his family, but most of the aristocracy as well. Fawkes, a career military man, was chosen to execute the plot itself because of his experience with explosives. The plot was uncovered and Fawkes was captured in the cellar beneath Parliament. Here it should be pointed out that the Parliament building that Fawkes sought to blow up in 1605 is not the same Parliament building that stands today. It burned in 1834 and then the present day Parliament was built (it took 30 years to do so and was finished in 1870).

In commemoration and celebration of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, King James I instituted 5 November (since it is a British holiday, I might as well use British dating) as a national holiday. Perhaps the most notable elements in the celebration are the use of effigies (called "guys," after Fawkes himself) and the burning of bonfires (hence one of the celebration's other names--"Bonfire Night"). Traditionally, prior to the Fifth, the effigies or "guys" would be carried around, usually, but not always, by children who would ask for "a penny for the guy." The night of 5 November bonfires would be built on which the guys would be burnt. At one time effigies of the Pope would also be burnt, although that practice died long ago. Naturally, the night is also celebrated with fireworks. In fact, more fireworks are used in the United Kingdom on 5 November than on any other day of the year. Here it should be pointed out that even though the holiday is often called "Guy Fawkes Day" here in the United States, the bulk of the celebration takes place on the night of 5 November and hence is called in the United Kingdom and most of its other colonies "Guy Fawkes Night" or "Bonfire Night" and even in some places "Fireworks Night."

Beyond the use of effigies or "guys," the building of bonfires, and the use of fireworks, there are also other traditions associated with Guy Fawkes Night. In some areas of the UK, "bonfire toffee," a toffee made with black treacle, is eaten at this time. Parkin, a cake also made from black treacle, "toffee apples (apples coated on toffee and placed on sticks)," and baked potatoes are also eaten at this time. There is also the famous rhyme associated with Bonfire Night--"Remember, remember, the fifth of November..."

Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated across the United Kingdom, New Zealand, the provinces of Labrador and Newfoundland in Canada, and Britain's colonies in the Caribbean. Until the 1980s it was celebrated in Australia, but died out when they banned the commercial sale of fireworks. In what would become the United States in 1775 George Washington ordered his troops not to burn the Pope's effigy on Guy Fawkes Night. This and the general dismissal of various British traditions by the American Colonists would result in the United States ceasing to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night.

As perhaps the most prominent British holiday besides Christmas and New Year's Day, Guy Fawkes Night has naturally found its way into pop culture. As early as 1606 John Rhodes wrote a verse telling of the Gunpowder Plot. Several other bits of literature dealing with Guy Fawkes and the Plot were written in the following decades, most of them largely forgotten. John Milton, best known for Paradise Lost, wrote the verse "On the Gunpowder Plot" and many believe that the portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost, in which the Devil is said to have invented gunpowder, is largely influenced by Fawkes. By the 19th century Guy Fawkes Night was a firmly rooted tradition and found its way into many pieces of British literature. In the novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Janes theorises that Miss Abbot thinks of her as a latter day Guy Fawkes. The historical novel Guy Fawkes by William Harrison Ainsworth, published in 1842, treated Fawkes sympathetically. In Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy, Bonfire Night plays a pivotal role in the plot. Hardy even describes in depth of traditions associated with the holiday. Charles Dickens referred to Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plot, and Bonfire Night in several of his works, including The Life And Adventures Of Martin Chuzzlewit and David Copperfield. More recently, Dylan Thomas dealt with the plot in one of his poems. The fifth of November and Guy Fawkes are also pivotal in the graphic novel V For Vendetta, written by Alan Moore and most of which was illustrated by David Lloyd. A film version was released in 2005 (it will be detailed more fully below). In Neil Gaiman's series of Sandman graphic novels, in "The Wake," it is said that William Shakespeare and Ben Johnson created the famous "Remember, remember, the fifth of November..." verse as a joke. In the Harry Potter series, Professor Dumbledore's phoenix is named Fawkes, perhaps because both Guy Fawkes and the phoenix are associated with fire.

The fifth of November has also been remembered in song. In 1612 John Wilson wrote a short song about the Gunpowder Plot. In the song "Remember" by John Lennon, featured on the album Plastic Ono Band, the famous "Remember, remember, the fifth of November..." verse is quoted. These lyrics are followed by an explosion. On the vinyl record of The Smiths' album Strangeways, Here We Come, the words "Guy Fawkes was a genius" on inscribed.

Despite the continued popularity of Guy Fawkes Night, Guy Fawkes has not figured prominently in movies. In 1923 a movie called Guy Fawkes, featuring Matheson Long in the title role, was released. Guy Fawkes appeared in the comedy Carry On Henry, the Carry On..." crew's send up of Henry VIII, although it must be pointed that his presence was an anachronism (Henry had been dead three years when Fawkes was born). Like the graphic novel, Bonfire Night and Guy Fawkes figure prominently in the film V for Vendetta. Indeed, the movie was originally slated to be released on the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. The film even used the famous "Remember..." verse as a tagline. Unforutnately, it was ultimately delayed until December 2005 in the United States and March 2006 in the UK. Some believe this was due to the bombings that took place on the tube in London on July 7 and July 21 of that year. There have been a few other references to Guy Fawkes and Guy Fawkes Night on film. In Hangover Square (released in 1945), one character disposes of a body by disguising it as a guy and tossing it onto a bonfire. The film also include two boys who elicit a "penny for the guy" from the same character and who recite the famous verse to him. Guy Fawkes is also mentioned in the Richard Linklater film Slacker.

On television a mini-series based on the events surrounding the Gunpowder Plot, titled Gunpowder, Treason and Plot aired in the UK in March 2004. Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night has also been referenced on various TV series. In The Avengers episode "November Five," John Steed and Cathy Gale must thwart a modern day version of the plot in which a nuclear warhead is going to be used to blow up Parliament instead of gunpowder. In The Simpsons parody of Mary Poppins, "Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious," Bart tells Sherri Bobbins that every day is Guy Fawkes Day for her. An episode of the animated series Daria featured the spirit of Guy Fawkes, although he looked and acted like Sid Vicious. The episode "Guy Fawkes" of the Britcom Barbara is set on Bonfire Night. There have also been several television documentaries over the years, on both sides of the Atlantic, focusing on the Gunpowder Plot and Guy Fawkes.

In the wake of the Gunpowder Plot and the decades, even centuries that followed, Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators were often vilified. This has changed to some degree, perhaps largely due to the easing of tensions between Catholics and Protestants in England and perhaps largely due to changing opinions on the Stuart dynasty. Today it is not unusual for Fawkes to even be regarded as a hero. This is most obvious in both the graphic novel and the motion picture V For Vendetta, where Fawkes is portrayed as fighting against oppression. To a degree the ideas presented in V for Vendetta are nothing new. As early as 1842 Ainsworth took a sympathetic approach in portraying Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators. Indeed, in a 2002 poll conducted by the BBC on the "100 Greatest Britons," Guy Fawkes made the list at number 30 (above such personages as Henry V, John Wesley, and J. R. R. Tolkien). The list included such people as Winston Churchill (who ranked at number one), John Lennon (who ranked at number 8), and Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson (who came in at number 9). It would seem, then, that opinions on Fawkes have changed dramatically over the years. Whether regarded as a hero or villain, however, I suspect that Guy Fawkes Night will not soon be forgot.