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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Television's Violent Era

One of the common misconceptions about television violence is that it is actually greater today than it was in the Fifties and Sixties. This might be true if one takes into account the various cable channels and premium channels, but it hardly holds true of network television. In fact, it is a common misconception for many to view the Fifties and Sixties as a time when television was altogether more wholesome. This might be true of sexual content, but it was hardly true of violence.

In fact, the most violent era of American network television was not the Eighties, Nighties, or Naughts, but may well have been when the Fifties were becoming the Sixties. More hours of violence probably aired during this era on network television than any other time. It was during this period that such shows as The Untouchables, The Westerner, Cain's Hundred, and The 87th Precinct debuted.

Of course, even then violence was nothing new on television. It sometimes played a role in such anthology series as Suspense and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and even shows in other genres, such as Flash Gordon. With the beginning of a cycle towards Westerns in 1955, however, violence began to appear more frequently on television. Those first Westerns of the cycle, Gunsmoke, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, and Cheyenne generally focused on characters rather than gunplay, although this would not hold true for other shows in the cycle. It would be in 1958, however, that violence would start to dramatically increase on television. It was that year which saw the beginning of a private eye cycle which included shows such as Peter Gunn and Richard Diamond.

Indeed, Peter Gunn was a slick, jazz driven series created by Blake Edwards. The series borrowed liberally from film noir, including the occasional bursts of violence. A much more violent private eye series debuted in syndication that season, Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer starring Darren McGavin. Critics often attacked the series for gratuitous violence. At the same time that detective series started debuting on American television, so too did violence increase in Westerns. An example of this is the first several episodes of The Rifleman. Its creator, future director Sam Peckinpah, insisted on gritty realism, including violence. This put him odds with Four Star Television and he eventually left.

While the cycles towards Westerns and detective shows would naturally increase violence on television, it would be in 1959 that violence saw a dramatic increase on network TV. The Untouchables debuted in October 1959, starting a cycle not only towards police series (along with The Naked City), but a cycle towards ultraviolence on television. Indeed, the show was very controversial in its day. Critics attacked the series for what they considered "excessive and senseless violence." Despite the criticism, the violence was hardly gratuitous, as Chicago's gangland of the Twenties was a place where beatings and murders were par for the course. And while The Untouchables was gritty, its violence was never graphic or gory. In contrast, The Naked City very rarely used violence and can actually be considered an early police procedural.

The following season would see the debut of more private eye series. Richard Diamond, Private Detective, based on early Fifties radio series debuted that season, as did Philip Marlowe. It also saw the debut of an outright imitation of The Untouchables. The Lawless Years was set in the Twenties and dealt with organised crime as well, but was set in New York City rather than Chicago.

The 1960-1961 season would see yet more ultraviolence on the small screen. That season another show that was another imitation of The Untouchables debuted. The Roaring Twenties was set in New York and followed two reporters for the fictional New York Record as they reported on crime. There was also the debut of what may have been one of the most violent private eye shows to air on network television. Michael Shayne was based on writer Brett Halliday's detective from many short stories and novels. The series was so violent that it would actually be one of the first shows to be taken off the air for complaints of excessive violence. Another violent show was another Western created by Sam Peckinpah, The Westerner. Peckinpah offered a grim and gritty portrayal of the West, with Brian Keith playing a very fallible hero. The series was critically acclaimed, but earned the dislike of both NBC and its sponsor. It was cancelled after its first episode had only aired ten minutes. It only lasted thirteen episodes.

It would be during the 1961-1962 season that the networks' love affair with ultraviolence would be in full swing. It would also be the season that it came to a screeching halt for a time. The season saw the debut of another Untouchables imitator, in this case Cain's Hundred. Cain's Hundred centred on a former mob lawyer who decides to quit after he gets engaged. It was then that a mob boss put a hit out on him, although his fiancee would be killed instead. The former lawyer then joins up with the FBI to see 100 gangsters go to jail. That same season saw the debut of 87th Precinct, based on the Ed McBain novels. Like the novels, the series was rather gritty, complete with violence.

The episode of a TV series which would generate the most controversy, however, would come from what would have been a very unexpected source at the start of the season. Bus Stop was based on the play by William Inge and the movie starring Marilyn Monroe. Its earliest episodes were of the type one might see on Love Boat fifteen years later. The very first episode dealt with a cowboy who had deserted his family. In the fourth episode a seemingly average couple turn out to have been sweepstakes winners. But by the sixth episode, the series would see a remarkable change as it delved more into violent crime. In the sixth episode both a detective and a professor became suspects in the murder of a woman who had blackmailed them both. It would be the tenth episode, "A Lion Walks Among Us," that would ultimately bring the ongoing controversy over television violence to a head and bring an end to the run of Bus Stop, not to mention possibly getting Oliver Treyz fired from his job as President of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

"A Lion Walks Among Us" was based on the novel The Judgement by Tom Wicker. It featured teen idol Fabian as psychopath Luke Freeman. In the plot, which was rather intense even for the violent era of 1961, Freeman makes robs and kills an old grocer, tried to seduce his defence attorney's wife (who's not only a drunk, but is hinted has loose morals on the witness stand), and murdered his own defence attorney. It was fairly early that ABC and Twentieth Century Fox realised they might have problems with the episode. Sponsors Brown and Williamson Tobacco Co., Johnson and Johnson, and Singer Manufacturing Company (of sewing machine fame) all withdrew their advertising. The episode was then rescheduled until such time as new advertisers could be found. When the network showed the episode to its affiliates, twenty five of them, including major markets such as Atlanta, Baltimore, and Dallas, refused to air it. In the end, unable to find new sponsors, ABC finally aired the episode on December 3, 1961, with limited commercial interruption (the "commercials" were movie trailers from Warner Brothers and previews of Bus Stop episodes.

Reaction from critics was swift and immediate. Newsweek called it a "...cynical, perverted, and flacked-up opus." The Los Angeles Times called it "...a sleazy, nasty, sex-laden, slice-of-sensational trash reminiscent of the worst in drug-store fiction." Famous critic Jack Gould of The New York Times referred to it as "...an hour of dark and sordid ugliness." Much of the criticism came about because of the casting of Fabian, perceived as a wholesome teen idol, as a psychopathic rapist. And unfortunately the reviews caught the attention of Senator Thomas J. Dodd, a conservative Democrat from Connecticut.

Senator Dodd had taken over the mantle of the Senate's crusader against TV violence from Estes Kefauver. He held his first hearings on television violence in June and July 1961, attacking such shows as The Untouchables. In January 1962 he convened TV violence hearings again, and this time the focus was on firmly on "A Lion Walks Among Us." Even though Dodd himself had never seen the episode, the reviews had invoked his ire. Senator John Pastore, a Democrat from Rhode Island, had seen the episode. He commented of it, "I looked at it and I haven't felt clean since." During the hearing Dodd grilled ABC's president, Oliver Treyz on the episode. Oliver Treyz was unrepentant and defended the episode in the name of artistic freedom, although he admitted to the Senator that he would not allow his own children to watch such an episode. Bus Stop, a show previously well received by critics, was now a cause celebre.

The fallout from the episode would not end with Dodd's hearings. In February 1962 the Federal Communications Commission finished its investigation of network programming. During the FCC's hearings, Oliver Treyz admitted that airing "A Lion Walks Among Us" was probably a mistake. That March Oliver Treyz was fired as president of ABC. There can be little doubt that the whole matter of "A Lion Walks Among Us" was a major factor in his dismissal. Vice president in charge of television production at Twentieth Century Fox and Bus Stop's executive producer Roy Huggins (who had produced Maverick and would go onto to create The Fugitive) found Fox refusing to let him develop any new series. Huggins returned to graduate school to get his Ph.D. and created The Fugitive in 1963. As to the episode itself, "A Lion Walks Among Us" has never again aired on primetime network television. Presumably, it still languishes in Fox's vaults. Bus Stop itself was cancelled at the end of the season.

Dodd's television violence hearings in January 1962 appears to have had some impact on the 1962-1963 season. Untouchables imitators such as Cain's Hundred and Target: The Corruptors were gone, as were police shows 87th Precinct and The New Breed. While they may have been cancelled for low ratings, their ends may have also come because of the outcry over violence. Overall, the 1962-1963 season would be a less violent season for the networks. Most of the new shows were such innocuous entries as The Jetsons, McHale's Navy, and The Beverly Hillbillies. That is not to say that violence was still not to be found on the tube. The Untouchables entered its fourth season that year, while the classic World War II drama Combat made its debut.

In fact, although not at the level it had been in the period from 1958 to 1962, violence would still play a role in many television shows of the Sixties. In the summer of 1964 Senator Dodd held another hearing on television violence, this time attacking both Combat and The Outer Limits, but to little effect. In fact, the 1964-1965 season would see the beginning of the spy cycle with The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. In its wake would follow such spy series as I Spy and The Wild Wild West, with British imports Secret Agent (Danger Man in the UK) and The Avengers making their American debut about the same time. The violence in these series was almost always on the comic book level, although it was present in nearly every episode. The 1966-1967 season would see a new cycle towards police dramas, with the debut of Felony Squad and Hawk (an early Burt Reynolds series). The following season would see the debut of more police dramas, including N.Y.P.D. and Ironside. The 1966-1967 season would also see the debut of more action-adventure series, such as Star Trek (actually a rather violent show, when one thinks about it), Tarzan, The Green Hornet, and The Rat Patrol. Despite Senator Dodd's best efforts, violence was hardly gone from network television for most of the Sixties.

It would take the assassinations of both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. to force the networks to finally reduce violence on television in significant numbers. By that time outcry over television violence was common even among the general public. It was that year that Peggy Charren founded Action for Children's Television over conerns about both violence and advertising in children's programming. More rounds of congressional hearings were scheduled. The Democratic Party even came close to adding a condemnation of television for its depiction of violence to the party's platform at their convention in September. Of course, by that time it was a moot point. It was for the 1968-1969 season that the networks introduced new restrictions on acts of violence on television. As an example, CBS restricted the producers of their series on the use of firearms, fighting in close quarters, and even such stunts as falling off a horse. This would seriously hamper the plots of Westerns such as Gunsmoke, spy series such as The Wild Wild West, and police dramas as N.Y.P.D.. Even with the new restrictions in place, for the following 1969-1970 season the networks would go even further with regards to restricting violence on the small screen. During the 1968-1969 season CBS cancelled The Wild Wild West ostensibly because it had been attacked for excessive violence.

The networks would continue to curb violence in their shows throughout the Seventies and even into the Eighties, to the point that new Westerns were seriously impaired and believable police dramas were nearly impossible. One need only contrast Starsky and Hutch with N.Y.P.D. or The Untouchables. N.Y.P.D. and The Untouchables had their share of gunplay (The Untouchables may have had too much at times). In Starsky and Hutch the most exciting thing one might see was a car chase (usually down the same alleyway). While the Seventies would produce some quality mystery series, detective series, and sitcoms, its police dramas and Westerns were often a miserable lot, hampered by telling a good story by not being able to realistically portray their milieus. It would not be until the mid-Eighties that the networks would lighten up on the amount of violence allowed on their shows, and even then it would not be noticeable until the Nineties.

The network's violent era from 1958 to 1962 produced some quality shows. Peter Gunn, The Untouchables, and The Westerner can all quite rightfully be considered classics. The era would also cost the networks dearly in the long run. It spurred the strongest outcry against television violence yet. And while the furore would die down, it would swiftly build again in 1968 following the deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Had television's violent era never taken place or at least been a bit more restrained, it is possible that the networks would not have felt forced in 1968 to become more restrictive on the portrayal of violence. While we may have have missed out on some classic shows from 1958 to 1962, perhaps the Seventies would not have been quite so dismal as they were when it came to network programming.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

How Original Was Stan Lee?

There can be no doubt that Stan Lee revolutionised the comic book industry in the Sixties. Prior to the creation of The Fantastic Four, most superheroes were idealised and nearly perfect. On the other hand, Lee made his heroes flawed, with realistic personality traits. The Fantastic Four bickered among themselves. Spider-Man was basically a nerd who was plagued with self-doubt even when in costume. The X-Men were mutants who were hated by the rest of society. Lee showed unusual originality in giving his characters actual personalities and challenging storylines.

But in some respects the characters Stan Lee created were not particularly original. Often their super powers had been used before for comic book heroes. In some cases they seemed very similar to previous superheroes. While Lee was very original in his treatment of superheroes, he was sometimes not particularly original in the powers he endowed them.

Examples of this can be found in The Fantastic Four. As most comic book fans know, Johnny Storm was not the first Human Torch. The original Human Torch was created by Carl Burgos and appeared in the first Marvel comic book ever published, Marvel Comics #1, October 1939. Unlike Johnny, the original Human Torch was not a human who gained his powers through an accident, but an android created by Dr. Phineas T. Horton. The original Torch appeared in his own magazine until March 1949. He would eventually appear in the Silver Age, meeting his namesake in Fantastic Four Annual #4, 1966.

Of course, creating new versions of old characters was nothing new at the time. In fact, the Silver Age had begun when DC created a new version of The Flash in 1956. They would follow up that success with new versions of Green Lantern, The Atom, and Hawkman. But Johnny Storm was not the only Fantastic Four member whose powers were nothing original. Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, has the ability to stretch into any shape he wants, precisely the same power that Quality Comics' Plastic Man possessed. Plastic Man was created by Jack Cole and first appeared in Police Comics #1, August 1941. He was probably Quality's most popular character besides Blackhawk and was one of the few Golden Age heroes to actually survive the Golden Age. Reed Richards was even pre-dated by DC Comics' own stretchable hero, the Elongated Man, who first appeared in The Flash, vol. 1 #112, April 1960. Even then, the only reason Julius Schwartz created the Elongated Man is that he didn't know DC had acquired Plastic Man among their takeover of Quality characters. It must be pointed out that even Mr. Fantastic's genius and invention of gadgets has precedents. Doc Savage, like Reed Richards, was a multi-talented genius.

While members of The Fantastic Four duplicated powers of previous superheroes, Spider-Man not only duplicated the powers of a previous hero to a degree, but even the background of the hero. In fact, there has even been some controversy over the creation of Spider-Man, even though Stan Lee is usually given credit. The Fly was the creation of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon and the first successful Silver Age superhero of Archie Comics. He first appeared in The Adventures of the Fly #1, August 1959. Even then, The Fly may not have been an original creation. According to Kirby, earlier in the Fifties Simon and Kirby had created a similar character called The Silver Spider for Black Magic, a title published by Crestwood Publications (who also published Kirby and Simon's Fighting American). For whatever reason, the character was not published. Jack Simon disagreed with Kirby's account, saying that The Silver Spider was originally called "Spiderman" and was not created for Black Magic. The name was later changed from "Spiderman" to "The Silver Spider." The one thing that Simon and Kirby both agreed upon is that when Archie Comics had hired Kirby and Simon to create new characters for the company, they dusted off The Silver Spider and reinvented him as The Fly.

Of course, Stan Lee's account of the creation of Spider-Man differs from that of Kirby and Simon. According to Lee, he was inspired to create Spider-Man by the pulp hero The Spider. He also said that he was inspired to create the character by by seeing a fly climb up a wall. Steve Ditko claims that Lee liked the name "Hawkman" from DC Comics and that the hyphen was added to Spider-Man's name to avoid confusion with Superman.

Regardless, The Fly is remarkably similar to Spider-Man. That having been said, The Fly was also similar in some respects to Captain Marvel. Tommie Troy was an orphan hired by Mr. March. One night while in March's attic, he found a fly shaped ring. Placing the ring on, Tommie inadvertently summoned Turan of the Fly People. The Fly People had chosen Tommie to be their champion and granted him the ability to become the superhero The Fly. All he had to do was say "I want to be The Fly' and he would be changed into the adult hero, The Fly, endowed with the powers of insects. Not only does Spider-Man's spider powers resemble those of The Fly, but it must be pointed out that the two both started out as young boys (although Spider-Man was a teenager at the time of his origin). Whether Spider-Man was, as some insist, a plagiarism of The Fly or whether Stan Lee developed the character independently, the two are remarkably similar.

The same accusation as been made with regards to The X-Men, which some believe was a plagiarism of DC's Doom Patrol. The Doom Patrol first appeared in My Greatest Adventure #80, June 1960 and was created by Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani. The Doom Patrol was a superhero team assembled by a genius in a wheelchair known only as "The Chief." They were also outcasts whose super powers had left them rejected by society at large. While The X-Men resembles The Doom Patrol in that both are teams of outcasts assembled by a genius in a wheelchair, it must be pointed out that The X-Men first appeared in Uncanny X-Men #1, September 1960. With only three months separating the debut of the two teams, there would not have been sufficient lead time for anyone to have plagiarised the concept behind a new superhero team, written the first issue, and seen it published. Quite simply, the resemblance between the two teams is most likely a great coincidence.

Regardless, in some respects the powers of some members of The X-Men are not particularly orignal. Cyclops' ability to produce optic blasts from eyes was one of the powers possessed by an MLJ (now Archie) character called The Comet. Created by Jack Cole, The Comet debuted in Pep Comics #1, January 1940. The Comet was a young scientist who gained the power to fly and to emit rays that disintegrate anything from his eyes. He even had to contain the rays with a special pair of goggles, much like Cyclops. The Comet did not have a long run and is probably best remembered for being the first superhero ever killed. In Pep Comics #17, July 1941, gangsters murdered The Comet after he put their boss in prison. His brother became The Hangman to avenge him. The Hangman proved a bit more successful, lasting until 1944. As to other members of The X-Men, Iceman was obviously a reversal of The Human Torch, generating ice instead of fire. The Angel, who had wings that actually work, obviously owes something to the Golden Age All-American (and later DC) character Hawkman.

Here I must stress it not my intention to make Stan Lee out to be a plagiarist. While the powers of his characters may not have always been original, his treatment of them was. Before The Fantastic Four's debut, it was rare that comic book characters had problems that people in real life do, or even had flaws. This was then largely a revolution started by Lee. It must also be pointed out that by the end of the Golden Age there had been so many different superheroes that it was probably very difficult to develop a new character who did not have powers that had been used for a superhero before. It must be pointed out that the bulk of DC's Silver Age characters were new versions of Golden Age characters. It was not until the Sixties (many years after the introduction of the new Flash) that DC saw any characters with original powers, such as Metamorpho (introduced in The Brave and the Bold #57, January 1965) and Deadman (introduced in Strange Adventures #205 (October 1967).

And while various characters created by Stan Lee may have not been particularly original in their powers, he created others that were starkly original. While The Hulk owes a great deal to Dr. Jekyll and Mr, Hyde and Frankenstein's Creature, it was the first time that the idea of a normal man transforming into a monster was used for a superhero. Iron Man was even more original. He was the perhaps the first superhero whose powers were derived from powered armour. While many of Lee's characters did not have particularly original powers, this could be said of many comic book creators after the Golden Age. And Lee showed more than enough originality in the creation of characters like The Hulk and Iron-Man and in giving his heroes flawed personalities.

Friday, August 29, 2008

'It's Only Love" by Cheap Trick

When comes to their albums, Cheap Trick's The Doctor was not a big seller. At first it only sold 80,000 copies--dismal when compared to the days of At Budokan and Dream Police. Its lone single, "It's Only Love," only went to #89 on Billboard's Hot 100. Regardless, I have always liked the album, and "It's Only Love" remains one of my favourite Cheap Trick songs. Here is a link to the video to "It's Only Love," courtesy of IFilm.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Gone With the Wind Actor Fred Crane Passes On

Fred Crane, who played Brent Tarleton in the classic Gone with the Wind passed on August 21 at the age of 90. He had been hospitalised a few weeks ago for complications from diabetes. The cause was a blood clot in his lungs. He was the oldest surviving male cast member of the classic film.

Fred Crane was born as Herman Frederick Crane in New Orleans on March 22, 1918. He attended Tulane University and Loyola University. He acted in local theatre productions. At his mother's request Crane went to Los Angeles to try his hand in Hollywood. Once in Hollywood Crane contacted his cousin, former silent film actress Leatrice Joy, who took him to see the Selznick studio, where her daughter was auditioning for the part of Scarlet's sister Suellen. She didn't get the part, but Crane's Southern accent caught the attention of the casting director who called director George Cukor. Cukor and the casting director took Crane to meet Selznick, who set up a screen test with Vivien Leigh. As Brent Tarleton, one of Scarlet's suitors, he had the honour of uttering the first lines in the film. While on the set he made friends with future Superman George Reeves, who played Stuart Tarleton, Brent's twin. He was friends with Reeves until his death and still believed the star's death was not a suicide.

Crane's acting career would be sparse after Gone with the Wind, although in 1946 he would become an announcer of classical music at Los Angeles radio station KFAC. He became the station's programme director in the Seventies. He would remain with the station until 1987 when the station's owners fired many of the station's older employees. Thereafter he successfully won a age discrimination lawsuit.

In addition to his work as an announcer on KFAC, Crane also acted on various radio shows. Most notably, he appeared on The Lucky Strike Show, with Jack Benny.

Crane was also a talent instructor at Crossroads of the World for quite a while. Often called America's first modern shopping mall, he worked there with future Star Trek producer Gene L. Coon.

As to Crane's acting career, following his role in Gone with the Wind, he did not appear in another film until The Gay Amigo in 1949. Crane would appear on television, making his debut on the medium in a 1961 episode of Surfside 6. He also appeared on Lawman, Lost in Space, and provided voices for cyborgs on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Crane also owned a registered historic 1846 Confederate home and Civil War hospital in Barnesville, Georgia, which he and his wife converted into the Tarleton Oaks Bed & Breakfast. It operated for many, many years.

Fred Crane may not have had an extensive acting career, but having played in Gone with the Wind (even having the first lines in the film) and having been a classical radio announcer for years, he left his mark on pop culture nonetheless. Indeed, he was the oldest surviving male cast member of the classic film. With his death, it seems yet another generation has passed.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A Classic Car Quiz

Before anything else, I want to thank everyone who congratulated me on my 1000th post yesterday. It is truly an accomplishment of which I am proud. And I want to wish Toby a happy 4th anniversary for Inner Toob, which also fell yesterday. Truly a great blog and well worth reading!

Anyhow, onto post 1001! As regular readers of this blog probably already know, Beth of the lovely voice laid down a challenge for me at the first of the year. The challenge was simply this: I must create and post one pop culture quiz a month in A Shroud of Thoughts. The quizzes can have a single theme or simply be a collection of random things. At the end of 2008, the reader who has accumulated the most points throughout the year will win a pop culture related prize. For those of you curious about the prize, I decided that it will be a pop culture related key chain of the winner's choice, to cost no more than $5.00 (minus sales tax). The price limit is for the simple fact that I can't afford platinum plated key chains... I'll provide the answers around the end of the month.

Since the new car models were traditionally released in September, I though the theme for this month's quiz should be classic cars. Since this quiz is a day late, the answers will come out September 1 (Labour Day to Americans).

1, In a classic 1905 song what make of car did Johnny Steele own in which he loved to spark in the dark old park with his girl?

2. In what colours could people buy the Ford Model T?

3. What model did Ford follow the Model T up with?

4. What model of car was owned by both Clark Gable and Gary Cooper and was popular with movie stars and the wealthy?

5. What was the first Diesel powered automobile in the world?

6. What was the last Studebaker to have styling influenced by Raymond Loewy's studio (he designed Studebaker's modern logo and various other Studebaker models)?

7. What model of car was Christine in the Stephen King novel of the same name?

8. For what TV commercial promoting what model of Ford were the gang from the comic strip Peanuts first animated?

9. What classic pony car did Ford first manufacture in 1964 and became one of the company's most popular models?

10. What Plymouth model figured in the movie Duel?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The 1000th Post

It is hard to believe that I have been writing this blog for four years and two months. It is harder still to believe that I am at this moment writing the 1000th post of A Shroud of Thoughts. This is particularly the case given that the average blog does not last much longer than one or two posts.

Of course, over the years A Shroud of Thoughts has undergone some changes. The most obvious of these was in its template. The initial template was only two columns and green in colour, looking considerably different from the current template. Here, courtesy of the Wayback Machine is a screen capture of that original template.



Sadly, the Wayback Machine did not spider any of the templates in between that initial one and this one. That having been said, I can describe them to you. The next template looked more or less like the first one, save that it featured three columns. I had to abandon that template when Blogger made changes which resulted in that particular template starting in the middle of the page, for whatever reason. I then switched temporarily to Minima Black, one of Blogger's templates. In a few weeks I had developed the current template, which was created through combining Blogger's Minima Black with Eris Design's Faintly Victorian and throwing in some modifications of my own, such as the way comments are handled. This template has served me well since July 2005.

The blog has undergone a few other changes as well. Originally I was a bit more willing to discuss my private life, although I usually did so obliquely. I cut this out except for personal reminiscences of my interactions with pop culture, as I figured a.) this is a blog about pop culture, not me, and b.) people probably are not interested in reading about my problems. Another change that developed is that I think A Shroud of Thoughts was once a bit more nostalgic than it once was. Oh, I still wax nostalgic about old TV shows, old movies, old comic books, old rock groups, et.al. but I do not write about the places that were once important in American society. In this blog I wrote about department stores, dime stores, barber shops, cinemas, drive in restaurants, and so on. The reason I stopped writing about such places was not a conscious choice, but simply the fact that I ran out of places about which to write! Quite frankly, those are among some of my favourite posts I have ever written.

Perhaps the biggest change in A Shroud of Thoughts is that the posts would grow longer and more detailed, until finally I was doing entire series of articles. The earliest posts tended to be briefer and less detailed. That would change quickly. The blog started in early June 2004. By mid-June I had done my first series, on the British Invasion. It was the first week of September that I did what I feel was my first truly detailed two part article, "The Vanguard of Mars." I have always been proud of this article, especially as I've never seen anything else like it on the Web--a history of Martians in pop culture!

Do I have any regrets regarding A Shroud of Thoughts? If I have one regret it is that I have not done enough with regards to literature. While I would say that not all literature qualifies as pop culture, there is a good amount of it that does. Basically, if the average person has a passing familiarity with a literary work, then it is part of pop culture. I have dealt with the works of Dickens and I think I have written about Wuthering Heights as well. I know I have discussed Tolkien, Howard, and pulp magazines. But I have never covered Mark Twain or Shakespeare or Edgar Allen Poe. For that matter, I have not dealt in depth with Lord Byron, even though A Shroud of Thoughts takes its name from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage canto iii stanza 113.

At any rate, I am particularly proud that I have reached 1000 posts. It is an accomplishment that not many bloggers have ever made. Now here is hoping that I can just write 1000 more!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Scrabble's 60th Anniversary

Scrabble has to be one of the most popular board games of all time. I rather suspect that it is the most popular word game of all time. It is estimated one million Scrabble sets have been sold worldwide. It is also estimated that a Scrabble set is found in one out of every three American homes. It is sold in 121 countries and in 29 different languages. This year Scrabble celebrates its 60th anniversary.

Scrabble's roots actually go all the way back to 1938. It was in 1938 that Alfred Mosher Butts, an out of work architect, set out to invent a board game. He decided upon a word game based roughly upon crossword puzzles. In formulating the game, he studied the frequency of letters in the English language. Initially called Lexico, Butts settled upon the name "Criss-Crosswords." Butts tried selling the game to major game makers, but failed. He did manufacture a few of the games himself.

It was in 1948 that James Brunot, who had owned one of the original Criss-Crosswords games, bought the rights to Criss-Crosswords, giving Butts a royalty on every set sold. Brunot left most of the game unchanged, although he did simplify the rules and rearranged the premium squares on the board. Brunot changed the name of the game to "Scrabble," a word meaning "to scratch frantically." It was in 1949 that Brunot's family starting manufacturing sets.

Scrabble would receive its big break in 1952 when the game came to the attention of Jack Strauss, president of Macy's, while he was on vacation. Strauss ordered several sets to be sold at Macy's. It was not long before Scrabble reached the level of a fad, with sales so strong that sets actually had to be rationed to stores. The Brunot family soon realised they could not keep up with demand and sold manufacturing rights to Selchow and Righter.

Over the years the rules of the game have changed slightly. In 1953 it was clarified that words could be created using letters already on the board and that one could create a word parallel and immediately adjacent to an existing word as long as all crosswords created were valid. In 1976 it was clarified that blank tile beats an A when drawing to see who goes first and it was established that a player could pass his turn.

Scrabble would also change ownership over the years. Having manufactured the game for nearly twenty years, Selchow and Righter bought the trademark in 1972. In 1986 Selchow and Righter sold the rights to the game to Coleco. Coleco would declare bankruptcy in 1989, its properties being bought by Hasbro. Currently Scrabble is manufactured by Parker Brothers, which was bought by Hasbro in 1991.

As one of the most popular board games of all time, Scrabble would have a large impact on pop culture. A game show based on the game, called Scrabble, aired on NBC daytime from July 1984 to March 1990. It had a second run from January 1993 to June 1993. It was hosted by Chuck Woolery.

Beyond the game show, Scrabble has also been frequently mentioned on TV shows and in movies. In fact, one of the earliest references to Scrabble was in a 1954 episode of I Love Lucy. It would also be mentioned on such varied American and British TV shows as Steptoe and Son, The Critic, The Simpsons, Red Dwarf, Friends, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Seinfeld, and The Sopranos. Scrabble has also been mentioned in various movies. The game appeared in the movie Foul Play and played an important part in the movie Sneakers (which centres around a top secret device to decrypt codes). It was also mentioned in the movies Rosemary's Baby, Black Hawk Down, and Charlie's Angels. The documentary Word Wars centred on Scrabble tournaments.

The first official Scrabble tournaments arose in the United States in the mid-Seventies, with the first National Scrabble Championship being held in 1978. The first World Scrabble Championship was held in 1991. There are also several Scrabble clubs worldwide.

There have also been several computer and video game versions of Scrabble over the years. The first Scrabble programme may have been one created by Stuart Shapiro and Howard Smith in 1977. Since then versions of Scrabble have been released for many different platforms, including PC, Commodore 65, Amiga, Mac, Nintendo DS, PlayStation, and Game Boy, among others.

Scrabble has been manufactured for sixty and has remained one of the most popular board games for most of that time. It has faithful players across the world, some who are absolutely fanatical about the game. Growing up, my brother and I enjoyed several hours of playing Scrabble. There can be little doubt that it will continue going strong for another sixty years.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Feline Follies: the First Felix the Cat Cartoon

It was on November 9, 1919 that Felix the Cat made his debut in the animated short "Feline Follies." Produced by Pat Sullivan's studio and distributed by Paramount Pictures, in his initial outing Felix did not bear the name by which he would become famous. Instead, he would was named "Master Tom." Regardless, "Feline Follies" proved successful enough that another cartoon featuring "Master Tom" was produced. "The Musical Mews" was released hot on the heels of "Feline Follies," on November 16, 1919. "Musical Mews" also proved to be a hit. It was in Felix's third animated short, "The Adventures of Felix," that he finally received the name that would make him famous. Felix would go on to become the most popular animated character of the Twenties. Among other things, the figure of Felix the Cat provided the first giant balloon to ever appear in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. And a Felix the Cat doll was one of the first images ever broadcast on television, in an experiment by W2XBS New York. Felix was also the subject of several songs written in the Twenties, including "Felix! Felix! Felix the Cat!" by Paul Whiteman and "Felix Kept on Walking" by Ed E. Bryant and Hubert W. David.

Here, courtesy of YouTube, for your viewing pleasure is that first Felix the Cat cartoon, "Feline Follies."

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Guilty Pleasures

When it comes to movies, everyone has their share of guilty pleasures. These are movies that we realise are bad and so we feel guilty about watching them, but we enjoy them nonetheless. And often people will list their guilty pleasures in their blogs, but sadly I have to wonder if many times these are truly that person's guilty pleasures. After all, such lists often include films that are admittedly left of centre, but are good nonetheless. For instance, if I was going to make such a list, I might include Phantom of the Paradise, Motel Hell, and Phantasm, even though all three films are rated "Fresh" at Rotten Tomatoes. What I have chosen to do instead is to list what are truly my guilty pleasures, movies that are truly so bad that I feel guilty enjoying them. I do hope that your opinion of my critical judgement does not suffer from knowing that I like these movies...

The Silencers (1966): The Silencers was the first of the short lived series of Matt Helm movies featuring Dean Martin in the lead role. And even from an adaptation of the Matt Helm novel, it fails. Italian descended Dean Martin is horribly miscast as Matt Helm, who was fiercely proud of his Nordic heritage. And it should be pointed out that Matt Helm was not exactly a spy. Technically he was a counteragent for the United States government, the man whose job it was to neutralise or kill enemy agents. More simply put, he was a government assassin. Needless to say, the movie departs a good deal from the novel. The novel centres around Helm, sent to Mexico to extract an agent, who then finds himself involved trying to save a group of American scientists and Congressmen.

In the movie Matt Helm is more or less a straight forward secret agent. As to the plot of the movie, it centres on Helm's efforts to stop an evil organization called "Big O" from detonating an atomic bomb over New Mexico. Further distancing the film from the novel is its style. The Matt Helm novels are very gritty and realistic--they actually have more in common with hard boiled detective stories such as those of Philip Marlowe than the bigger than life adventures of James Bond. On the other hand, the movie is done in a tongue in cheek style.

From all appearances, The Silencers was contrived simply as a vehicle for Dean Martin to act like, well, Dean Martin. He womanises. He boozes. There are even a few of his songs. The rest of the cast are merely window dressing, from beautiful women like Stella Stevens to the villain Victor Buono. The plot is paper thin and many of gadgets and technology are simply downright silly. The film is even outright racist, with Victor Buono in yellowface.

Still, I cannot deny to enjoying this movie every time I see it. I have always loved Dean Martin. He is one of my favourite actors and singers of all time. And I have always loved to see him going through his schtick--boozing, womanising, and making easy going jokes. The silliness of much of what goes on only adds to my enjoyment. So much of the movie is so unbelievably silly that I cannot help but laugh. As a Matt Helm adaptation and a serious spy drama, The Silencers fails miserably. As an unintentional comedy, it succeeds admirably.

Casino Royale (1967): In the Sixties it was Charles K. Feldman who owned the rights to the first James Bond novel Casino Royale. Unfortunately, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman beat him to the punch with a 007 movie, namely Dr. No. Feldman went to EON Productions with the goal of a joint production of a movie based on the first 007 novel. Having experienced difficulties with Kevin McClory (the screenwriter, director, and producer who had collaborated with Fleming on various draughts for proposed Bond TV and movie projects) in the production of Thunderball, EON Productions was a bit nervous about collaborating with anyone else. For this reason, they turned Feldman down. This is how Feldman's adaptation of Casino Royale began.

Feldman believed he could not possibly compete with Broccoli and Saltzman's series of James Bond movies, so he hit upon the idea of spoofing 007. Sadly, the production would be troubled from the beginning. Peter Sellers was cast as Evelyn Tremble (the poor schmuck who was assigned to impersonate Bond), and Sellers took it in his head that he wanted the movie to have a more serious tone. Sellers would pressure for rewrites on a screenplay that had already been written by three men. In the end, Woody Allen, Val Guest, Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, John Law, Wolf Mankowitz, Michael Sayers, Terry Southern, and Billy Wilder would all contribute to the screenplay. For that matter, the movie would have no less than five different directors: Val Guest, John Huston, Ken Hughes, Joseph McGrath, and Robert Parrish.

The movie Casino Royale departs from the novel in many ways beyond being a spoof. In fact, only Bond's card game against Le Chiffre in the Casino Royale is retained from the book, although in the movie it is actually Evelyn Tremble who plays against him and not Bond (the genuine article being played by David Niven). As to the movie's plot, putting it politely it is a mess. Written by eight different writers, the movie is wildly uneven, with some rather dramatic shifts in style and tone. At times the humour also seems a bit scattershot and haphazard. Some jokes are uprorious. Others fall flat on their face.

Still, I find Casino Royale to be a very fun movie. Uneven it may be, the movie does have its share of golden moments. In many way the movie acts quite effectively as a commentary on the whole spy craze that was taking place at that time. And many of the performances are actually quite good. David Niven is sterling as always as the one, the only, the original James Bond. And Woody Allen Allen is not a mere parody of the villains typical to the official Bond franchise, but a demonstration that ultimately such megalomaniacs are merely psychologically and sexually frustrated losers. Casino Royale is not a great film. I won't even say it's a good one. But it is fun movie.

Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987): There are many who write this off as merely another slasher film, particularly since it is a sequel to the atrocious Prom Night. That having been said, beyond its name, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II is absolutely no relation to Prom Night. And it is hardly a slasher film. The movie centres around a prom queen (the Mary Lou of the title) murdered in the Fifties who returns to her old high school in 1987 to exact revenge. In this respect is is very derivative, drawing not only upon Carrie and The Exorcist, but Nightmare on Elm Street as well. And I must confess the movie does tend to give out in the end, with a rather standard ending that is a let down. But up to that point it is one fun ride.

Derivative it may be, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II is incredibly inventive in the way it uses the material from its various sources. The movie features some truly creative horror scenes, and it has a great sense of the Grand Guignol. Wendy Lyon, who plays the innocent teen who becomes possessed by Mary Lou's ghost, give a great performance, easily slipping between teenage innocence and Mary Lou's controlled evil. The movie moves at a good pace and it has a very well developed plot, offering more exposition than the average horror film. Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II has always received bad reviews, but it should not. It is one of my few guilty pleasures I can truly say is good.

Hudson Hawk (1991): When it was first released, Hudson Hawk received horrible reviews. In fact, it still receives horrible reviews. Bruce Willis plays Hudson Hawk, a master cat burglar who times his heists by signing songs, has just been released from prison and no intention of going back. Unfortunately for Hawk, he finds himself wrapped up in a truly Bondian plot. If Hudson Hawk received some truly atrocious reviews, it may well have been because of the absurdity of it all. The movie features clockwork technology of the sort seen in Our Man Flint, and makes free use of a mixture of mysterious history, secret societies, and conspiracy theories. And the whole thing climaxes in a remote castle. What is more, the film makes free use of surreal humour, complete with cartoon-style slapstick and sound effects. For many critics there can be no doubt that this was all too much.

Now from my standpoint, I must admit that there are times when the film meanders, with characters sometimes going off in pointless directions. And the film can at times be confusing. It is also rather uneven, with some of jokes falling flat. That having been said, Hudson Hawk has a wonderfully over the top quality that I can't help but love. While there is much about the film that doesn't work, there is much about it which does. In fact, it comes off as a wonderful cross between a Sixties spy spoof and a Thirties screwball comedy, with quite a bit of irreverence thrown in for good measure. If critics did not get Hudson Hawk, then perhaps it is because they took it as a serious attempt at an action movie than what it really is: a perfect piece of high camp. Not very good in some ways, but very enjoyable.

Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight (1995): Most reviews I read of Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight either said it was a movie made for fifteen year old boys, that it was a tad dull, or both. I cannot deny that fifteen year old boys would love the movie. Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight was not based on any story from the classic E. C. Comics--the screenplay is wholly original--but the story that unfolds is truly in the spirit of the comics. It is unabashedly gory and possessed of its own strict code of morality, just like the classic E.C. stories.

Indeed, while I will admit that the movie can move slow at times, it has a whole lot going for it, particularly a very original premise and its very own mythology. Quite simply, it revolves around a artefact called the Key (as in the Key to the gates of Hell) which for millennia has been guarded by a series of Demon Knights. It seems that to keep the Key from falling into the wrong hands, God arranged to have the Key filled with the blood of Jesus and then guarded by the Demon Knight. This takes us to the present day American West. The latest Demon Knight, Frank Brayker, is old and on his last legs. Worse yet, he is being pursued by the Collector, a high level demon charged with getting the key. Brayker must appoint his successor, who turns out to be a young thief named Jeryline (played by a young Jada Pinkett Smith), and turn the Key over her while keeping it out of the Collector's hands.

Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight benefits not only from a wonderfully complex mythology, but from some very frightening scenes and some great action sequences. And for those who love gore, there is plenty of gore to be had. Jada Pinkett Smith gives a sincere performance, and does quite as an action hero. In all, the movie feels what it might have been like had E.C. Comics decided to issue a superhero title, but one crossed with Tales from the Crypt. This is a movie that fifteen year old boys would enjoy. But I think it is also a fun film that horror fans of any age would enjoy as well.

The Last Legion (2007): Okay, the history portrayed in The Last Legion is about as far off the mark as one can get. And the movie is admittedly made on the cheap. The performances range from the fairly good (Colin Firth and Ben Kingsley) to the simply awful. And I have to admit that the script can be rather goofy at times.

Still, for me The Last Legion works. Goofy and silly it may be. The acting may not always be the best and the direction can be workmanlike, but ultimately it works as a good, old fashioned, Saturday matinee movie. It reminds me of those sword and sandal movies Hollywood and Italy churned out by the scores in the late Fifties and early Sixties. It has its fair share of exciting fight scenes. And it knows when not to take itself too seriously (it is a lot more fun than the somewhat staid King Arthur). And where else will one get to see the sexy and beautiful Aishwarya Rai kick arse?

Well, there you have it. My list of five guilty pleasures. I hope that you have not lost respect for me now and that you will still pay some attention to my film reviews. I can promise you this. My tastes have not grown so bad that now I now count John Hughes as one of my favourite directors (now there's a man whose movies may be guilty, but they're hardly pleasures)....

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

When Advertising Spokemen Go Bad

There have been many advertising spokesmen who have pitched their products for years. Mr. Whipple (played by Dick Wilson) warned customers, "Please don't squeeze the Charmin..." for 24 years and 504 commercials. Madge the Manicurist had her customers soaking in Palmolive dishwashing liquid for a full 26 years. Mrs. Olson sold Folgers Coffee for a full 22 years. But other advertising spokesmen aren't so lucky. Their careers are measured only in a few years or even a few months. Sometimes it is because they are utterly unpopular. Other times they may have started out popular, but people grew sick of them. Yet other times they find themselves in a scandal that makes them unsuitable for use as an advertising spokesmen.

Perhaps no greater example of an advertising spokesman who failed than Herb of the short lived Burger King campaign of 1985. For several years the J. Walter Thompson agency seemed incapable of developing a successful advertising campaign for Burger King. Slogans such as "Aren't you hungry for a Burger king now?" and "The big switch (referring to Burger King's broiling burgers versus MacDonalds frying them)" fell on deaf ears. The J. Walter Thompson agency then fell upon what they thought was a surefire winner. Herb would be a nerd, the only person in the United States who had never tasted a Whopper. J. Walter Thompson sank an enormous amount of money in the campaign, a whopping $40 million.

The campaign began with a teaser campaign that consisted of cryptic messages in newspapers and banners at football games. The introductory spot itself was scheduled to debut on all three networks on November 24. That first commercial explained how Burger King was launching a nationwide search for Herb, the one man who had never eaten a Burger King Burger. In following commercials Herb's friends and family urged Herb by all means to try a Whopper. They even offered a 99 cent special on the Whopper to everyone except Herb. All one had to do is say, "I'm not Herb (or if your name was Herb, then "I'm not the Herb you're looking for." At last, in a commercial aired during the Super Bowl, Herb was revealed. He was a balding man in glasses, a loud jacket, pants that didn't reach his ankles, and white socks, played by actor John Merrick. And it would seem that he finally tried a Whopper and loved it! Herb would go onto make an appearance on the Today show and as a guest timekeeper on Wrestlemania II. Burger King also plastered Herb's image on a wide array of merchandise: T-shirts, posters, pinback buttons, and so on.

Burger King also announced a contest. Herb now loved Burger King so much that he would visit one in each of the fifty states. Anyone who found Herb in a Burger King would be awarded $5000. Every $5000 winner would be entered in a contest to win $1,000,000. As it turned out, however, only one person ever claimed a $5000 prize. The whole time that the campaign had been going on, Burger King had not noticed that among the general public there were only two basic reactions to Herb. People were either utterly indifferent to him or they actively hated him. In fact, during the entire run of the campaign, Burger King's sales plummetted. The commercials had been set to run over a year. As it turned out, Burger King pulled the plug on the campaign after only four months. As to actor John Merrick, he was never heard from again. As to the J. Lee Thompson agency, immediately following the Herb debacle, Burger King fired them.

At least the Taco Bell chihuahua had a somewhat longer run. While played by a female chihuahua, the Taco Bell chihuahua was ostensibly male and spoke with a male voice. He made his debut in a test spot in September 1997 in the Northeastern United States. That first commercial started out making it look as if the dog was approaching a female chihuahua when, in truth, he was running up to a man eating Taco Bell. Sitting at the man's feet, the Taco Bell chihuahua looked up at him and said, "Yo quiero Taco Bell." The ad received such a good response in the Northeast, that Taco Bell took it nationwide. The ads had been created by the TBWA Chiat/Day ad agency.

The spot proved successful enough that Taco Bell would soon run a whole series of ads featuring the canine. In another popular spot he hovered under a person eating a Taco Bell chalupa, imploring "Drop the chalupa!" In a promotional tie-in with the American movie Godzilla, the Taco Bell chihuahua was running around New York City with a bag calling, "Heeeere, Lizard, Lizard." Upon seeing the size of his lizard, he exclaims, "Uh-oh, I think I need a bigger box." In the beginning the Taco Bell chihuahua would prove immensely popular. Both "Yo quiero Taco Bell" and "Drop the chalupa!"became catchphrases in the late Nineties. His image adorned posters and t-shirts. Taco Bell sold tons of Taco Bell chihuahua plushes.

Even in the beginning, however, all was not well. Hispanic groups complained that the chihuahua was a thinly veiled Mexican stereotype. And while the Taco Bell chihuahua had initially been a bit of a phenomenon, as time went on, he became less and less popular. There were many who actively hated the little dog. Perhaps worst of all, Taco Bell's sales dropped. In the end, Peter Weller, president of Taco Bell, was replaced by Emil Brolick, a veteran of Wendy's. Taco Bell dropped the TBWA Chiat/Day ad agency and returned to Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide for all its advertising. As to the Taco Bell chihuahua, he was fired. While there have been reports that the chihuahua campaign was ended due to pressure from Hispanic advocacy groups, it is equally likely that the low sales also played a role.

The Taco Bell chihuahua never appeared in another commercial for Taco Bell. The dog appeared as one of those auditioning for the role of GEICO spokesman, along side the gecko, in a 2002 commercial. He also appeared in an episode of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Other times it is not dwindling popularity that dooms an advertising spokesman, but a simple, old fashioned scandal. This was the case of the Dell Dude. For those of you with short memories, the Dell Dude, whose official name was "Steven," was the zoned out, zany techno-geek who pitched computers for Dell. And while the actor who played him, Ben Curtis, could be considered Generation Y at best, the character of the Dell Dude was a purely Gen X archetype. His spiritual ancestors were Jeff Spicoli, the resident stoner in 1982's classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Wayne and Garth from Wayne's World, and Bill and Ted from the movies Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. One gets the feeling that the Dell Dude would have no problem hanging out with Jay and Silent Bob from Kevin Smith's movies. Well, quite simply, the Dell Dude was yet another in a long line of Gen X slackers, but while Wayne, Garth, Bill, and Ted got off on music, and Jay and Silent Bob got off on comic books (well, and grass as well...), Steven the Dell Dude got off on Dell Computers.

The first commercial featuring the Dell Dude debuted during the holiday season of 2000. It featured Steven making a videotaped plea to his parents to get him a Dell Computer for Christmas. That first commercial was so successful that Steven the Dell Dude was featured in more commercials. He might be lurking anywhere, in an electronics store convincing customers to buy a Dell, visiting neighbours, as a high school graduate making a speech before his class, and even as Santa's little helper in a department store. The ads resulted in a number of catchphrases, such as "We're getting a Dell, dude!" or "You're getting a Dell, dude!" Whenever a customer bought a PC with which he was disappointed, Steven might chastise them with "You could have got a Dell, dude."

Steven the Dell Dude became a veritable phenomenon. Dell sold baseball caps, T-shirts, notepads, book packs, and CD cases. Steven the Dell Dude even had his own web site for a time. If there was any doubt of the success of Steven the Dell Dude, one need only look at the sales of Dell. Since the start of the Dell Dude campaign their sales had risen 16.5 percent. That was more than double the previous years.

Unfortunately, in October 2002 the end was near. Dell launched a series of ads that focused not on Steven the Dell Dude, but on the interns at Dell headquarters. The Dell Dude would at least appear in one of those commercials. And Dell made it clear that they were not ending their relationship with actor Ben Curtis or his character. There were then plans for Steven to continue to appear from time to time in Dell ads.

All of that would change one fateful night on February 9 when actor Ben Curtis was arrested at Ludlow and Rivington on Manhattan's Lower East Side on a charge of misdemeanour marijuana possession (as it turns out, maybe Steven the Dell Dude did hang out with Jay and Silent Bob....). Initially Dell maintained that despite the arrest, they still had a relationship with Curtis. Soon afterwards, however, Ben Curtis's employment with Dell was terminated on grounds of "unspecified violations of company policy." Steven the Dell Dude has never again appeared in a commercial for Dell.

I could probably name other instances in which advertising spokesmen have gone bad. Most often it seems to me that it is a case similar to that of Herb, in which a character is just plain unpopular (if not quite that extreme). Almost as often it is a case of a character who once popular, but eventually started getting on people's nerves, such as the Taco Bell chihuahua. It seems to me that commercial spokesmen being dismissed due to some scandal is actually very, very rare. Off the top of my head I can think of only one other group of commercial spokesmen who were dismissed due to a scandal. Old Milwaukee Beer's spots featuring the Swedish Bikini Team resulted in a lawsuit from female employees of the Stroh's Brewery (who made Old Milwaukee) maintaining that the ads were misleading and helped foster a work environment of sexual harassment. The ads ended immediately.

Regardless, it is clear that not every commercial spokesman can be the Maytag Repairman (who has been around since 1967, played by Jesse White, Gordon Jump, Hardy Rawls, and Clay Jackson) or even the Brawny Lumberjack. There will always be a Herb or a Baby Bob (gods, he was creepy).

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hellboy Turns 15

It was on this day in 1993 that the character of Hellboy debuted at the San Diego Comic-Con. He first appeared there in the pages of San Diego Comic-Con Comics #2. The creation of writer and artist Mike Mignola, Hellboy is a demon brought to Earth during World War II as a child and raised Professor Trevor Bruttenholm to use his powers for good. As an adult Hellboy would first fight demons, goblins, and other critters that go bump in the night with the U.S. government's Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence. The appeal of Hellboy isn't simply that he is a demon who uses his powers for good, but rather he comes off as an average, working class joe. He can be gruff, nonchalant, and unflappable, yet he shows unswerving loyalty to his friends and family. He loves cats (in fact, he owns dozens of them), smokes cigars (which he lights with a Zippo), and uses a rather huge gun with bullets especially made for supernatural menaces (it is named the Samaritan in the first Hellboy film). His other weapon is his right hand, huge and made of stone, often called "the Right Hand of Doom." Supposedly, its purpose is to serve as the catalyst for Armageddon.

Although the character is owned by Mike Mignola, Hellboy has been published by Dark Horse Comics for his entire history. In fact, he might be their most popular character. In 1993 He apepared in Next Men #21, December 1993. Nineteen ninety-four would see Hellboy titles finally appear, with the mini-series
Hellboy: Seed of Destruction
(it was this miniseries that was the basis of much of the first movie). In all Hellboy would appear in around ten miniseries and several individual stories, not counting guest appearances in other magazines.

The popularity of Hellboy would naturally result in the merchandising of the character. Even before the film, there were Hellboy T-shirts, licence plates, a lunchbox, two Zippos (the BPRD Zippo and the Hellboy zippo). Of course, once the first film came out, there would be even more Hellboy merchandise.

It is perhaps a mark of Hellboy's success that, even though the character was only eleven years old at the time, he had a major motion picture based upon him. Hellboy's path to becoming a film star was not smooth. Guillermo del Toro had long wanted to direct a feature film based upon Hellboy, but could never secure studio approval or a sufficient budget. Fortunately, the success of Blade II finally gave him the chance to direct Hellboy. The film proved moderately successful at the box office and sold very well on DVD. This would result in a sequel, although it would be delayed for a few years. Revolution Studios, the original studio which had produced the first film, had planned to do a sequel, but went out of business before they could do so. Universal Studios would then pick up the project. Hellboy II: the Golden Army came out this past summer.

There have also been animated features for televison based upon Hellboy that have come out. In 2005 IDT Entertainment announced that they had licensed the rights to develop Hellboy animated content for television. The first feature, Sword of Storms, aired on the Cartoon Network in 2006 and was released on DVD shortly thereafter. Mike Mignola co-wrote the script, while Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, and Doug Jones provided the voices of their characters from the movie. A second feature, Blood and Iron, debuted in 2007 on the Cartoon Network and was released on DVD not long thereafter. Mike Mignola once more co-wrote the script. The actors from the movie once more provided voices for their characters, including this time around John Hurt as Professor Bruttenholm. A third animated feature, The Phantom Claw, has been announced.

In a mere fifteen years Hellboy has risen to heights that few comic book characters of recent vintage ever have. In fact, he may be one of the few comic book characters whose name is recognised by the average person, although it is probably due to the movies more than anything else. He has a large readership when compared to other comic book characters. In fact, his following can aptly be described as a cult following. There is one thing for certain. Hellboy will be around for many years to come.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Mr. Bubble

It was in the Fifties that Madison Avenue finally took notice of children. There had been some marketing to children before then. For instance, breakfast cereals had long featured premiums to catch children's eyes. Ultimately, however, it was in the Fifties and later the Sixties that marketing to children really caught fire. The breakfast cereal companies not only rushed to create animated characters to attract children, but even created cereals to specifically appeal to them. The toy industry grew at a phenomenal rate in the Fifties. And now toys were being marketed directly to children through the miracle of television. Of course, the reason for Madison Avenue's sudden awareness of the very young is not hard to find. This was the era of the Baby Boom (1945 to 1960) when more children were born at any other time in the United States. With so many youngsters about it was impossible not to take notice of them.

Among the things first marketed to children in the early Sixties (particularly the years 1960 and 1961) were bubble bath products. In the United States Charlie Eaton seems to have started it all with Bub, marketed shortly before 1959. Colgate manufactured the Bubble Bath Soaky, a bubble bath whose bottles were shaped like various popular characters (in 1965 there were even four Beatles Bubble Bath Soakies). Among the most popular of the new products, however, was Mr. Bubble.

Mr. Bubble was invented by Harold Shafer, of Gold Seal Company. It was in 1942 that he founded the company with Gold Seal Floor Wax. It was in 1945 that he introduced Glass Wax. The company went national in 1948 and saw phenomenal success with Glass Wax and Snowy Bleach (introduced in 1950). It was in 1960 that he introduced Mr. Bubble.

Mr. Bubble was obviously created to be marketed to children. It was promoted by a character called Mr. Bubble, who was essentially an anthropomorphic bubble. The character of Mr. Bubble also appeared in often humorous, animated commercials from the beginning. One of the more popular taglines of the Sixties was "Mr. Bubble gets you so clean your mother won't know you." It was perhaps because of the character of Mr. Bubble and the commercials that Mr. Bubble became a hit.

Originally, Mr. Bubble was in a powered form, which was the reason for the warning on the package "Keep Dry." This was ridiculed at the time by comic Don Novello (best known as Father Guido Sarducci), who wrote them letters under the pen name Lazlo Toth. He published the letters in the book The Lazlo Letters. The warning to "Keep Dry" a product meant to be used in water must have seemed ridiculous to Novello. A liquid version of Mr. Bubble was later introduced.

Mr. Bubble would prove to be a very successful product from the Sixties well into the Seventies. The product was so successful that there was even a wide array of Mr. Bubble merchandise. There have been T-shirts, caps, keychains, boxer shorts, earrings, and a number of other items.

Of course, Mr. Bubble hasn't always had it easy. In 1985 Harold Schafer sold Gold Seal Company to Airwick Industries. In 1998 Mr. Bubble was obtained by Playtex Products Inc. Platex Products was later acquired by Ascendia Brands Inc. Beyond changes in ownership, the sales of Mr. Bubble would falter in the Eighties. It was then that Cosrich Group Inc. first licensed the use of Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh. Their licensing deal would also include Disney movies, such as Beauty and the Beast. They would later manufacture bubble baths based on the Sesame Street characters as well. In the end Cosrich would go into licensing in a way that Colgate never had with its Soakies. And sadly, this hurt Mr. Bubble's sales.

Fortunately, Mr. Bubble's salvation would come from the most unexpected places. It was a furnishing store, Restoration Hardware, known for reviving the furnishings of the past. Looking to revive old, established brands, they naturally took an interest in Mr. Bubble. They conducted a study and found that there was still public interest in the character, particularly on the part of mothers, who liked both the simplicity and the price of Mr. Bubble. Restoration Hardware began selling Mr. Bubble, and his revival was under way.

Sadly, the revival was not to last. Ascendia Brands Inc. had racked up a lot of debt in the past few years. Much of the debt was secured by liens against the company's assets. Worse yet, many of their acquisitions did not sell as well as might be expected. It was on August 6, 2008 that Ascendia Brands Inc. filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy. They are currently looking for a buyer for the company.

It is hard to say what the future holds for Mr. Bubble. As a well established brand, I think it would be safe to say that whoever buys Ascendia will probably continue manufacturing it. It would be a shame for Mr. Bubble to go the way of such brands as Burma-Shave, Chewels gum, and Brim Coffee. Mr. Bubble was the bubble bath of choice for many mothers of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. I have fond memories of taking baths in the stuff myself. Somehow I just cannot see Cosrich's licensed bubble baths ever quite taking the place of Mr. Bubble.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Watchmen Trailer

Of the films being released next year that I am eagerly anticipating, I am probably looking forward to none more than Watchmen. The film, directed by 300 director Zack Snyder, is being released March 6 (only four days before my birthday).

For those of you who don't know, the movie Watchmen is based on the 1986-1987 graphic novel of the same name by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons. The graphic novel takes place in an alternate reality circa 1985 where superheroes actually came into being in the late Thirties and early Forties. The United States is closer to ever to nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Richard Nixon is still president. Costumed adventurers (as the heroes call themselves) were banned under the Keene Act of 1977, but the murder of The Comedian triggers a series of events that will soon involved all of them. Along with The Dark Knight Returns and V For Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, it is counted among the greatest graphic novels of all time.

Here then I present to you, courtesy of YouTube, the trailer to the movie Watchmen.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Why I Hate the New Facebook

It was on July 21 that Facebook rolled out their new design. Currently, Facebook users can switch to the new Facebook if they choose and switch back to the old Facebook if they don't like the new version. At the time Facebook said that they would be opting everyone into the new Facebook over the next few weeks as its trial version comes to an end.

The new Facebook is a dramatic change from the old. The left sidebar is gone and most things have been moved to the right sidebar. One now accesses his or her applications, information, et.al. on his or her profile by clicking tabs instead of scrolling down. A new Friends page was also created. In theory, the new look is supposed to be cleaner. To give you an idea of the changes, here is my profile on the old Facebook:



You can't see it, but if you scrolled down you would see a box for my friends, boxes for various applications, my Wall, and so on.

Here is my profile on the new Facebook:



As it turns out, many Facebook users are less than impressed by the new Facebook. In fact, many actively hate it. Googling the phrase "hate the new Facebook" brings up an extraordinary number of results. Typical is a post in the University of Southern California's "On the Record" blog, a review in which the writer proclaims "I'm sorry, but I hate the new Facebook...." In the Tech Oberver blog of the Conde Nast Portfolio.Com, Kevin Manley asked, "Is it just me, or does the "New Facebook" design look like something out of about 2001?" The Diamondback Online, the web version of the University of Maryland's independent student newspaper, had an article entitled "Facebook's new layout met with mixed reactions." on the displeasure of many Facebook users. An article in the Beta News on user reaction to the new design was titled "Facebook users unite in outrage over changed layout." So far a number of groups on Facebook have arisen against the new Facebook, including "1,000,000 Against the New Facebook Layout (which currently has 57,934 members)," "People against the New Facebook System (which currently has 41,961 members)," "Petition Against the 'New Facebook (which currently has a whopping 180,973 members)," and several others. While there have been those who have pointed out that the membership of these groups is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the total user base of Facebook (which is currently at 90 million users), one has to wonder if the outrage has not been larger simply because Facebook has not forced people to use the new Facebook yet. If Facebook does truly adopt the new design, even more Facebook users could be angry.

Of course, there are probably many Facebook users who hate the new Facebook simply because they do not like change. Many people when forced to adopt a change will react with anger and resentment. While I have no doubt this is true, I suspect there is much more at work here with regard to the anger of Facebook users. Quite simply, I count myself among the number of users who hate the new Facebook. To me it is simply another example in the ongoing trend on the World Wide Web towards unattractive, awkward, and down right poor deign (IMDB's new look was another example).

My primary objection to the new Facebook is because, quite frankly, I find it awkward, unwieldy, and downright unhandy. One of the things I always liked about the old Facebook's profile page is that almost everything is accessible from a single page. True, I might have to scroll down the page a bit to reach it, but I am still dealing with just one page. Having to click on tabs to reach my Information, my Photos, or my Applications is simply inconvenient to me. I rather suspect this is the objection of many Facebook users, who perhaps prefer things being easily accessible on one page rather than having to click on tabs or links.

Another objection I have to the new Facebook is that it seems to me that one's profile is not nearly as customisable. I have found no way to place one's application boxes into any sort of discernible order as I could with my old Facebook profile. Worse yet, there is no way to simply put everything one wants (Info, apps, groups, and so on) onto one page. Another problem is that there is simply no way one can collapse the news feed, a feature I understand caused a good deal of uproar among Facebook users when it was first introduced around two years ago. I rather suspect most people are like me. They want to be able to arrange their Facebook profiles the way that they want them to be.

Another objection I have is that the Wall and the news feed have been combined, so that one's comments and the various news stories are all mixed together. For those of you who don't use Facebook, the Wall is the place on one's profile for his or her friends to leave comments. By combining the Wall and the news feed, Facebook has made it more difficult to find comments to one's Wall because of the various news stories. I only have around twenty friends on Facebook as it is--I'd hate to see how someone with 100 or more friends would deal with the Wall and news feed combined.

Another problem that I have with the new Facebook are the ads. Now even in the new Facebook the ads are small and, when compared to other social networking web sites, few in number. That having been said, they seem to be bigger than on old Facebook pages. Worse yet, while old Facebook pages only had about one ad per page, the new Facebook pages boast about two ads at times. While admittedly even in the new design Facebook has fewer and much smaller ads than other web sites, I don't like there being any more ads than there have to be.

Ultimately, to me the new Facebook is a prime example of poor design. It is simply unwieldy and inefficient. Fortunately, one can switch back to the old Facebook, which I did after looking over the new design. It is difficult to say whether Facebook will hoist the new Facebook on its users or not. On the whole, Facebook seems much more responsive than other web sites to its users' concerns. Unfortunately, it seems possible to me that unless user displeasure over the new look grows even greater, Facebook will force it upon them regardless. I am still sore over IMDB, which in the end did not restore the ability to use the old IMDB design even after a good number of its most faithful users objected to it being taken away. In the end, Facebook users may be yet another group of web site users on whom a bad web site design is simply forced upon them for no good reason.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Michael Silberkleit, Head of Archie Comics, Passes On

Michael Silberkleit, chairman and publisher of Archie Comics for the past several decades, died August 5 at the age of 76. The cause was cancer.

Silberkleit was born April 27, 1932 in New York City. His father was Louis Silberkleit, one of the three men who founded MLJ Magazines, as Archie Comics was originally named. Silberkleit started working at Archie Comics while he was still a teenager, in the mail room. He attended the Fieldston School in New York City and then Albright College in Reading Pennsylvania. He studied law after graduating.

Silbertkleit worked in the Seventies as Treasurer at Archie Comics. In the early Eighties he and Richard Goldwater, the son of MLJ co-founder John Goldwater, bought the company from their fathers. He also served at times as chairman of the Comics Magazine Association of America (John Goldwater of Archie Comics had served as president of the CMAA for its first 25 years).

Both Michael Silbertkleit and Richard Goldwater kept true to the squeaky clean vision of Archie. When darker themes, such as drugs or terrorism were addressed in the comics, even then they were presented in such a way as to not compromise the essential optimism of the Archie franchise. Sex or nudity never appeared in the magazines. Both Silberkleit and Goldwater wanted to keep their magazines suitable for children's reading. They also encouraged the development of Archie's newer characters, such as Josie and the Pussycats and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. They also encouraged the licensing of their characters. While Michael Silbertkleit and Richard Goldwater were in charge of the company, there were two new Archie cartoons, a live action primetime Sabrina the Teenage Witch TV series, and a feature film based on Josie and the Pussycats. His death is certainly a loss to Archie Comics as a company.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Why Aren't Variety Shows Available on DVD?

From the Forties into the Seventies, among the most popular genres of series on American broadcast television was the variety show. In fact, many shows today considered classics belong to the genre, including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Garry Moore Show, The Carol Burnett Show, and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Many of these shows also number among the longest running shows on American television. The Ed Sullivan Show ran twenty three years. The Garry Moore Show ran seventeen years. The Red Skelton Show ran twenty years. Those are impressive numbers for shows of any genre.

Strangely, even though some of the most important and longest running shows in the history of American television, there is very little in the way of variety shows available on DVD. The first three seasons of The Muppet Show were released on DVD with plans to release the rest as well. The whole run of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour is being released on DVD, with the third and final season being released next month. Collections of the highlights of The Ed Sullivan Show have been released on DVD under the heading The Very Best of the Ed Sullivan Show, but so far no complete episodes with a few exceptions. Highlights from The Carol Burnett Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Red Skelton Show, The Johnny Cash Show, and The Flip Wilson Show have been released in a similar manner. Collections of highlights and a few individual episodes of Heee Haw have been released on DVD. Still, even many classic variety shows have not seen a DVD release. The Jackie Gleason Show, The Garry Moore Show, The Perry Como Show, nor The George Gobel Show are available on DVD at all.

Of course, it would be too much to expect every single variety show to be released on DVD. I honestly don't think anyone is eager to see The Krofft Superstar Hour (with The Bay City Rollers) any time soon. And I doubt Pink Lady and Jeff will ever be seen again except when Trio decides to show the worst shows of all time. And then there is the sad fact that many early variety shows in the Forties and Fifties were broadcast live and at best recorded through kinescope, which means there are many that are probably lost to us forever. American television's first variety show, Hour Glass (which aired all the way back in 1946 and 1947 on NBC), will never see a DVD release for this reason.

Another factor that might explain why many variety shows are not available on DVD is the matter of music. Music rights are handled totally differently from both film and video. When it comes to songs performed on a TV show, the rights to every single song has to be cleared before they can appear on a DVD (odd as it might sound, most TV shows do not get the right to use songs in perpetuity). It is because of music licensing that "Stormy Weather," "Gone with the Wind," "You've Got a Friend," and a few other songs were cut from The Muppet Show Season One DVD release.

It must also keep in mind that a less practical concern with regards to music might keep many variety shows off DVD. One of the primary reasons the variety show declined in popularity in the United States following the Sixties is America's constantly changing tastes in music. It is for this reason that many variety shows also never saw syndication. In fact, when highlights from The Carol Burnett Show were released to syndication in the Eighties under the title Carol Burnett & Friends, only comedy sketches were included. It was felt that many of the songs performed on the series might date poorly.

Regardless of the factors, the sad fact is that many classic variety shows simply are bit available on DVD or are only available in collections of highlights ("Greatest Hits," if you will). To me this is simply inexcusable. Personally, I don't buy the theory that many songs are so "out of date" that they can't be enjoyed by a modern audience. The fact is that people's musical tastes can vary widely, even in an individual. A twenty year old might like Frank Sinatra. A seventy year old might like Fall Out Boy. It is true that the musical tastes of the United States are constantly changing, but it is also true that good music will always find an audience.

Beyond such practical concerns as whether episodes are available at all (many being lost) and music licensing, I really can't think of any reasons to keep many variety shows from a DVD release. Nor can I think of any reason that many variety shows should not be released season by season. Nearly all of the stars of the classic variety shows, from Jackie Gleason to Red Skelton, are still sufficiently well enough that people would buy DVDs of their series based on name recognition alone. As to those who may not be, such as Garry Moore, I might point out that many much more obscure shows have been released on DVD. Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp, Father Murphy, Here Come the Brides, and Dusty's Trail are all at least partially available on DVD. If TV shows which either a very few people remember (I must confess, I remember every one of the shows I named except Here Comes the Bride) or very few people have even heard of can be released on DVD, I cannot see why a classic variety show can't be.

Personally, I believe most variety shows still have an audience. Many people still have fond memories of these shows. Given how many years many of these series ran, is it little wonder that they do? I rather suspect that if many of these shows were released season by season on DVD, they would sell. Perhaps they would not break any sales records, but they would at least sell better than many more obscure shows. To me there are very few justifiable reasons that many classic variety shows should not be available on DVD.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Playwright and Actor George Furth Passes On

Playwright and character actor George Furth passed on Monday at the age of 75. He had written the book for Broadway musicals such as Company and The Act. As an actor he appeared in TV shows from The Monkees to Murder She Wrote and movies from The New Interns to Bulworth.

Furth was born George Schweinfurth December 14, 1932 in Chicago. He majored in speech at Northwestern University in Illinois, and received his Master's degree at Columbia University.

Furth made his debut on Broadway as a performer in the play A Cook for Mr. General in 1961. He made his debut on a the small screen in a guest appearance on Going My Way the following year. He would frequently appear on television in the Sixties, in series such as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Batman, F Troop, The Monkees, Ironside, and I Dream of Jeannie. He made his film debut in Gore Vidal's The Best Man in 1964. Over the years he would appear in such films as The New Interns, How to Save a Marriage and Ruin Your Life, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Blazing Saddles, Shampoo, Oh God, The Man With Two Brains, and Bulworth.

Furth was also a playwright who collaborated with Stephen Sondheim. He wrote the books for the musicals Company, The Act, and Merrily We Roll Along. He also wrote the plays Twigs, The Supporting Cast, Precious Sons, and Getting Away with a Murder.

Furth continued to make regular guest appearances on television from the Sixties into the Nineties. He appeared in such shows as Bonanza, Night Gallery, Adam-12, The Odd Couple, Ellery Queen, Wings, Murphy Brown, and The Nanny.

George Furth was gifted as both an actor and a playwright. As an actor he usually played a nerdish sort. As a playwright he won the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical for Company. Furth was a rare breed. Not only was he a character actor, but an award winning playwright as well.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Issac Hayes Passes On

Isaac Hayes, who wrote and performed the theme to the movie Shaft, passed yesterday at the age of 65.

Hayes was born on August 20, 1942 in Covington, Tennessee. His father left the family and his mother died while Hayes still young. For that reason Hayes was raised by his grandparents. He grew up working in cotton fields. Hayes had begin singing when he was five years old in church. He eventually taught himself to play piano, electric organ, flute, and saxophone. While still young he played with local bands.

It was in 1964 that Hayes began playing as a backup musician for Stax Records. He started co-writing songs with David Porter for Stax artists such as Sam and Dave, producing such classics as "Hold On, I’m Comin'" and "Soul Man." By 1968 he was a solo artist himself for Stax, releasing his first album as a solo artist, Presenting Isaac Hayes. The album was not financially successful, although this would be a different story for his second album, Hot Buttered Soul. Released in 1969, it went to #8 on the Billboard albums chart and produced the hit singles "Walk on By" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix."

It was in 1971 that saw the release of the hit for which Hayes became most famous, "The Theme from Shaft." "The Theme from Shaft" went to #1 on the Billboard chart. Hayes would also continue releasing albums throughout the early Seventies, almost all of them going to the top twenty of the Billboard albums chart. Unfortunately for Hayes, in 1974 Stax Records was experiencing financial difficulties, while Hayes himself was deep in debt. Stax released Hayes from his contract and he formed his own label, Hot Buttered Soul. By the late Seventies Hayes embraced disco, and his albums did not perform as well.

While Hayes' music career began to slide, he began acting more. He had a part in the Blaxploitation film Tough Guys and plays the lead in the Blaxploitation film Truck Turner. He guest starred in three episodes of The Rockford Files. Hayes appeared as The Duke in Escape from New York, Starting in the late Eighties he appeared in several films, including Dead Aim, I'm Gonna Git You Sucker, Prime Target, Posse, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Reindeer Games, and the 2000 remake of Shaft. He also guest starred on the shows The A-Team, Hunter, and Tales from the Crypt.

Of course, when it comes to acting, Hayes was perhaps most famous for providing the voice of Chef on South Park. The one adult the kids constantly go to for advice, he was a send up of Soul singers such as Hayes himself and Barry White, constantly thinking of sex. Following his departure from South Park after an episode parodying Scientology (Hayes' religion), Chef was killed off.

Hayes also made a bit of a comeback musically in 1995 with a return to his original style on the album Branded.

As a music artist, Hayes was undoubtedly influential. The songs he wrote for various Stax artists have been covered many times by such artists as The Blues Brothers, Johnny Gill, and ZZ Topp, among others. Some have considered his music a forerunner of disco, but I disagree, thinking his early music was much more sophisticated. That having been said, his work on the albums Hot Buttered Soul, The Isaac Hayes Movement, Black Moses, and others would have a lasting influence on several different genres of music. Although chiefly remembered for "The Theme from Shaft," his influence goes much further.