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Friday, November 30, 2007

Tag I'm It

I've been tagged by the award winning d. chedwick bryant, the eloquent kitty cat with a penchant for perfume and Bob Dylan.This amounts to winning an award for the writing in my blog. In turn, I have to tag five other bloggers I feel are worthy of winning an award for their writing, as well as list the three things I feel are necessary to powerful writing. Ched listed:
1. Must love to read the writings of others.
2. Open to observing life with a sense of the absurd.

3. Ability to write about a supposedly mundane moment & make it interesting.
As to the three things I feel are necessary to powerful writing, I would say:
1. One must have the ability to take even the most unoriginal idea and make it entirely one's own.
2. One must write for himself or herself, without worrying about the opinions of others.
3. One must write about subjects which one loves passionately.

As to the bloggers I feel should win an award for their writing, here they are in alphabetical order.

Beth: Beth's blog, Finding My Voice, covers pretty much anything which interests Beth, which is everything from movies to politics. Beth is a very good writer with a great sense of humour. She also has a beautiful voice (as proof, here's a link to her entry with an audio clip of her rendition of "Gotta Be This or That" by Sunny Skylar).

Jeremy: Jeremy's blog, Popped Culture is about my favourite subject: the entire gamut of pop culture. Here one can read about everything from the misuse of the puppets from the old Canadian children's show The Friendly Giant to Kermit the Frog performing Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt." Jeremy clearly loves pop culture and it shows in his blog.

RC: RC's blog Strange Culture also covers the whole gamut of pop culture. What sets Strange Culture apart from other pop culture blogs is that RC often examines pop culture with a philosophical bent. For instance, one of his recent entries dealt with the theme of "Good vs. Evil" which recurs throughout the rides at the Universal Studio's Island of Adventure theme park. You don't see that in every blog.

Reel Fanatic: Reel Fanatic's self titled blog is exactly what it sounds like it's about: movies. Reel Fanatic covers the whole spectrum of film, from B-movies to Oscar contenders. You'll find everything there from movie reviews to the latest news. What makes the blog so great is two things. First, Reel Fanatic has very good tastes in movies--it's rare that I find myself disagreeing with him. Second, he clearly loves movies, which is a big advantage when one is writing about them.

Row Three: Row Three is a collaborative blog, but it includes one of my favourite bloggers of all time, Marina of the late, lamented Mad About Movies. Like Mad About Movies before it, Row Three has movie news, reviews, and commentary. And like Mad About Movies, it has the advantage of Marina writing for it. Like Reel Fanatic, I rarely finding myself disagreeing with Marina. And like Reel Fanatic, she clearly loves movies. Here I should also mention that the other writers at Row Three (Andrew, Jonathan, and Kurt) are really good too.

So there are my five award winning bloggers (well, I guess Row Three counts as more than one, but who is counting...). If you haven't done so already, check out their blogs. You'll thank me later.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Mel Tolkin R.I.P.

Mel Tolkin, the lead writer of the legendary TV series Your Show of Shows, died on November 26 at the age of 94. In addition to Your Show of Shows, Tolkin wrote for shows ranging from Caesar's Hour to All in the Family.

Mel Tolkin was born Shmuel Tolchinsky in Odessa, Ukraine on August 3, 1913. The family migrated to Montreal in 1926. He studied accounting in accordance with his family's wishes, but found himself drawn to show business instead. In the Thirties he wrote musical revues and played piano in night clubs around Montreal. He used the name "Mel Tolkin" so that his family would not find out. His first big break in show business came as writing the book for the revue Of V We Sing which ran for a brief time on Broadway in 1942. During World War II he served in the Canadian Army.

Following the war, Tolkin moved to New York City. His talent for entertainment found him at Camp Tamiment, a resort in the Poconos. It was there that he met his writing partner, Lucille Kallen. It was in 1949 that Tolkin and Kallen were hired for the TV show The Admiral Broadway Revue. An early comedy variety show, it starred Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Aired on both NBC and the Dumont network, The Amdiral Broadway Revue would pave the way for another show starring Caesar and Coca and written by Tolkin and Kallen--Your Show of Shows. Your Show of Shows debuted in 1950 and aired on Saturday night. It was one of the earliest sketch comedy shows and can be considered the direct ancestor of such series as Saturday Night Live and In Living Colour. In fact there is very little later sketch variety shows have done that Your Show of Shows did not do first--movie parodies, parodies of TV commercials, skits that pushed the boundaries of good tastes, and so on. Tolkin not only wrote many of the sketches on Your Show of Shows, he also wrote the theme song for the show as well.

Indeed, Mel Tolkin was the lead of a group of writers, most of who would become legendary in a relatively short period of time: Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Danny Simon, and Neil Simon. The performers on the show would become legendary as well, featuring not only Sid Caesar, but Carl Reiner and Howard Morris (best known as Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show) as well. Your Show of Shows would leave the air in 1954, whereupon Tolkin would become ;ead writer on Sid Caesar's next variety show, Caesar's Hour. Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Danny Simon, and Neil Simon would follow Tolkin to the new show, which included a new writer--a fellow by the name of Woody Allen. Sadly, Caesar's Hour was not the success that Your Show of Shows had been and lasted only three seasons.

From the late Fifties into the Sixties Tolkin would write for such series as Sid Caesar Invites You, The Danny Kaye Show, Run, Buddy. Run, and The Good Guys. In the Seventies he wrote several episodes of All in the Family. In the Sixties he also wrote the screenplay for the movie Last of the Secret Agents. Tolkin also wrote for Bob Hope and Danny Thomas.

Tolkin also worked on Broadway. In 1950 he composed the lyrics and music for the musical revue Tickets, Please. In 1958 he wrote the comedy Maybe Tuesday. In 1990 he wrote the musical revue Those Were The Days.

Even though his name is not as well known today as some of the writers he worked with on Your Show of Shows, Mel Tolkin was arguably one of the most talented comedy writers in television. The work that he and his fellow writers did on Your Show of Shows was sheer genius. Even today, over fifty years after the show first aired, those sketches are still laugh out loud funny. As a man who wrote many, many hours of the best comedy material ever to air on television, Mel Tolkin will not soon be forgotten.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Quiet Riot's Kevin DuBrow is Dead

Kevin DuBrow, lead singer of the heavy metal band Quiet Riot, was found dead Sunday at the age of 52. The causes were unknown.

DuBrow was born October 29, 1955 in Hollywood, California. By age 13 his family had moved to Van Nuys, California. He became interested in music as a teenager. It was in 1975 that legendary guitarist Randy Rhoads formed Quiet Riot with Kevin DuBrow as lead singer. The group recorded two albums (unreleased in the United States) before breaking up in 1979, when Rhoads left to work with Ozzy Osbourne. DuBrow then formed his own band, called DuBrow, with some of the old members of Quiet Riot. Not long after Rhoads' untimely death, DuBrow was renamed Quiet Riot.

This new version of Quiet Riot would have a hit single with a remake of Slade's "Cum on Feel the Noize." The success of the single would drive their album, Metal Health, to number one on the Billboard albums chart. Quiet Riot seemed poised for stardom. But their second album, Condition Critical (which included another Slade remake, "Mama Weer All Crazee Now," fizzled on the charts. As the album failed on the charts, DuBrow criticised other metal bands, the press, and even the record company. The end result was that DuBrow effectively alienated many of Quiet Riot's fans. Eventually even the other members of Quiet Riot tired of DuBrow and he fired from the band in 1987.

DuBrow would return to the band in 1991. The band continued to release albums throughout the Nineties and the Naughts, but they never again saw the success that they had with Metal Health. DuBrow recorded his own solo album in 2004, consisting of nothing but covers (such as T. Rex's "20th Century Boy" and Mott the Hoople's "Drivin' Sister").

I cannot say that I ever was a huge fan of Quiet Riot. While I am a metal fan, I have never been fond of pop metal and Quiet Riot was a most typical pop metal band. I must admit that I did like their remakes of "Cum on Feel the Noize" and "Mama Weer All Crazee Now." And there is no denying their influence. Both the single "Cum on Feel the Noize" and the album Metal Health were among the earliest metal records to hit the top of the charts, thus paving the way for other metal acts in the Eighties where Billboard was concerned. For better or worse, Quiet Riot also paved the way for other pop metal bands. Regardless of what serious metalheads thought of the subgenre of pop metal, it was certainly popular in the Eighties. Although he would only have one successful album, Kevin DuBrow then left his mark on music history.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Mizzou Won

Okay, I don't usually write about sports here. A Shroud of Thoughts is devoted to pop culture and I simply do not think of sports as pop culture. That having been said, last night was the occasion of what may be the most significant football game in the history of either the University of Missouri or the University of Kansas. In the end the Missouri Tigers would beat the Kansas Jayhawks 36-28.

The significance of the game rested on several factors. First, this game was the Big 12 North championship. Whoever won this game would move onto the Big 12 championship to face the Big 12 South champions Oklahoma. Second, for the first time in years both teams were ranked in the top ten in the AP poll--Missouri at number 3 and Kansas at number 2. Third, Friday night number one LSU lost their game against Arkansas. This puts the number one spot up for grabs. Whoever won the so called "Border Showdown" could find themselves ranked number one in the AP poll. Fourth, not only would the winner of this game move onto the Big 12 championship, but they could find themselves in the national championship. This would be quite an accomplishment for either team. The last time Mizzou was ever this close to a national championship title was in 1960. As to Kansas, they have never been this close.

Of course, the game is made all the more important by the rivalry between the University of Missouri and University of Kansas that has existed ever since they first played each other in 1891. It is the oldest football rivalry west of the Mississippi. What is more the rivalry's roots do not rest on the gridiron, but in the history of the two states. Prior to the War Between the States, there were outright skirmishes between the two states. During the War, Jayhawkers from Kansas would raid Missouri and bushwhackers from Missouri would raid Kansas. The rivalry then actually came about because of some very deep seated feelings the states hold for each other. Since 1891, the two teams have played each other 116 times. Until last night the record was tied at 53 wins apiece, 53 losses apiece, and 9 ties. Last night that changed, as Mizzou now has 54 wins over Kansas. Of course, Jayhawkers will insist that the record should be tied at 54 wins apiece, counting the 1960 game in which the Jayhawks played an ineligible player as a win (Bert Coan, ineligible because of recruiting violations on the part of Kansas). It must be pointed out, however, that the NCAA does not count the game as a win, which is ultimately what matters, regardless what Jayhawks fans might think.

Given what either team could gain from the game and the long history between the two teams, I think those of you who do not live in either Missouri or Kansas can understand why the game was so important. That having been said, I am still a little puzzled as to why some venues favoured Kansas to win the game, even if many thought it would be close. The simple fact is that Missouri played a much tougher schedule than Kansas did. In fact, I will go so far as to say that given the teams that the Jayhawks played, I don't think they really deserved their AP ranking of number two. Let's face it, while Mizzou faced off against the juggernaut known as Oklahoma, Kansas was facing off the rather less threatening team known as Baylor. At best, Kansas faced teams who might hope to get into the fringe bowls, while Missouri was facing teams with fairly good records. I might also mention that Kansas did not even rank in the top 100 with regards to punt returns and net punting, and until last night they had only sacked a passer a total of 19 times. I can also point out that the last time the Tigers played the Jayhawks, we beat them 42 to 17.

In fact, while I am happy that Missouri won last night's game, I must say that I am somewhat disappointed at the score. We only won 36 to 28. In my humble opinion, the score should have been more like last year's Mizzou/KU game; the Tigers should have given the Jayhawks a sound thrashing. While the Tigers were playing well last night, it seems to me that they could have played better. While I have to admit that this KU team is a good one, I don't think they are so good that they could rack up 28 points against the Tigers without some mistakes on Mizzou's part.

Regardless, for the first time in 47 years it seems that the national championship could be within Mizzou's grasp. As a fan of Mizzou football since childhood, I have to say that this makes me very happy. Of course, even if the Missouri Tigers do not become the 2007 football champions, I will still be happy. After all, we ended KU's winning streak, won the Big 12 North title, prevented them from going onto the Big 12 championship, and dashed any hopes, however meagre, they had of being national champions. For a Mizzou Tiger fan, that is more than enough.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Black Friday

I have to be frank. I don't like shopping. I have always been one of those people who prefers to go into the store, get what he wants, and then get out of there as swiftly as possible. I see no point in wandering around a retail store looking for bargains, even on things that I might want or even possibly need. It is for that reason that I usually avoid stores on the day after Thanksgiving, now widely known as Black Friday. As nearly everyone knows, Black Friday is the official start of the Yuletide shopping season. Many, many people will rush to the stores on this day hoping to find things on the cheap. Sadly, for the most part these bargain hunters make it almost impossible to get out of any store in a timely manner.

Indeed, I feel that I was very lucky yesterday. My sister had run out of her diabetes medication and I needed to get groceries. To conserve gas we decided to simply go to WalMart yesterday morning, despite the crowds of shoppers (the need for her diabetes medicine outweighed any desire to avoid bargain hunters). We were fortunate in that we were able to get out of WalMart in a little over fifteen minutes. At any rate, when I told my second best friend (who hates shopping as much as I do) that I was going to WalMart yesterday, she looked at me as if I was insane until I explained to her my sister's situation with regards to her diabetes medication.

Anyhow, I bring this up because Black Friday has become a firmly rooted tradition in American culture. What is more is that it is not a recent phenomenon. Oh, it is true that the name by which it has become known is of recent vintage. The earliest use of the phrase Black Friday referred not to the day after Thanksgiving, but the Friday before the Christian Easter, the day better known as "Good Friday." It is on this day that Christians commemorate the Crucifixion of Jesus, hence the reason it was called "Black Friday." In the United States, the name "Black Friday" was also applied to September 24, 1869, a day when there was a financial panic as the gold market in the United States collapsed. And as I mentioned yesterday, it was also the name of a 1940 movie starring Boris Karloff.

As to how the day after Thanksgiving came to be called "Black Friday" in the United States, it could to have its origins in the Philadelphia area, or at least the eastern United States. The first printed references to the day after Thanksgiving as "Black Friday" were both published on November 25, 1975 and both deal with the Philadelphia area. One article was in the Titusville Herald (Titusville being a suburb of Philadelphia), dealing with the crowds of shoppers on this day. The article specifically states that bus drivers and cabbies called the day "Black Friday" because of the headaches they receive from the day. Another article appeared in no less than the New York Times. This article dealt with the Army-Navy football game, which always takes place after Thanksgiving. Making reference to the shopping done on that day, this article mentions that Philadelphia bus drivers and police officers call the day "Black Friday" because of the extreme traffic. It would then seem that the day after Thanksgiving received its name of "Black Friday" because of the hordes of shoppers out on that day.

While both articles reference the Philadelphia area, we cannot be certain that the term originated there. A year later, on November 27, 1976, an article in the Times Herald Record of Middletown, New York referred to the day of Thanksgiving as "Black Friday," with particular reference to the hordes of shoppers out on that day. It is possible that the Times Herald Record got the term from the articles in the New York Times and the Titusville Herald, but then it is also possible that, while the first two times the phrase appeared in print make reference to the Philadelphia area, the name "Black Friday" originated elsewhere in the eastern United States. That having been said, references to the day after Thanksgiving as "Black Friday" are sparse before the Naughts. The term is used in an article in the St. Petersburg Times dated November 27, 1986. That article makes reference to the Tampa Bay, Florida area and states that the day after Thanksgiving is called "Black Friday." It is also used in the article "This Year It's Green Friday," from the November 27, 1998 issue of Time. Regardless, use of the term Black Friday for the day after Thanksgiving seems to have entered widespread usage around 2002. That year alone the term was used in venues ranging from the Chicago Tribune to CNN.

While the term Black Friday may have only originated in the past thirty years, the tradition of the day after Thanksgiving as the official start of the Christmas shopping season goes back considerably farther. As might be expected, it is rooted deeply in the history of the observation of Christmas in the United States. For much of the United States' history, the nation was sharply divided on the subject of Christmas. New England was largely settled by Puritans, who regarded Christmas as a largely pagan celebration (given how much of the old Germanic pagan holiday called Geol in Old English and Jól in Old Norse carried over into the Christian holiday, they were right to some degree). In fact, in 1659 the General Court of Massachusetts actually banned any observance of Christmas beyond attending church! Most of New England would not go this extreme, but from the 17th to 19th centuries Christmas was simply another work day for most Yankees. This was in sharp contrast to the American South. Settled by Royalists loyal to Charles I, Christmas was the social event of the year. There was simply no holiday observed with so much enthusiasm in the South as Christmas.

Of course, before Black Friday could develop, the holiday of Thanksgiving would also have to be established. The nation was also sharply divided with regards to Thanksgiving. Annual Thanksgiving observances in New England date back to the late 17th century. In New England it was one of the biggest celebrations of the year. On the other hand, from the 17th to 19th centuries, the South hardly even recognised the existence of the day. This would be changed by one woman, Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the women's magazine Godey's Lady's Book, started campaigning to make Thanksgiving a national holiday as early as 1827. She finally succeeded in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln signed it into law. Over the next several decades, then, Thanksgiving would catch on in the American South.

At the same time New England's attitudes towards Christmas were changing. In 1820 New Yorker Washington Irving published his popular book The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall. Illustrator Thomas Nast, born in Germany but raised in New York, popularised the image of Santa Claus in the pages of Harper's Weekly. The growing popularity of Christmas in New England was not lost on retailers. Christmas having traditionally been a time of gift giving, retailers gradually began to capitalise on the holiday. As early as the 1820s and 1830s, sweet shops in New York City started having Christmas sales. By 1840 many stores began to advertise themselves as Santa Claus' headquarters. Influential department store Macy's was among those to jump on the Christmas bandwagon. The year 1867 marked the very first time the retailer was open until midnight on Christmas Eve. In 1874 Macy's set up the first of their legendary Yuletide window displays. That same year Macy's brought Santa Claus to the store for the first time (here it should be noted that they were the first store to have their own Santa Claus).

With American retailers capitalising on Christmas, it would not be long before the day after Thanksgiving would be established as the first day of the holiday shopping season. References to shopping on the day after Thanksgiving occur relatively early in the 20th century. As early as 1907 the The Evening Times of Cumberland, Maryland makes reference to shopping on the day after Thanksgiving. Such references would grow with even more frequency as the years passed. In the December 10, 1908 issue of the Charleroi Mail of Charleroi, Maryland, a retailer mentions that they have been busy since the day after Thanksgiving. In an issue of the Indiana Progress dated November 27, 1917, a retail store makes reference to their holiday line being ready the day after Thanksgiving.

By 1920 the idea that the day after Thanksgiving marked the first day of the holiday shopping season was so entrenched in the United States that Gimbels' first Thanksgiving parade in Philadelphia in 1920 marked the arrival of Santa Claus at their store. Macy's would follow suit with their own parade in 1924. In fact, Macy's would even go a step further. While it is now known as the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, that first parade was called the Macy’s Christmas Parade. Even then the Macy's parade ended with the arrival of Santa Claus. Hudson's department store in Detroit would also hold their own Thanksgiving parade in 1924. That parade also ended with the arrival of Santa.

By the Thirties the day after Thanksgiving was so well established as the first day of the holiday shopping season that it even resulted in the date of Thanksgiving being moved. Retailers had long wanted a longer holiday shopping season and so they lobbied President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to move the date of the holiday from the last Thursday in November to the next to the last Thursday in November. Roosevelt then changed the date of the holiday in 1939. An outraged public forced the President to move the holiday back.

It would seem that the day after Thanksgiving or Black Friday was long ago established as the first day of the holiday shopping season. That having been said, it is not the biggest shopping day of the year in the United States, as often believed. According to Snopes.Com, while Black Friday may be the day when the largest number of shoppers rush to the stores, it is not the day when the most money is spent. According to statistics from the International Council of Shopping Centres provided by Snopes, the date that the most money was spent at retail stores from 1993 to 2002 ranged from December 18 to December 23. Despite the hordes of bargain hunters who flock to stores on the day after Thanksgiving, then, it would seem that most of us procrastinate when it comes to our holiday shopping, waiting a few days before Christmas to do the bulk of it.

Despite the fact that Black Friday is not the biggest shopping day of the year in the United States, it is certainly one which has had a long association with that particular activity. This year many stores opened as early as 4:00 AM Friday so that eager bargain hunters could do their shopping. What is more, this is nothing unusual. Even when I was growing up in the Seventies, I can remember when stores would open up inordinately early in order to accommodate shoppers. Even the pushing, shoving, and outright fighting over merchandise that accompanies some Black Friday sales was not unknown then. I can remember hearing news reports about such events even as a boy. Indeed, anyone who was alive in 1984 can probably remember the fist fights that broke out over the then wildly popular Cabbage Patch Kids. This year alone police were called to break up fights between shoppers in places as diverse as Cullman, Alabama and Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

As much as I hate shopping, Black Friday has never been a tradition in which I have taken part. Even as a child I don't think my family ever went shopping on the day after Thanksgiving. I suspect my mother and father were much like me--I simply do not care to brave the crowds of often crazy shoppers in search of a bargain. In fact, I have to say that the fifteen minutes I spent in WalMart yesterday was fifteen minutes too long. That having been said, I recognise that for better or worse, Black Friday has been established as a tradition for around 100 years. And whether one likes shopping or not, it seems like it is here to stay.

Postscript: Okay, I know it might seem odd that I am writing about Black Friday on Saturday, but yesterday was Boris Karloff's 120th birthday, a much more important event in my mind. As usual, I have my priorities....

Friday, November 23, 2007

Boris Karloff's 120th Birthday

Today is the busiest shopping day of the year here in the United States, called "Black Friday." Perhaps fittingly, it is also the 120th birthday of the late, great, horror star Boris Karloff, who starred in a 1940 movie called, well, Black Friday. Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt on this date in 1887 in Camberwell, London, England.

William Henry Pratt was born into a family of some distinction. His father was Edward John Pratt Jr, the Deputy Commissioner of Customs, Salt and Opium, Northern Division, Indian Salt Revenue Service, His grandmother was Eliza Julia Pratt, whose sister was Anna Leonowens--best known for Anna and the King of Siam. Sadly, William Henry Pratt was orphaned while very young. He was raised by his older siblings and attended Enfield Grammar School, Uppingham School, and Merchant Taylors' School, Northwood. He attended the University of London, determined to follow his brother, Sir John Henry Pratt, into foreign service. Instead, William Henry Pratt found himself drawn to drama. In 1909 he moved to Canada. It was not long before William Henry Pratt would take the stage name of Boris Karloff. There is some mystery as to how he developed the name. Karloff claimed that he chose the name "Boris" because it sounded exotic and foreign, and the name "Karloff" because it was a last name on his mother's side of the family. That having been said, while Karloff could boast some Indian ancestry, none of his ancestors on either side of his family appear to have been Slavic. While the means by which Karloff developed his nom de guerre remain a mystery, the reason he did so may be easier to find. The Pratt family was a distinguished one, particularly in the foreign service, and acting was not a particularly well respected profession at the time. In fact, after Karloff had gained fame as the Creature in Frankenstein he was concerned how his family would react to him upon his return to England in 1933. As it turned out he need not be, as his family welcomed him with open arms and even posed with him for publicity photos. While the Pratt family was not concerned with William Henry Pratt besmirching the family name, he may well have been himself, hence the need for an unusual stage name.

Karloff's first several months in Canada were spent working on a farm and later on construction on a racetrack. Eventually he became part of the Jeanne Russell Theatre Company out of Kamloops, British Columbia. By 1917 he was playing the role of Trampas in the dramatic adaptation of the classic novel The Virgininan. It was in December of that year that the play arrived in Los Angeles. It was at that point that the influenza epidemic of 1917 would change Karloff's career forever. The epidemic particularly hurt the theatre business in California, forcing many stage actors to go into the movies. Karloff was among them. He made his first appearance on the big screen in 1919 in The Lightning Raider. Over the next several years Karloff appeared in a number of silent films, usually as a heavy. He appeared in such films as The Last of the Mohicans, The Infidel, The Golden Web, and The Phantom of the North. His income from his acting was at the time so meagre that he had to work as a truck driver.

Karloff's fortunes changed dramatically in 1931. That year he appeared in two roles that would change his life forever. One was an important part in Howard Hawks' movie The Criminal Code, as the killer Ned Galloway. Karloff's days of playing bit parts was over. Afterwards he appeared in much more visible roles than he had before, in such films as The Public Defender and Graft. The other important role in which Karloff appeared in 1931 was the one for which he is best known. Having had a great deal of success with their adaptation of Dracula, Universal Pictures decided to adapt that other horror classic, Frankenstein. They soon found themselves without someone to play the Monster when Bela Lugosi turned down the role because his face would not be visible under the makeup the role required. It was while Karloff was working on Graft (also made at Universal Pictures) that director James Whale noticed the actor. Whale thought that Karloff's head and face would be perfect for Frankenstein's creation, and so Karloff got the part of his lifetime. Frankenstein proved to be even more successful than Dracula. In fact, it became the Star Wars of its day, raking in a tidy profit for Universal Pictures. There can be no doubt that much of the success of Frankenstein rested with Karloff's considerable talent. Rather than portraying the Creature as a mindless beast, Karloff endowed him with an innocence and naivete that made him a very sympathetic character. To this day, Karloff's portrayal of the Monster remains the definitive one, even after 76 years. Sadly, the costume Karloff had to wear as the Creature, compounded by years of physical labour, would leave him with severe back pain for the rest of his life.

Its success and that of Dracula inaugurated the First Golden Age of Horror Movies. It was during this period that Universal made many of its greatest horror films and that Karloff appeared in some of the best known movies of his career. Following the success of Frankenstein, Karloff appeared in James Whale's adaptation of The Old Dark House. He would follow this film with The Mummy, The Black Cat, and what may have been the greatest film of Karloff's career (and possibly the greatest horror movie of all time) The Bride of Frankenstein. Now endowed with speech, Karloff not only made the Creature even more sympathetic in this movie, but raised him to the ranks of the great tragic heroes of cinema. Of course, it would be a mistake to think that Karloff only appeared in horror movies during this time. Despite being best known for playing the Creature in the Frankenstein movies, he appeared in other genres of film than simply horror. He played Gafney in Scarface, Sanders in The Lost Patrol, Count Ledrantz in The House of Rothschild, and the title role in The Mask of Fu Manchu.

The mid to late Thirties were a particularly active time for Karloff. As might be expected he appeared in many horror movies. Nineteen thirty four's The Black Cat was particularly historic in that it marked the first time that Boris Karloff appeared with Bela Lugosi in a film. Filled with bizarre art deco sets, some rather gruesome imagery, and devil worship, The Black Cat is an odd film that still holds up well today. Karloff would work with Lugosi in many more movies. And while the two never became friends, Karloff never regarded or resented Lugosi as a rival as many have believed. Karloff's other horror movies of the time included The Raven, The Invisible Ray, and The Walking Dead. The First Golden Age of Horror Movies ended in 1936, but Karloff had no shortage of roles. He appeared in Charlie Chan at the Opera, Night Key, and West of Shanghai. He also played Mr. Wong in the movie series that began with Mr. Wong, Detective.

Karloff would not stay away from the horror genre for long. In 1939 he played the Creature for one last time in Universal's second sequel to Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein. This inaugurated the Second Golden Age of Horror. Over the next several years Karloff would appear in several horror movies, including the aforementioned Black Friday, Before I Hang, The Ape, and The House of Frankenstein.

A high point in Karloff's career would be the movies he made with Val Lewton. RKO signed Karloff with the intention of having him star in the low budget horror movies that Lewton made for the studio. Initially, Lewton did not look forward to working with Karloff, identifying the actor with Universal's monster movies. What Lewton did not know is that Karloff had long tired of Universal's monster movies and on the whole preferred Lewton's more subdued approach of horror by suggestion. The two actually enjoyed working with each other and made three of the best horror movies ever made together. In The Body Snatcher Karloff played the murderous, but unfortunate, Cabman Gray. In Isle of the Dead he played Greek General Nikolas Pherides on an isle quarantined because of a plague. His final movie for Lewton may have been the best. Bedlam is strong stuff even today and it provided Karloff with one of his best roles ever--Master George Sims, the sadistic head of a fictionalised version of Bethlem Royal Hospital.

It was in 1941 that Karloff also returned to the stage. He played the murderous brother Jonathan Brewster in the comedy Arsenic and Old Lace. The play provided one of the funniest in jokes in the history of drama. Brewster, having repeatedly had plastic surgery performed on himself, is constantly hearing, "He looks like Boris Karloff!" Sadly, Karloff could not appear in the film version of the play. Karloff played Brewster in the play from 1941 to 1944. He would appear in two more plays on Broadway in the Forties, The Linden Tree and The Shop at Shy Corner.

The late Forties saw the Second Golden Age of Horror come to an end with the classic Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Karloff did not appear in that film, although he would appear with the comedy duo in the movie Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff. It was in the late Forties that Karloff also appeared in the films The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome. It was in 1949 that Karloff made the first of his many appearances on television, in two episodes of The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre.

During much of the Fifties Gothic horror movies were out of fashion. And sadly, by this point in his career, Karloff was so identified with the genre that he was typecast. Much of Karloff's work in the Fifties was then done in television. In 1949 he hosted the horror anthology Starring Boris Karloff, starred in the series Colonel March of Scotland Yard, and hosted the horror anthology The Veil. He appeared in episodes of Lights Out, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, Robert Montgomery Presents, Studio One, and Playhouse 90. This is not to say Karloff did not appear in any movies during this period. He appeared in the adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Door, The Black Castle, Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (in the title role), Voodoo Island, Grip of the Strangler Frankenstein 1970, and Corridors of Blood. He also appeared on Broadway in Peter Pan as Mr. Darling/Captain Hook in 1950 and The Lark in 1955.

The Sixties saw Karloff appear in more films than he had in the Fifties, In 1963 he made two films with Roger Corman. The Raven (sharing the name, but not the plot, of his earlier film by that name) teamed Karloff with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre in one of Corman's best films, an adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe poem of that name. Sadly, The Terror, featuring a young Jack Nicholson, was a bit of a disappointment. Karloff would be reunited with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre in Jacques Tourneur's The Comedy of Terrors. Karloff also starred in The Sorcerers, directed by Michael Reeves, one of the best horror movies of the Sixties. His last truly good film was Peter Bogdanovich's Targets, in which he played an aging horror star who faces off against a psychotic sniper. He appeared in two of the beach movies of the era, including Bikini Beach and Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. His other films are hardly worth mentioning: Die, Monster, Die, Curse of the Crimson Altar, The Fear Chamber, and other low budget films.

As in the Fifties, some of Karloff's most significant work was done in television. He was the host of the classic horror anthology series Thriller, a show which served as an introduction to the great actor for many. In 1962 he appeared as himself in an episode of Route 66 which also featured Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Jr. He narrated the classic Yuletide animated special How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1966 and provided the voice for Dr. Frankenstein in the classic Halloween special Mad Monster Party in 1969. He made notable guest appearances on such shows as The Wild Wild West, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, and The Name of the Game.

Although Boris Karloff made his name playing monsters and villains, in real life he was much more the hero. By all accounts he was one of the gentlest, most caring actors in the profession. In 1912, while working on a play in Regina, Saskatchewan, he volunteered as a rescue worker following a devastating tornado. He was a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild and often spoke on behalf of his fellow actors and other crew members with regards to hazardous conditions on sets. He helped various charities, particularly those devoted to children. From 1940 onwards he would dress up as Santa Claus and hand out Christmas gifts to children at a hospital in Baltimore. Perhaps there is perhaps no greater demonstration of Karloff's true character than a story I read several years ago in one of the many books on horror films I have read. A little girl and her mother were visiting the set of one of the many TV shows on which Karloff guested in the Sixties. The little girl had seen Frankenstein and was drawn to Karloff's sympathetic portrayal of the Monster. Naturally, when she found out the man who had played the Creature was on the set, she had to meet him. Karloff graciously talked with the little girl. And, even though by this point in his career he was in constant pain because of his back, he even picked the little girl up and rose to his full five foot eleven height. Karloff was such a man of character that he would even place a child's enjoyment over his own pain.

Sadly, Karloff's health failed him in his later years. By the late Sixties he not only suffered from the back pain that had plagued him for much of his life, but arthritis and emphysema as well. It was in 1969 that he contracted pneumonia and never recovered. He died February 2, 1969 at the age of 81.

Boris Karloff was one of the most talented actors of the Twentieth Century. He endowed the Frankenstein Monster with a sensitivity and innocence that no actor has ever since. Indeed, Karloff always insisted on calling Frankenstein's creation as "the Creature" and never "the Monster," feeling him to be an altogether sympathetic, but misunderstood figure. Karloff displayed this talent in other roles as well, even when he was playing villains. And he was as capable of playing comedy as he was drama. His sense of humour and gift for comedy were in fine display in such films as The Comedy of Terrors and on television in the series Thriller. That he was also a man with a gentle heart and a genuine love for his fans made him a most remarkable man. Short of Vincent Price, there was perhaps no finer actor to ever star in horror movies.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Is Thanksgiving in Danger of Extinction?

My brother has worked in retail for some time. He told me recently how a customer came into his store looking for Thanksgiving decorations. My brother had to tell him that they didn't have any. This sparked a conversation between my brother and the customer on how stores don't have Thanksgiving decorations as they once did. Growing up I can remember the turkeys with crepe paper tails and the cutouts of pilgrims. My brother's theory is simply that stores starting putting out their Christmas decorations earlier and earlier until eventually there was no room left for Thanksgiving decorations.

Indeed, the past several years I know many stores have their Yuletide decorations up was early as August. By November those Yuletide decorations will occupy centre stage in most stores. On November 1 our local WalMart removed the Halloween decorations and good, put up a Christmas tree at the store's opening, and put out their various Yuletide goods. That is not the end of it, either. I saw holiday oriented ads as early as November 1--the day after Halloween. Target already had Yuletide commercials as early as that day. In a few days other advertisers followed suit.

That brings us to today, Thanksgiving. Yuletide themed adverts occupy much of TV's commercial air time. As it has for the past few years, NBC aired Miracle on 34th Street this afternoon. Encore is showing The Nightmare Before Christmas (forgiveable--not only is it a great film, but it is as much a Halloween movie as a Christmas movie). FX is showing Christmas with the Kranks and Home Alone. On television it would seem that today there are more references to the Yuletide than there is to Thanksgiving, even though Thanksgiving is today.

This bring me to something of which I have written before in this blog. Namely, I believe that Thanksgiving is in danger of losing its own identity. With each passing year, as stores put out their holiday ware earlier and earlier, as advertising start running holiday themed adverts earlier and earlier, Thanksgiving is becoming little more than an extension of "Christmas time." Quite simply, it seems to me that Thanksgiving is ceasing to be its own holiday and merely becoming the start of the holiday season. That Thanksgiving decorations apparently disappeared from store shelves long ago would seem to confirm this fact.

It hasn't always been this way. In fact, there was a time, before department store established the holiday shopping season in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries, when the earliest one would see anything dealing with Christmas would be December. In those days Thanksgiving was its own holiday with its own customs and its own trappings. One would not have dreamed of putting up one's Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving or even a few days later. Indeed, until the 19th century the traditional Yuletide was the Twelve Days of Christmas familiar from the old carol--the eve of December 24th to to the morning of January 6. The Twelve Days of Christmas were positively ancient, existing before there even was a Christmas. The custom of celebrating for twelve days was apparently inherited from the Germanic pagan festival called in Old English Geol and in Old Norse J&ocacute;l.

All of this would change with the late 19th century and early 20th century when American merchants, seeing the money that could be made from selling Christmas gifts, decided that the day after Thanksgiving (now called Black Friday) should be the start of the holiday shopping season. The American holiday shopping season was well established by 1924 when Macy's held its first parade on Thanksgiving. Although held on Thanksgiving, that first parade was then called Macy's Christmas Parade. And then as now, the parade ended with the arrival of Santa Claus at the Macy's store at Herald's Square. By 1939 the holiday shopping season beginning the day after Thanksgiving was so well established that Franklin Roosevelt, caving into pressure from merchants, moved Thanksgiving from the last Thursday in November to the next to the last Thursday of November to allow for a longer shopping season. Public pressure forced the President to move the holiday back to its traditional date. Regardless, as time has passed the holiday shopping season has become conflated with the holiday season itself. And in the process it seems to me that Thanksgiving is being absorbed into the Christmas season.

I find this regrettable myself. As I said yesterday, I do have mixed feelings about Thanksgiving. I don't care much for the history behind many of the holiday's trappings (Pilgrims, early thanksgiving observances held to celebrate victories over Native Americans, et. al.). In the end, however, I do enjoy eating turkey and pumpkin pie. And more importantly, I think it is important for entire nations to set aside one day a year for individuals to give thanks to whatever gods they may worship. After all, in expressing gratitude one must consider everything that is positive or everything that is good in one's life. Giving thanks can then act as an affirmation of all that is positive in life. In this world where bad news is to be had in every television newscast and every newspaper, where we often focus on those things which make us unhappy, where we often let stress get the best of us, affirming that which is good in our lives is perhaps more necessary than it ever was before. While I don't like many of the holiday's trappings, I can then see a need for Thanksgiving.

I then find it very regrettable that Thanksgiving is losing its identity and simply becoming part of the Yuletide, which itself has been divorced from its traditional period of celebration. I love the Yuletide--it is my favourite holiday--but I have no which to see it overwhelm Thanksgiving. After all, I think we have a need for a day for giving thanks, and that day should be celebrated as its very own holiday.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving...Who Needs Pilgrims

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Over the years the holiday has become perhaps the third or fourth most important holiday in the United States, after the Yuletide, the 4th of July, and maybe Halloween. It is a day closely associated with the imagery of Pilgrims and turkeys. Of course, like any holiday, it is steeped in myth and, for that matter, misconceptions.

Most school children will tell you that the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving after their first harvest. They invited the local Wampanoag people and together they feasted for three days. There is an element of truth to this. The Pilgrims did hold a Thanksgiving feast. And they did invite the local Wampanoag people. Beyond those facts, however, there is much about what is said about Thanksgiving that is not quite true.

In fact, the Pilgrims were not the first European settlers in what would become the United States to celebrate Thanksgiving. On May 23, 1541, Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado held a thanksgiving service after finding water and food in what would later become the Texas panhandle. As far as English settlers are concerned, the first thanksgiving was held by the settlers of Berkeley Hundred in Virginia, an area about 20 miles from Jamestown on December 4, 1619. The charter of the group stated that they should observe the day they arrived as a day of thanksgiving. To this end, the settlers of Berkeley Hundred held a thanksgiving service. The settlers of Berkeley Hundred went a step further and also held thanksgiving services in 1620 and 1621. Berkeley Hundred would later be abandoned following the Indian Massacre of 1622, but the site would later become home to the Berkeley Plantation, home of the important Harrison family (one of the First Families of Virginia, of which President William Henry Harrison was a member). The Pilgrims were hardly the first European settlers in what would become the United States to hold a thanksgiving celebration.

As to the Pilgrims themselves, they were not Puritans as is often believed. The Pilgrims believed that their differences with the Church of England were so great that they chose to worship outside of the conventional organisation of the state church. This is a stark contrast to most Puritans, who only wanted to change the Church of England, not leave it entirely. It is also untrue that the Pilgrims came to what would become the United States to escape religious persecution. As Separatists, the Pilgrims were persecuted to some degree in England, but they left England for the Netherlands where greater religious freedom existed. In the Netherlands the Pilgrims were not persecuted, but they had other reasons to leave for the New World. One reason was that the Pilgrims wanted their children to retain their English identity, culture, and language. There were also economic concerns, as their lives in the Netherlands were not particularly easy. The Pilgrims then decided to migrate to Virginia or somewhere near Virginia.

Of course, there are other myths about the Pilgrims. For instance, even though they are often portrayed today as wearing black, it was not the dominant colour in their choices of clothing. Instead, they tended towards such common colours as reds, greens, blues violets, greys, and earth tones. And while the Pilgrims were on the whole more tolerant than most Puritans, they should perhaps not be regarded as the models of tolerance that they are today. It is true that they were tolerant of the Wampanoag people and the two groups cooperated together for some time. The Pilgrims hardly extended such tolerance to the Pequot people, however, as they began to settle land claimed by the Pequot. Eventually this would erupt into open warfare between the Pequot and the Pilgrims. In the end the Pequot people were massacred by the Separtists. And while the Pilgrims had been persecuted in England, in Massachusetts they would persecute the Quakers themselves.

As to the Pilgrims' Thanksgiving feast itself, we do not know if it included turkey. William Bradford in his History of Plymouth Plantation claims turkey was on the menu at the feast, but the history was written twenty years after the event. A more current account written by Edward Winslow in a letter only mentions corn (by which he meant wheat, after the English usage of the time), Indian corn, peas (not worth the gathering), fowl (which could be almost any bird), and deer. While turkey could have been among the fowl that Edward Winslow mentions, we have to face the fact that it might not have been.

While the Pilgrims did hold a Thanksgiving feast in the fall (at some point between September 21 and November 9) of 1621, they did not repeat the event. Annual thanksgiving celebrations would not come into existence until after 1639 in Connecticut and 1680 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. For the most part Thanksgiving celebrations seem to have been largely a phenomenon restricted to New England. The South largely eschewed such celebration. This was perhaps due to a fundamental difference in Yankee and Southern cultures. The North was settled largely by Puritans, who would quite naturally be drawn to such religious observances. The South was largely settled by Cavaliers (Royalists loyal to King Charles I), who over all preferred Christmas to any sort of thanksgiving observance. Before Thanksgiving could become a national holiday, it took a campaign on the part of Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the women's magazine Godey's Lady's Book. Starting in 1827, Hale lobbied to have Thanksgiving declared a national holiday. She finally succeeded, with Abraham Lincoln signing it into law in 1863.

While I loved Thanksgiving as a child, I must admit that I have somewhat mixed feeling about the holiday today. Much of this is due to the fact that many of the early Thanksgiving celebrations were held by either Pilgrims or Puritans, two groups with whom I have difficulty identifying (my ancestors were Cavaliers). A greater problem I have with the holiday is the fact that some of those early Thanksgiving celebrations, such as one proclaimed by the city council of Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1676, were held in order to give thanks for successfully killing Native Americans. I strongly disapprove of genocide and giving thanks for being successful at it. Certainly, the fact that I am part Native American does not help.

Still, I must admit that I think it is important to set aside a day when people can give thanks to whatever gods they worship. Particularly today I think that too often we focus on those things that are negative in our lives. We complain about our jobs, the government, our spouses (or lack thereof), and our lives in general. Rarely do we stop think about those things that are good in our lives, those things for which we have to be thankful. For myself, ultimately I chose to ignore the Pilgrim imagery and everything else and to focus on Thanksgiving as just that--a time when I can stop and give thanks for that which I am grateful to have in my life.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Advertising Icon Dick Wilson (Mr. Whipple) Passes On

Actor Dick Wilson, best known as grocer Mr. Whipple, always nervous about customers squeezing his Charmin toilet paper, died yesterday at the age of 91. Although best known for playing Mr. Whipple, Wilson's acting career spanned four decades and he was an accomplished character actor.

Wilson was born Riccardo DiGuglielmo on July 30. 1916, in England to an Italian father (a vaudeville performer) and an English mother (a singer). While Wilson was still a baby, his father moved the family to Hamilton, Ontario. Given his mother and father's careers, it was perhaps natural that Wilson was drawn to show business. As a teenager he worked at an Ontario radio station. He also was a member of the Whiz Bang Revue, a group which entertained local servicemen, and was active in local theatre. He attended the Ontario College of Art and Design. Following graduation he followed his mother and father in becoming a comic and dancer in vaudeville. With the onset of World War II he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and served as a fighter pilot. He took part in the Battle of Britain.

Following the war Wilson moved to the United States. It was here that he made his first appearance on the small screen, as one of the hosts of The Better Home Show in 1951. He made the first of many guest appearances on various TV shows as a woodsman in an episode of The Adventures of Jim Bowie in 1956. His first appearance on the big screen was an uncredited role as a jury foreman in The Tattered Dress. Throughout the late Fifties Wilson would appear in such shows as Jane Wyman Presents The Fireside Theatre, Seargeant Preston of the Yukon, Wagon Train, The Untouchables, and The Texan.

Arguably, however, the Sixties was Wilson's decade. He guest starred on such shows as Maverick, The Lawless Years, The Bob Cummings Show, The Virginian, The Twilight Zone, My Living Doll, My Favourite Martian, Get Smart, and I Dream of Jeannie. He was something of a regular on Bewitched, on which he always appeared as an unnamed drunk who always blames the amazing things he sees on his drunken state. He also had a recurring role on Hogan's Heroes as Captain Fritz Gruber. He appeared in the films Diary of a Madman, What a Way to Go, John Goldfarb, Please Come Home, and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.

It would be a job he got in 1964, however, that would gain Wilson everlasting fame. It was that year he was hired to play Mr. Whipple in a series of commercials for Charmin toilet paper. The adverts would feature customers in a grocery store eagerly squeezing the soft rolls of Charmin toilet paper, only to be chastened by cranky grocer Mr. Whipple with the words, "Please don't squeeze the Charmin." The kicker was that Mr. Whipple could not resist squeezing the Charmin himself. Wilson played Mr. Whipple in over 500 Charmin commercials, from 1964 to 1985. In 1999 Mr. Whipple came out of "retirement" as part of the promotion for a new Charmin line.

The Seventies would continue seeing Wilson playing Mr. Whipple and continue his many guest spots on TV shows. He appeared on The Partridge Family, Love American Style, McMillan and Wife, The Bob Newhart Show, and Alice. He also appeared in the film The World's Greatest Athelete. The Eighties saw Wilson's career slow down. He retired as Mr. Whipple in 1985 and made fewer guest appearances. He did appear in the films The Incredible Shrinking Woman and Get Out of My Room. His last on screen appearance (aside from Charmin adverts) was on an episode of Square One TV, where he played, fittingly, a grocer.

If there can be any doubt of Dick Wilson's talent as an actor, one need only look at his two best known roles--Mr. Whipple and the drunk on Bewitched. Mr. Whipple was uptight, fussy, and nervous, a character who took himself seriously. The drunk was a none too serious alcoholic who always swore to give up drinking when he saw one of Samantha's spells, but in the end never did. There could be two no more different characters, yet Wilson played them both convincingly. Although he was best known for playing Mr. Whipple (a role he did very well), Dick Wilson was capable of so much more.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Film Editor Peter Zinner Passes On

Peter Zinner, who edited the classic The Godfather, died November 13 from complications from Hodgkins lymphoma.

Zinner was born July 24, 1919 in Vienna, Austria. Zinner studied composition, music theory, and piano at the Theresianum and then the Reinhardt-Seminar at the University of Vienna. Being Jeiwsh, at the age of 17 his family fled Nazi Germany to the Philippines in 1938. He moved to Los Angeles in 1940, where he eked out a living as a taxi driver and later playing pianos whenever theatres showed silent movies. In 1943 he became an apprentice film editor at 20th Century Fox. He became an assistant sound effects editor at Universal in 1947. In 1949 he got a job at MGM, then the biggest studio in Hollywood. At MGM he worked in the music department, receiving no credit, on such films as Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Invitation to the Dance, and Gigi. After years of working in the movies, he received his first on screen credit as the music editor on For the First Time in 1959. He would also be music editor on such films as King Kong vs. Godzilla, They Saved Hitler's Brain, and Lord Jim. In 1962 he received his first on screen credit as an editor, on the film Wild Harvest.

Having worked as music editor on Lord Jim, Zinner found himself appointed the editor of the movie The Professionals by producer/director Richard Brooks. The movie put Zinner on the map as an editor. He would also work on Brooks' next film, In Cold Blood. Zinner would be nominated for the Oscar for Best Editing for his work alongside William Reynolds on The Godfather. He would win for his work on The Deer Hunter. Zinner was nominated for another Oscar for his editing on An Officer and a Gentleman. Zinner would go onto edit such films and TV projects as The Winds of War, Saving Grace, Citizen Cohn, and American Tragedy. His last film work was in 2006, when he co-edited the documentary Running with Arnold with his daughter, Katina Zinner.

Peter Zinner was a master editor with an exquisite sense of timing. No doubt his background in music was responsible for much of this, and Zinner edited scenes with the finnese of a master musican playing a fine instrument. A perfect example is the climax of The Godfather, in which the christening of Michael Corleone is cross cut with Don Michael Corleone murdering his enemies. His virtuosity was also on fine display in The Deer Hunter, for which he deservedly won an Academy Award. Zinner was definitely one of the most talented directors ever.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Top Ten Best Family Films

Cookie Magazine recently did a list of their twenty five favourite family films. And while I agree with many of their choices (who can argue with The Wizard of Oz or Singin' in the Rain?), I do disagree with many of them (The Sound of Music has always seemed like a sure fire cure for insomnia to me, while The Goonies is just plain bad). I also have to say that the list Cookie made has far too many recent films in my opinion to be reliable--too many of them have yet to survive the test of time (although I have no doubt that everything from Pixar will). For those reasons, and with Thanksgiving right around the corner (at least for those of us in the States), I thought it would be a good idea to come up with my own Top Ten Best Family Films (only ten, because twenty five would occupy too much space in this blog).

Of course, I suppose what is and is not a family film is debatable. My personal definition of a family film is that it is any film that the whole family can enjoy. It is for that reason that none of the Star Wars movies made the list. As much as I love them, I don't regard them as family films. As often as the first film makes such lists, however, I am sure that there are those who would disagree with me. Another concern is that while this list is being compiled the week of Thanksgiving, I would not consider every film on this list to be Thanksgiving fare (if you're like me, you prefer to celebrate the Yuletide at the Yuletide and Thanksgiving at Thanksgiving).

I must point out that I am doing this list in alphabetical order, rather than ranking them from number one to number ten (or vice versa). For me, choosing my favourite movies is something akin like trying to choose one's favourite child. I love all of them, so I can't really rank them. That having been said, if I absolutely had to rank them, It's a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz would occupy the top spots.

So without further ado, here are my Top Ten Best Family Films....

Babe (1995): Although you'll often find it in the children's sections of video stores, Babe is actually a very sophisticated film. Through the tale of a young pig who learns to herd sheep, the movie explores such timeless subjects as the importance of being one's self (even if it means not conforming to other's expectations), the importance of family, the foolishness of bigotry, and the power of love. This is rather more than one gets from the average "children's" film. In fact, I daresay that not only will much of the film's humour be lost on younger children, but I doubt that they will catch many of the movie's finer nuances as well. It is definitely one of those "children's" movies that adults will enjoy more than the kids.

A Christmas Story (1983): For most of the Twentieth Century, at least up to the Nineties, there existed a sort of juvenile society in the United States, when children could roam about their neighbourhoods without fear and the year of most kids centred around that one, singular event--Christmas. Set sometime in the past (I always figured the year must be 1939), A Christmas Story is a celebration not only of Christmases past, but of childhood past as well. Ralphie is going through something many of us between the ages of thirty and ninety have at one point or another in our childhoods. He wants what seems to be absolutely the most unattainable Yuletide gift; in his case, an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle. The fact that adults keep telling him "You'll shoot eye out" does nothing to detour his quest to get this Holy Grail of all Christmas presents. It is easy to identify with Ralphie, as all of us as kids wanting something it seemed we could not possibly get. And A Christmas Story perfectly captures the Yuletide as it was celebrated in the States for much of the Twentieth Century. Of course, the fact that it is one of the most hilarious comedies of all time certainly helps.

The Iron Giant (1999): Not only is this one of the greatest family films of all time, but in my humble opinion it is the greatest animated feature film of all time and one of Brad Bird's best movies (even The Incredibles doesn't match up to this, and I have yet to see Ratatouille). Set in the Fifties, the movie centres around a young boy who befriends a giant robot from outer space. With that premise The Iron Giant addresses such timeless issues as the nature of good and evil, the futility of violence, the twin evils of bigotry and paranoia, and the importance of friendship. Not only is its animation lavish, but The Iron Giant is both well written and intelligent, with some of the best developed character ever in an animated feature. The fact is that I think that this is one of those family films that adults will enjoy more than children. At any rate, it is one of those very few movies which has actually made me cry!

It's a Wonderful Life (1946): What more can I say about It's a Wonderful Life? It is quite simply perhaps the greatest family film of all time, not to mention the greatest Yuletide movie of all time. It is definitely Frank Capra's best piece of work. I very seriously doubt that there are many adults who have never seen this film, in which George Bailey is bent on suicide, only to learn from the angel Clarence the difference his life has made in the lives of others. And this is where the film derives its power--in the not so simple demonstration of the importance that an individual can make in the lives of others. In fact, the movie is perhaps best summed up by two lines from the angel Clarence, one spoken and one written. Addressing the extreme differences in the world in which George Bailey was never born and the one in which he was, Clarence tells George, "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" And in the end, in the front page of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer he leaves to George, Clarence writes, "Remember no man is a failure who has friends." It is perhaps the most central message the movie has to offer.

Mary Poppins (1964): Okay, forget that Dick Van Dyke couldn't do a Cockney accent if his life depended upon it. Forget that Julie Andrews is technically much younger than the Mary Poppins of P. L. Travers' books. this is one of the funnest family films ever made. Not only does it feature some of the best songs ever to appear in a Disney feature ("Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" is familiar even to those who have not seen the film), but it also features some of Disney's best work, combining live action with animation, as in the sequence in which Mary and Bert dance with animated penguins. The movie goes beyond mere movie magic, however, to address some rather timeless issues--family, having fun, charity, and seeing the magic in the world around us. And it does all of this without being overly sweet or sentimental. Like Disney's best films, this is not a children's movie, it is an adult film masquerading as one.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947): As amazing as it might seem now, 20th Century Fox had no real faith in this film. To this end, they released it on May 2, 1947, hardly the Yuletide, expecting it to die at the box office. Instead, the film became one of the box office winners of that year, doing well throughout the summer clear into the Yuletide season. It has since become a classic, and there can be no doubt of why it did so. Miracle on 34th Street is not simply a movie about an old man who may or may not be Santa Claus. It is not even simply a film protesting the commercialisation of Yule. Instead it deals with some of those "lovely intangibles (as co-protagonist Fred Gailey calls them in the film)" most important to our society--friendship, love, loyalty, belief, and faith. These issues are driven home and the story made convincing by some truly great performances, from Maureen O'Hara as cold, cynical Doris Walker to Ed Gwynn as Kris Kringle himself (can there be any doubt that he is Santa Claus?). It also boasts one of the best screenplays ever written for a Christmas movie--it knows not to take itself too seriously and in doing so drives home the seriousness of those "lovely intangibles" it addresses. If the 1994 remake was so wretched, it is because it failed where this movie, the one, the only, the original, succeeded.

Pinocchio (1940): Technically, even a top ten list of the best family films should boast more Disney films than this one does. After all, I can see arguments being made for such films as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Bambi, and Sleeping Beauty. That having been said, I wanted to be fair to those other great filmmakers out there and not fill the list with Disney titles. Regardless, Pinocchio was perhaps Disney's finest moment. Aside from The Iron Giant, it is in my opinion simply the greatest animated feature of all time. It features some of the best animation ever seen on film, with very fine detail and a rich array of colours. It also features some of the best voice work ever done in a Disney film, from Mel Blanc (who played characters ranging from Figaro to Gideon) to Cliff Edwards as Jiminy Cricket. As to the songs, they are perhaps the best to ever appear in a Disney film (indeed, "When You Wish Upon a Star" has gone on to become the company's unofficial theme song). This adaptation of Carlo Collodi's novel succeeds where others have failed in that it goes beyond simply capturing the essence of the book to become a creature all its own. Disney's Pinocchio goes beyond telling the tale of a puppet who wanted to be a real boy and focuses on such issues as hope, surviving adversity, courage, honesty, friendship, responsibility, and belief. I have heard that children are sometimes frightened by this film, and I must admit it is perhaps the darkest animated film Disney ever made, but I still feel this movie is one every child must see. Forget that it is a classic of American animation. Pinocchio has the power to teach what is important in life without being overly sweet, sentimental, or preachy.

Singin' in the Rain (1952): Not only was this Gene Kelly's finest moment, but it is quite simply the second greatest musical of all time (after, well, The Wizard of Oz). Arguably it has one of the best soundtracks of any musical, with songs compiled from the best of composers Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. And it has some of the greatest dance sequences ever seen on film. Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" sequence would have been enough, but the movie also boasts Donald O'Connor's astounding "Make 'Em Laugh" sequence (which was so demanding that O'Connor suffered from exhaustion for a week afterwards). Even without the song and dance sequences, however, Singin' in the Rain would be a great film. Set in the period when the studios were making the transition from silents to talkies, the movie centres around the fact that film star Lina Lamont's voice is so horrible that it must be dubbed by ingenue Kathy Selden. This simple premise leads to some of the most hilarious complications in the history of movies. Indeed, Singin' in the Rain is not a great film simply because of the quality of it soundtrack or its outstanding dance sequences, but because it is one of the funniest, wittiest films ever made. Snubbed at the Oscars, it is one of the those movies that should have swept the awards, from Best Director for Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen to Best Original Screenplay for Adolph Green and Betty Comden.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971): The first adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was conceived in part as a means for the Quaker Oats Company to promote a new candy bar (it is for this reason it is titled Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and not Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Furthermore, Roald Dahl hated the film so much so that he refused to let the filmmakers adapt the book's literary sequel, Charlie and the Glass Elevator. Despite these facts, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has become regarded as a classic among children's films. Much of this is due to the fact that, despite Roald Dahl's dislike for the movie, the film only strays from the book in a few respects. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory still centres upon poor Charlie Bucket, who had the enormous fortune to get one of the Golden Tickets contained in a Wonka Bar, winning a guided tour of Willie Wonka's fabulous chocolate factory. And like the book, the movie still features the bizarre comeuppances that the various spoiled brats incur while touring the factory (although, unlike the book, Veruca Salt falls victim to an egg sorting machine rather than Willie Wonka's trained squirrels). Even the themes inherent in the book are still present in the movie: the dangers of too much wealth, the idea that in the end evil will get its just desserts, the dangers of instant gratification, and the monolithic importance of family. What makes Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory so effective is not that it is loyal to a large degree to its source material, but that it is simply a well done film. Gene Wilder gives his best performance ever as Willie Wonka. And the movie features one of the best soundtracks ever for a family film. Tim Burton would adapt the book once more as 2005's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and while Burton's movie is a very fine adaptation (it includes Veruca's comeuppance at the hands of Wonka's squirrels), it somehow lacks much of the magic of the 1971 adaptation.

The Wizard of Oz (1939): There are those who would rank this the greatest single family film of all time. And I really can't argue with them, even though I would put it in second place (after It's a Wonderful Life). After all, it is an undisputed classic. At the time it was released, this adaptation of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was an incredible technical achievement. To adapt the classic book to film took innovative special effects (from the tornado which sweeps Dorothy's house off to Oz to the flying monkeys) and lavish sets of the sort never seen on film. In fact, the movie's budget was so great that, despite the fact that it was the second highest grossing film of 1939 (after a movie called Gone with the Wind), it was not exactly considered profitable. Since then it has more than made a profit--when adjusted for inflation, The Wizard of Oz is still among the highest grossing films of all time. And there is little wonder that it should be. The movie's screenplay (one of the best ever written) and the performances of its talented cast helped create some of the most memorable characters on the big screen. From Dorothy Gale (given how convincing Judy Garland is in the role, it was hard to believe Shirley Temple was also considered for the part....) to the Wicked Witch of the West (played with gusto by Margaret Hamilton), the film gave the world some of the most beloved characters of any motion picture. The movie also creates one of the most convincing fantasy worlds ever seen on screen. Oz is a place of wonderment, where scarecrows and tin men can walk and talk and monkeys can fly. The Wizard of Oz also has one of the best movie soundtracks of all time. Indeed, "Somewhere over the Rainbow" has become a standard. Ultimately, what makes the film, like so many others on this list so great, is that it is essentially timeless in addressing those things most important to humanity. The movie's message is more than "There is no place like home," as it also addresses the importance of believing in oneself, the importance of friends and family, and the strength of good against evil. If The Wizard of Oz has survived all these years, it is because it goes well beyond simple entertainment.

Those are my top ten favourite family films of all time. I am sure that I could list many others, but I don't want this blog taken over by what could be a very long list. I am also sure that many will not agree with many of my choices on the list, as I am also sure that I will probably look over this list tomorrow and think that there are some movies I should have included. Regardless, I think that the films listed here are truly among the very best and truly worth the whole family watching.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Makeup Artist Monty Westmore R.I.P.

Monty Westmore, the legendary makeup artist whose work ranged from the small screen's Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet to the big screen's Seven, died November 12 at the age of 84 from prostate cancer.

Monty Westmore was born on June 12, 1923 in Los Angeles into the Westmore family, which included some of the most legendary makeup artists in Hollywood. His father, Monte Westmore, was the makeup artist on The King of Kings and Gone with the Wind. Monty Westmore's career began in 1943 when he apprenticed to his uncle, Perc Westmore, who had worked on such films as Public Enemy and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Westmore spent seven years at Universal working with his uncle. He received his first on screen credit on the film The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady in 1950. Westmore did makeup for such movies in the fifties as Colt .45 and Sex Kittens Go to College. He also did uncredited work on such classics as Touch of Evil. From 1961 to 1965 he did makeup on various episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. He was Joan Crawford's personal makeup artist on the movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

It was in the Seventies that Westmore came into his own as a makeup artist. He worked on such films as the John Wayne movie Rio Lobo, The Life and Times and Judge Roy Bean, Uptown Saturday Night, Doc Savage: the Man of Bronze, and 3 Women. The Eighties saw Westmore do some of his most remarkable work, on such films as Fort Apache the Bronx, The Dead Pool, Alien Nation, and Blaze

The Nineties saw Westmore doing more genre films than he previously had in his career. He was the makeup artist on Hook, The Hudsucker Proxy, Jurassic Park, The Shawshank Redemption, Seven, and two Star Trek movies (Star Trek: First Contact and Star Trek: Insurrection). Westmore worked into the naughts, doing his last work on the film adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Monty Westmore was a talented makeup artist who had a very long career in Hollywood, working well into his seventies. He worked his magic, whether credited or not, on such films as The Treasure of Sierra and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. And his talent went beyond making actors like Joan Crawford and Paul Newman look, relatively speaking, good. He created aliens for such films as Alien Nation and Star Trek: First Contact, and was responisble for some of the grisly work on Seven. He was definitely one of the best.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Laraine Day Passes On

Laraine Day, the beautiful star of Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, perhaps best known for playing Nurse Lamont in the Dr. Kildare films, died November 10 at the age of 87.

Laraine Day was born in Laraine Johnson in Roosevelt, Utah. The family moved to California when Laraine was nine years old. While in her teens she began her acting career with the Long Beach Players. Her first appearance was in an unbilled, bit part in the 1937 melodrama Stella Dallas. In 1938, still using the name Laraine Johnson, she appeared as Peg Smith in the Paramount film Scandal Sheet. She appeared as the leading lady in several of George O'Brien's B Westerns from 1938 to 1939. Signing with MGM in 1939, she adopted the stage name "Laraine Day." Her first film with MGM was Sergeant Madden, directed by Josef von Sternberg. It would be with her next film for MGM, Calling Dr. Kildare in 1939, that she would play the role that would bring her fame. Day played Nurse Mary Lamont in seven Dr. Kildare movies. The character was killed off in Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day. For years afterwards she would be asked by people why Mary Lamont had to die.

Day's career at MGM consisted primarily of programmers, such as the Dr. Kildare series. She was only cast in major motion pictures when she was loaned out to other studios. Such was the case with Foreign Correspondent, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and distributed by United Artists. In that film Day played the love interest of Joel McCrea's much put upon reporter. In Mr. Lucky, Day would play the society girl with whom Cary Grant's gambler falls in love. The film was produced by RKO. Having played Nurse Lamont in many of the Kildare films, she played a nurse again when loaned to Paramount for Cecil DeMille's The Story of Dr. Wassell. In RKO's film noirThe Locket not only did Day play the lead role, but she got to play against type. Nancy Monks Blair Patton was a scheming femme fatale, worlds away from honest, wholesome Mary Lamont. In Tycoon she played opposite John Wayne, as the wife of a man building a railroad tunnel through a mountain.

In the Fifties Day's career shifted primarily to television. She made her first appearance on the small screen on an episode of Nash Airflyte Theatre in 1951. She was the host of the TV series Daydreaming with Laraine, also called The Laraine Day Show in 1951. She was the co-host (with then husband Leo Durocher, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers) of the series Double Play in 1953. In the Fifties she appeared on such shows as The Jack Benny Programme, General Electric Theatre, Lux Video Theatre, and Playhouse 90. She continued to appear in films, such as John Wayne's The High and Mighty and the 1956 films Toy Tiger and Three for Jamie Dawn.

From the Sixties to the Eighties, Day's career was almost entirely in television. She guest starred on Checkmate, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Burke's Law, Wagon Train, The Name of the Game, Lou Grant, Airwolf, and Murder, She Wrote (on which she played the wife of protagonist Jessica Fletcher's brother in law).

Laraine Day was a talented actress who never was given the sort of roles she actually deserved. Sadly, MGM seemed content to cast in her in the role of romantic interests in B movies. That she could do so much more is proven by the film she made outside of MGM. Day could quite convincingly play sweet, wholesome Nurse Mary Lamont, but she could just as easily play the scheming, deceitful Nancy Monks Blair Patton (if you're wondering about her name, well, Nancy had several husbands...). She gave sterling performances in such films as Foreign Correspondent and Mr. Lucky. I rather suspect that in times to come she will be remembered more for her few roles in major motion pictures than as Nurse Lamont, whom she played in so many Dr. Kildare movies.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Mutt and Jeff Turn 100

Today many are accustomed to thinking of mass media as a fairly recent phenomenon. We do not stop to think just how long books and newspapers have been in existence, let alone think about the age of such characters as Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan. As a mark of just how long mass media has had an impact on the United States, consider that today a comic strip which produced two of the most famous characters in Anglo-American pop culture made its debut. You see, it was on this day in 1907 that a comic strip called A. Mutt, written by Harry "Bud" Fisher, debuted on the sports page of the San Francisco Chronicle. The comic strip would gain even more fame under its later title, Mutt and Jeff.

Originally, the comic strip focused on tall, wiry Augustus Mutt. There is still debate over the origin of Mutt's name--whether the name demonstrated his place in his own home (roughly the same as the family dog) or if it was short for "muttonhead (a slang term for "fool")." Regardless, Mutt was a luckless fellow who loved gambling at the racetrack and was dominated at home by his harridan of a wife. In this respect, A. Mutt was not particularly original. Just a few years earlier there had been a comic strip called A. Piker Clerk, written by Clare Briggs (who would later create Mr.and Mrs.) and published in the Chicago American. Clerk was a devoted gambler who would spend every day at the track. A. Piker Clerk appears to have been the first comic strip published on a regular, five day basis (a claim often erroneously made for Mutt and Jeff). That having been said, it did not last long. William Randolph Hearst cancelled A. Piker Clerk in 1904.

Had A. Mutt remained an imitation of A. Piker clerk, Augustus Mutt might not be remembered 100 years after his first appearance. Fortunately, only four months into its run an event took place which would change the comic strip forever and turn it into a phenomenon. It was on March 8, 1908 that Augustus Mutt met a fellow named Jeff in a mental institution (named for boxing champ James Jeffries, Jeff was under the delusion that he was the champ). Jeff was physically Mutt's opposite; he was short and rotund while Mutt was tall and rangy. That having been said, the two were apparently born to be the best of friends. Indeed, they complimented each other perfectly. Mutt was simple minded and forgetful, while Jeff was a good deal brighter and, as it so happened, certifiably insane (as mentioned earlier, the two had met in a mental institution....). The team of Mutt and Jeff proved so popular that it immediately changed the direction of the comic strip. By August 4, 1908, less than a month after Jeff's first appearance, the strip was renamed Mutt and Jeff. By June 1908 Mutt and Jeff moved from the sports pages of the San Francisco Chronicle to William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner. It would only be a few years before it entered national syndication and become a national phenomenon. In the end, it became the first successful daily comic strip and Bud Fisher the first celebrity cartoonist.

Fisher apparently saw the potential in his creation. He took the precaution of copyrighting Mutt and Jeff in his own name, even displaying the copyright on the strip itself. As a result, Bud Fisher would become a very rich man. He would also have some control in which venues the comic strip appeared. In fact, by 1914 Fisher would jump ship, moving from Mutt and Jeff from Hearst's King Features Syndicate to the Wheeler Syndicate in a deal that gave him 60% of the comic strip's revenue. Fisher's ownership of the comic strip was upheld in 1921 when the New York Court of Appeals ruled that newspaper publisher Star Co. could not use Mutt and Jeff without Fisher's permission.

If Bud Fisher knew that Mutt and Jeff would be successful, he was absolutely right in his assumption. Mutt and Jeff would become the first comic strip characters to make the leap to animated cartoons. In 1913 Fisher founded the Bud Fisher Film Corporation to produce and distribute animated Mutt and Jeff cartoons. The first cartoon was released on February 10, 1913. In the end there would be over 300 Mutt and Jeff cartoons, making the longest series of theatrical cartoons ever made.

The animated cartoons were not the end of the Mutt and Jeff bonanza. Naturally, there were the inevitable anthology collections of the comic strips (still published today). And there was a wide variety of other Mutt and Jeff merchandise as well, ranging from banks to dolls to tobacco cards to pinback buttons. In 1922 there was even a two act, vaudeville musical comedy based on the comic strip, with a book by Bud Fisher and Richard F. Carroll. Comedians LeRoy "Stringbeans" Brown and T. H. Hammond played Mutt and Jeff respectively. In 1928 Augustus Mutt would make history as the first comic strip character to run for president. By the Thirties Mutt and Jeff were appearing on boxes of Kellogg's All-Bran cereal, as well as in ads for the product. Mutt and Jeff were also featured on the cover of the first modern day comic book, Famous Funnies #1. They would be a regular feature in All-American Comics (published by All-American Comics Inc.) from its first issue to its 102nd issue, after which it became All-American Western. They received their own comic book in 1939. It lasted until 1965, being published in turn by All-American, National Periodical Publications (the company created after National Comics acquired All-American Comics), Dell, and Harvey.

While Bud Fisher made a good deal of money from Mutt and Jeff, he actually had very little to do with his creation after 1913, relying more and more upon ghosts such as Ken Kling and Ed Mack in the following years. In fact, the man who wrote Mutt and Jeff for the majority of its run was one of Fisher's ghosts, Al Smith. A former art director for the New York World, Smith took over the strip entirely in 1932. Smith softened Mrs. Mutt, making her less of a harpy and thus making the comic strip more family friendly. He also created the comic strip's Sunday topper (a topper being a small comic strip accompanying another strip), Cicero's Cat, about Mutt's son's pet cat. Smith would stay with Mutt and Jeff until 1980. Despite his long tenure on the comic strip, he never signed his name to it until after Bud Fisher's death in 1954.

Ultimately, Mutt and Jeff would become one of the longest running comic strips in the history of the medium. It lasted until 1982, a staggering 75 years. While no new Mutt and Jeff comic strips have appeared since then, it has continued in newspaper syndication to this day through Universal Press Syndicate, As of today, then, Mutt and Jeff has appeared continuously in newspapers for 100 years. That is a feat unmatched by any other comic strip. Many of the early Mutt and Jeff animated cartoons have recently been released on DVD. And collections of the comic strips are still being published.

If one needs further proof of the impact of Mutt and Jeff on Anglo-American pop culture, he or she need look no further than the fact that the pair long ago entered the English language. To this day a pair of men, one tall and skinny and the other short and portly, are referred to as a "Mutt and Jeff couple." The term "Mutt and Jeff" is also used of the "good cop"/"bad cop" routine (I assume Jeff would be the bad cop...). The pair also entered into Cockney rhyming slang--"Mutt 'n' Jeff" meaning "deaf." A town in Texas was even named "Mutt and Jeff (apparently its two chief merchants resembled the pair), as was a lion and his pet dog (Mutt was the lion and Jeff was the dog--the two had grown up together) at the Sibley Zoo in Minnesota in the Thirties and Forties.

My parents, uncles, and aunts were all part of the generation that grew up when Mutt and Jeff was at the height of its success (here I must stress that I am not that old--my mom and dad were in their forties when I was born). In fact, it was my maternal uncle's favourite comic strip besides Barney Google. Mutt and Jeff was then one of the earliest comic strips of which I had ever heard. And while I don't ever remember reading it in newspapers, I read plenty of the old Mutt and Jeff anthologies as a child. It is then easy for me to see how Mutt and Jeff has lasted 100 years. It was a genuinely funny comic strip, whose humour originated from the contrast between shiftless, slow witted Mutt and the more intelligent, but mentally unbalanced Jeff. In some respects it was the forerunner of every comedic odd couple ever since.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Ira Levin R.I.P.

Ira Levin, novelist , playwright, television writer, and songwriter, died Monday at the age of 78 in Manhattan. He is perhaps best known for his books Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives.

Ira Levin was born August 27, 1929 in Manhattan, New York. He grew up in both the Bronx and Manhattan. Levin attended Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa for two years before transferring to New York University. Levin graduated from New York University in 1950 with a bachelor's degree. He also served in the Army Signal Corps from 1953 to 1955.

While a senior there Levin entered a teleplay writing contest sponsored by CBS. Despite the fact that he did not win, Levin was able to see his teleplay to NBC as the episode "Leda's Portrait" of the anthology show Lights Out (it first aired in 1950). By 1953 he would publish his first novel, A Kiss Before Dying. It won the 1954 Edgar Award for Best First Novel and would be adapted to the big screen twice (once in 1955 and again in 1991). He continued to write for television, writing the episode "The Notebook Warrior" and adapting Mac Hyman's No Time for Sergeants for The U. S. Steel Hour. Starring Andy Griffith as Will Stockdale, a hillbilly who finds himself in the Air Force, No Time For Sergeants put Levin on the map as a writer. Levin would adapt it as a play on Broadway, where it ran for 796 performances. It also earned Andy Griffith a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Play. The play in turn would be adapted into the 1958 motion picture.

Levin continued to write for television, writing the episode "Sylvia" for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and "The Devil You Say" for General Electric Theatre. For the next several years, however, the bulk of Levin's work would be on the stage, although his success there was often hit and miss. His plays Interlock (1958), Dr. Cook's Garden (1968), and Veronica's Room all bombed. He would have successes with Critic's Choice and Deattrap. Critic's Choice (1960) ran for 189 performances on Broadway. It would later be adapted as a motion picture in 1963. Deathtrap (1978) was arguably Levin's most successful play. It ran for 1793 performances and was nominated for several Tonys.

Levin wrote the book and the lyrics to the songs of one musical, Drat! The Cat!. A parody of Victorian melodramas, it closed after only eleven performances. Ironically, Barbara Streisand would have a hit with one of the songs, "He Touched Me."

Levin did not write another book after A Kiss Before Dying for 14 years; however, that novel would become a cultural phenomenon. Rosemary's Baby was a best seller in which a young wife is chosen to bear the Anti-Christ. It would not only be adapted as the classic 1968 movie by Roman Polanski, but would inspire a slough of movies and novels touching upon the Devil in the Seventies. The movie was followed by a made-for-TV sequel called Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby; it bore almost no relation to the novel. Levin published an official sequel to the book, Son of Rosemary, in 1997.

Levin would repeat the success of Rosemary's Baby with The Stepford Wives, published in 1972. The Stepford Wives would be adapted into a 1975 motion picture. Between the novel and the book Stepford would enter the English language as an adjective for anything that is overly obedient or robotic. The 1975 motion picture would be followed by three made-for-TV movies (none of which bore any particular relation to the book or the first film). Another major motion picture adaptation was made in 2004.

Levin's next book, The Boys From Brazil, would not quite have the pop culture clout of either Rosemary's Baby or The Stepford Wives. That having been said, it was one of the earliest mainstream books to deal with cloning and it was a bestseller. It was adapted into a 1978 movie and New Line Cinema is currently working on a remake. Levin's other books included This Perfect Day and Sliver.

To say Ira Levin was a multifaceted writer would be a bit of an understatement. He wrote novels, plays, and television shows, doing well in each medium. His novels A Kiss Before Dying, Rosemary's Baby, and The Stepford Wives are classics in their respective genres. Levin's adaptation of the novel No Time for Sergeants is one of the greatest teleplays of all time. Critic's Choice and Deathtrap were both two of the best plays of their times. He was certainly one of the most influential writers of our time. References to Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives, and even The Boys From Brazil abound in Anglo-American pop culture.

If Ira Levin has been so influential, it is perhaps because he had a gift for combining the utterly ordinary with the utterly outré. In the world of Levin's novels and plays, something terrifying generally lurked amongst mundane, ordinary lives. Rosemary Woodhouse was an ordinary, young mother who just happens to be bearing Satan's child. Stepford, Connecticut appears to be a fairly standard New England town, except for the fact that wives often find themselves replaced by robotic surrogates. Josef Mengele is alive and well in Paraguay and busy cloning Hitler. Levin was a master of making the absurd believable by couching it in a world that was all too real. Few writers today match his talent. I doubt there will be very many in the future who will match him either.