Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The 130th Anniversary of Sherlock Holmes

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes
It is common knowledge that Sherlock Holmes first appeared in the novel A Study in Scarlet, first published in Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1887. As to when exactly the 1887 Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1887 was published, that is a bit more of mystery. Most simply guess that it was published sometime in November or December of that year. That having been said, the website I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere makes a good argument that Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1887 was most likely published on November 21. If that is the case, then today would be the 130th anniversary of Sherlock Holmes.

A Study in Scarlet would be published as a book in July 1888 by Ward, Lock & Co., with a second edition appearing the following year. It was first published in the United States in 1890. Regardless, A Study in Scarlet was not responsible for Sherlock Holmes's enormous success. Neither for that matter, would Sherlock Holmes's second appearance, which was in the novel The Sign of the Four, published in the February 1890 issue of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. It would be a series of shorts stories published in The Strand Magazine that would ultimately be responsible for turning Sherlock Holmes into a phenomenon. Beginning with "A Scandal in Bohemia" in the July 1891 issue, short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes would appear regularly in The Strand Magazine for a few years.

Indeed, it was not long before author Arthur Conan Doyle and even his creation Sherlock Holmes would begin receiving massive amounts of fan mail. Some fan mail was even addressed to 221B Baker Street, an address that simply did not exist at the time the stories were originally written (Baker Street did not go up to 221 in the Victorian Era).

While Sherlock Holmes was phenomenally popular, as early as November 1991 Arthur Conan Doyle thought of killing the character off, maintaining in a letter to his mother, "He takes my mind from better things." Here it must be pointed out that Mr. Conan Doyle wrote many other works that had nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes. He wrote several historical novels, as well as fantasy and science fiction stories featuring Professor Challenger and humorous stories set in the Napoleonic Era featuring Brigadier Gerard.

Ultimately Arthur Conan Doyle decided to kill off Sherlock Holmes once and for all so he could devote more time to his historical novels. It was in "The Adventure of the Final Problem", published in The Strand Magazine in December 1993, that Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty plunged to their apparent deaths over the Reichenbach Falls. Public outcry over Holmes's death was immediate. Both Arthur Conan Doyle and The Strand Magazine received tonnes of angry letters from Sherlock Holmes fans. Many people cancelled their subscriptions to The Strand Magazine.

Despite the public outcry, Arthur Conan Doyle would not write about Sherlock Holmes for some time. It was eight years before Holmes would appear again, in the novel The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised in The Strand Magazine from April 1901 to April 1902). The novel was set before Holmes's apparent death. It would be with "The Adventure of the Empty House", published in Collier's Magazine in the United States in September 1903 and in The Strand Magazine in the United Kingdom in October 1903, that Arthur Conan Doyle would resume writing about Holmes. It is in "The Adventure of the Empty House" that it is explained how Sherlock Holmes faked his death in order to confound his enemies.

Following "The Adventure of the Empty House" Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would write several more Sherlock Holmes stories, as well as the novel The Valley of Fear. The last Sherlock Holmes story, "The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place", was published in the March 5 1927 issue of Liberty in the United States and the April 1927 issue of The Strand Magazine.

While the last Sherlock Holmes story was published in 1927, the character has never really been out of the spotlight since the 1890s. Sherlock Holmes would be adapted to the stage multiple times. Indeed, actor William Gillette made a bit of a career out of Holmes, first appearing as the detective in the play Sherlock Homes. Over the years there would be many more plays.

Of course, Sherlock Holmes would appear in several movies over the years, so many that Guinness World Records lists him as the character most portrayed in movies and the most portrayed detective on television as well. The first known film featuring Holmes was the one-reeler Sherlock Holmes Baffled, produced in 1900 by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. In 1916 William Gillette, who had played the detective several times on stage, appeared in the film adaptation of his play Sherlock Holmes. His play would be adapted again in 1922 by Goldwyn Pictures. This time it starred John Barrymore as Holmes and is historic as William Powell's film debut.

Perhaps the actors most famous for playing Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, who first appeared as the par in 20th Century Fox's 1939 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. It would be followed the same year by another Holmes film starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. 20th Century Fox had wanted to make more Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, but talks between the studio and the Conan Doyle estate broke down. Fortunately, Universal obtained the film rights for Sherlock Holmes and launched a new series of films starring Messrs. Rathbone and Bruce starting with Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. Universal took the then revolutionary step of updating Holmes to the 1940s. Since then many more films starring Sherlock Holmes have been made. In fact, to adequately discuss Sherlock Holmes on the big screen would take and (and has taken) entire books.

Sherlock Holmes has also been adapted for radio several times over. On October 20 1930 The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes debuted on NBC Red. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes would be followed by several more radio shows featuring the great detective in the United States, with the last airing in 1956 on ABC. Notably, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce played Holmes and Watson in The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Mr. Rathbone would continue until 1946, the role then being taken over by Tom Conway. Even after the demise of Old Time Radio in the United States, there would be many radio adaptations of Sherlock Holmes. The BBC alone has aired several.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed detective on television. What is more, Sherlock Holmes appeared on television fairly early. In 1937 The Three Garridebs, starring Louis Hector as Sherlock Holmes, aired from the stage of  Radio City Music Hall on NBC as part of a field test before regular television broadcasts began. In 1951 the BBC aired a six episode series entitled Sherlock Holmes. An American series, also titled Sherlock Holmes, aired in syndication in 1954. Since then there have been several more TV shows featuring Sherlock Holmes, including the 1960s series initially starring Douglas Wilmer as Holmes and later Peter Cushing, the Eighties Granada Television series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, the more recent series Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and another recent series, Elementary, starring Jonny Lee Miller.

One hundred and thirty years after his debut, Sherlock Holmes's popularity shows no sign of declining. The character continues to appear in movies and on television regularly. The original books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the "canon", as it is known) continues to sell well. The Baker Street Irregulars, an organisation of Sherlock Homes fans founded in 1934, continues to thrive. While other literary characters might see their popularity fade until they are eventually forgotten, it seems that Sherlock Holmes will likely still be popular 130 years from now.

Monday, 20 November 2017

The Late Great Malcolm Young

Malcolm Young, founding member and rhythm guitarist for the legendary rock band AC/DC, died on November 18 2017 at the age of 64. He had been suffering from dementia and a number of other health problems. His brothers were George Young (founding member of The Easybeats), Alex Young (bassist for Grapefruit), and Angus Young (founding member and lead guitarist of AC/DC).

Malcolm Young was born on January 6 1953 in Glasgow, Scotland. He came from a large family, with several brothers and one sister. Of his brothers, two others would become professional musicians besides Malcolm and Angus. George Young was a founding member and rhythm guitarist in the legendary Australian band The Easybeats. Alex Young was a founding member and bassist for the British band Grapefruit. According to Malcolm Young, all of the males in his family played some sort of musical instrument. It was following the particularly severe winter of 1962-1963 (known as "the Big Freeze of 1963") that the Young family immigrated to Australia.

While Malcolm Young's older brothers George and Alex had already achieved rock stardom, his father insisted that Malcolm Young continue to work as a mechanic at bra factory after he had left school at 15. It was inevitable that Malcolm Young would have a career in music, and from 1972 to 1974 he was part of the Marcus Hook Roll Band. The Marcus Hook Roll Band had been formed by his brother George Young and his writing partner Henry Vanda. It also included Malcolm Young's brothers Alex and Angus. The band released one album and three singles. In 1974 Malcolm Young played guitar on Stevie Wright's single "Evie".

It was in 1973 that Malcolm and Angus Young formed AC/DC. It was their sister Margaret who came up with the name after she noticed the abbreviation AC/DC on her sewing machine. The Young brothers then recruited drummer Colin Burges bassist Larry Van Kriedt, and singer Dave Evans. By 1974 Dave Evans would be replaced as lead vocalist by Bon Scott. The band built up a following and in 1974 their first album, High Voltage, was released exclusively in Australia and New Zealand. Its follow up, TNT, was released in 1975, also only in Australia and New Zealand. During this period, AC/DC regularly appeared on the Australian Broadcasting Company music show Countdown.

With a considerable amount of success in Australia, AC/DC was signed by Atlantic Records in 1976. Their first album on Atlantic was actually a compilation of songs from their previous Australian albums, High Voltage and T.N.T. Also titled High Voltage, the album was released internationally. It reached #7 on the French album chart, #31 on the Australian album chart, and #146 on the Billboard 200. Their next album was Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. The album was released in 1976 in both Australian and international versions. Strangely enough, the American branch of Atlantic rejected the album, and it would not be released in the United States until 1981. The album reached no. 5 on the Australian album chart and no. 15 on the French album chart. Released at the height of AC/DC's success in the United States in 1981, it reached #3 on the Billboard 200.

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap was followed by Let There Be Rock in 1977. Let There Be Rock performed well, reaching no. 17 on the British album chart, no. 9 on the French album chart, and no. 19 on the Australian album chart. Let There Be Rock was followed by 1978's Powerage and 1979's Highway to Hell. Highway to Hell proved to be the band's first major success in the United States, where it reached no. 17 on the Billboard 200. Its single, "Highway to Hell", peaked at no. 47 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Unfortunately, lead vocalist Bon Scott died on February 19 1980, not long after they had begun work on the album that would become Back in Black. AC/DC considered disbanding, but reconsidered after Mr. Scott's family insisted that he would want them to go on. They ultimately hired Brian Johnson as Bon Scott's replacement. He had been the lead vocalist with the band Geordie. Back in Black would prove to be their most commercially successful album of all time, hitting no. 4 on the Billboard 200 and no. 1 on the UK album chart. The following, album For Those About to Rock We Salute You, also performed very well.

AC/DC would experience a decline in their fortunes with the release of 1983's Flick of the Switch and 1985's Fly on the Wall. Fortunately 1988's album, Blow Up Your Video, would see a return to their former glory. Unfortunately, Malcolm Young would miss most of the tour for the album. Suffering from alcoholism, he checked himself into rehab. His place was taken by his nephew Stevie Young. It was the only time Malcolm Young was absent from AC/DC until his retirement in 2014.

AC/DC maintained their popularity into the 21st Century. Following the release of Blow Up Your Video, their albums regularly topped the album charts in multiple countries. In 1990 their song "Moneytalks" even reached no. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Unfortunately in the Teens Malcolm Young's health began to decline. By April 2014 his health had worsened so much that he could no longer perform. By September 2014 it was reported that he was suffering from dementia. He would later develop lung cancer, with the tumour being successfully removed, and he had to wear pacemaker. Regardless, AC/DC continued according to his wishes.

While front man Angus Young has received most of the attention throughout AC/DC's history, Malcolm Young was a pivotal member of the band. He was in many respects the band's driving force and its leader. Former lead vocalist Brian Johnson described him as "...the man who created AC/DC because he said 'there was no Rock n' Roll' out there." A talented rhythm guitarist who co-wrote nearly all of the band's songs with his brother Angus, he was largely responsible for AC/DC's sound. As the band's rhythm guitarist he had a knack for developing very listenable riffs. In an interview in 2004, Dave Mustaine of Megadeth counted Malcolm Young as among the greatest rhythm guitarists of all time. While Malcolm Young may have shunned the spotlight, AC/DC simply would not have been possible without him.

Friday, 17 November 2017

The Famous Simon Templar: The Saint on Television

 (This post is part of the "It Takes a Thief" blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini)

The Sixties saw some of the most successful British television shows of all time These were shows that weren't just popular in the United Kingdom but also found success internationally and even in the highly competitive market in the United States. Among the most successful of the British shows of the Sixties was one centred on a literary character who had been around for over thirty years at the time. Simon Templar, also known as The Saint, was a con man and thief who only robbed from those who he felt truly deserved it: criminals, crooked politicians, corrupt businessmen, and so on. The Saint proved extremely popular, so much so that Leslie Charteris would not only write a number of books and short stories about the character, but the character would find success in many other media as well.

For those unfamiliar with The Saint, he was Simon Templar, which may or may not be his given name. It is never revealed why he was given the nickname The Saint, but it is known that he was given the nickname when he was only nineteen. As a thief and a con man, Simon Templar occasionally uses aliases, all of which use the initials S.T.  (Sullivan Titwillow, Sebastian Toombs, Sugarman Treacle, and so on). He also leaves a calling card wherever he has struck, bearing a stick figure with a halo. It is generally assumed that Simon Templar is British (his home is in London, after all), although he obviously spent a good deal of time in the United States given the number of his American friends and acquaintances. As to Simon Templar's modus operandi, he is essentially a modern day Robin Hood. He makes his living fleecing and stealing from those whom he calls "ungodly". When The Saint managed to extract a substantial amount from one of the ungodly, he would keep only a "ten percent collection fee" and either returned the money to its rightful owners or donated it to charity or did something else with it entirely.

The success of The Saint books and short stories would quite naturally lead to the character being adapted in other media. The Saint in New York (1938), starring Louis Hayward as Simon Templar, was based on the novel of the same name. It was successful enough that RKO made seven more Saint movies, the first five starring George Sanders and the last two starring Hugh Sinclair. Louis Hayward, who was unable to star in the RKO series, returned to the role of Simon Templar in The Saint's Return in 1953. The Saint would also see success on radio. Radio Éireann's Radio Athlone aired a Saint radio show in 1940. In 1945 both NBC and CBS would air their own radio shows based on The Saint. The most successful radio incarnation of The Saint would debut in 1947 and initially starred Vincent Price in the title role. Barry Sullivan also filled in a few times when Mr. Price was not available. This version would run on and off until 1951 on CBS, Mutual, and NBC. Eventually Tom Conway would take over the role of Simon Templar. There would also be a fairly successful Saint newspaper comic strip that ran from 1947 to 1961, as well various Saint comic books.

Given the success of The Saint in several different media, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be a television adaption. In fact, in the Fifties Leslie Charteris would be approached more than once for the television rights to Simon Templar. The first occurred in 1951, when advertising firm Stockton, West, Burkhart, Inc. sought the rights to Saint short stories to be used on a proposed show Mystery Writer's Playhouse. Richard M. Dunn of Stockton, West, Burkhart, Inc. was the man sent to convince Leslie Charteris into letting them have the television rights to various short stories, but Mr. Dunn never made a definite offer and so Mr. Charteris never committed. It was the following year that Richard M. Dunn sought to adapt The Saint as its own television show. Nothing came of this either.

Over the years Leslie Charteris would be approached by others who wanted to make a TV show based on The Saint. In fact, in 1961 there would be two attempts at getting the television rights to The Saint alone. That year Harry Alan Towers, the producer now best known for his series of Fu Manchu movies starring Sir Christopher Lee, sought the rights to make a television series. Mr. Towers would not be successful. Others would be in getting a TV series based on The Saint on the air, namely producers Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman.

In 1948 Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman founded Tempean Films, a company that produced B-movies from comedies to horror movies. It was in 1961 that the two men founded a television production company, New World Productions. Fortunately for Messrs. Baker and Berman, they had an advantage over Harry Alan Towers in getting the television rights for The Saint. Quite simply, they were acquainted with director John Paddy Carstairs, who had directed the 1939 film The Saint in London and, more importantly, also happened to be friends with Lesile Charteris.

John Paddy Carstairs arranged a lunch where the two producers could meet Leslie Charteris. Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman were able to convince the creator of The Saint to give them a three month option for a TV series. They offered the proposed TV series The Saint to Associated-Rediffusion (the ITV franchise that provided weekday programming for London), who turned it down due to the proposed series' projected budget of £15,000 per episode. Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman then went to Lord Lew Grade of ITC, who bought the proposed series. It was then that they bought the television rights to The Saint from Leslie Charteris, with the condition that Mr. Charteris would have input on the show's scripts.

As to casting Simon Templar, it might be surprising to many that Sir Roger Moore was not the producers' first choice. The first actor they talked to was Patrick McGoohan, who had just finished the first series of the very popular show Danger Man. It soon became obvious that Mr. McGoohan was not suited to the role.  Quite simply, he objected to the character becoming involved with women, and also lacked the tongue in cheek sort of humour necessary for the show.

Of course, in the end it would be Sir Roger Moore who would be cast as Simon Templar on the TV series. Sir Roger Moore already had a impressive résumé on both sides of the Pond. He had starred in the British swashbuckler TV show Ivanhoe, which aired on both sides of the Atlantic. He had also appeared in the short-lived American TV series The Alaskans and played cousin Beau Maverick on the highly successful Western Maverick.  Having starred on Maverick, Sir Roger Moore had already proven that he had the necessary tongue-in-cheek sense of humour. What is more, he was already a fan of The Saint. He had earlier tried to get the television rights to The Saint on his own.

The Saint debuted on September 30 1962 in ITV regions except the Midlands and Northern in the United Kingdom. It proved very successful, so much so that it was second in popularity among male viewers only to wrestling.  Lord Lew Grade tried to sell The Saint to the American broadcast networks, only to be rebuffed by all three of them. Indeed, Mort Werner, then senior vice president for programming at NBC, commented after viewing two episodes of the show, "I have never seen so much crap in my life." Fortunately  events would unfold that would convince NBC to eventually change their minds about The Saint.

The American broadcast networks' rejection of The Saint would not keep the show off American television screens. Lord Lew Grade simply entered The Saint into syndication in the United States in 1963. It soon became the most popular TV show syndicated in the United States at the time. Perhaps amusingly, among the stations that picked up The Saint in syndication was NBC's flagship station, WNBC in New York City. WNBC aired The Saint at 11:15 PM on Sunday night following their nightly news. In that time slot The Saint proved phenomenally successful. The show would also prove successful on NBC's stations in Chicago and Los Angeles. What is more, the success of The Saint  was not isolated to NBC owned and operated stations.  The show was so successful on television stations throughout the U.S. that it would prove to be one of the most successful syndicated television shows of all time in the United States.

It was in 1965 that the TV show The Saint very nearly came to an end. After 71 episodes, nearly every one of Leslie Charteris's short stories had been adapted. What is more, Robert S. Baker and Monty Berman's contract with Leslie Charteris was set to expire.  Fortunately, The Saint would continue.  Producer Robert S. Baker and star Roger Moore then formed a new company, Bamore, to produce a new series of The Saint in colour. As to Monty Berman, Mr. Baker's partner on the first 71 episodes of The Saint, he went on to produce the short lived TV series The Baron.

It would be the show's move to colour, and probably its phenomenal success in syndication, that would finally interest NBC in the show. After having turned down the show rather harshly years earlier, NBC bought the first colour series of The Saint.

The Saint debuted on NBC on May 21 1967.  It went off the network in September 1967, only to return in February 1968 as a mid-season replacement. The Saint would leave NBC again in September 1968. It returned for one last time as a summer replacement in April 1969. In all NBC broadcast 32 of the 47 colour episodes of The Saint. The colour episodes were aired on ITV in the United Kingdom in black and white, as ITV would not made the transition to colour until late 1969.

It was in 1969, after 118 episodes of The Saint, that Roger Moore decided it was time to stop playing Simon Templar. The final episode of The Saint aired in the United Kingdom on ITV on February 9 1969. The Saint ended its run on NBC on September 12 1969. Reruns of The Saint have persisted in syndication in the United States ever since.

Simon Templar would not remain absent from television screens for long, although in his next TV incarnation he would not be played by Roger Moore. Return of The Saint was originally supposed to be Son of The Saint, with the show following the adventures of Simon Templar's son. Eventually this idea was dropped in favour of the show being about Simon Templar himself, although updated to the Seventies. While the show included Robert S. Baker as its executive producer,  as well as Lord Lew Grade as producers, there was absolutely no continuity between it and the Saint series of the Sixties. Return of The Saint debuted on ITV on September 10 1978 and ran until March 11 1979 for 24 episodes. Return of The Saint would be rerun in the Untied States as part of The CBS Late Movie. While it only lasted one series, Return of The Saint did revive interest in the Sixties version starring Sir Roger Moore.

Since then there have been three more attempts at a Saint TV series. In 1987 a pilot entitled The Saint in Manhattan, starring Andrew Clarke, was produced. Although it did not sell, it did air as part of CBS Summer Playhouse, an anthology series consisting of failed pilots. From 1989 to 1991 London Weekend Television aired six Saint television movies starring Simon Dutton as Simon Templar. The movies were The Saint: Fear in Fun Park, The Saint: The Big Bang, The Saint: The Software Murders, The Saint: The Brazilian Connection, The Saint: Wrong Number, and The Saint: The Blue Dulac. More recently, a failed pilot for a new series based on The Saint was made, starring Adam Rayner as Simon Templar.

In many episodes of the Sixties TV show The Saint starring Sir Roger Moore, Simon Templar differed only a little from many private eyes on other shows. That having been said, there were plenty of episodes in which he acted as the thief and con artist that only robbed the ungodly he had been in the earliest books and short stories. Perhaps the most notable instance of Simon Templar running a con game on the ungodly is one he ran on other con artists in the episode "The Bunco Artists". A husband and wife team of con artists con a church in a small English village out of money the church had saved for its restoration. Fortunately, the vicar's daughter happens to be friends with Simon Templar and alerts him to the two suspicious characters. The Saint then creates his own con game in order to get the church's money back from the con artists.

Of course, Simon Templar ran cons on more than just con artists. In "The Element of Doubt" Simon Templar matches wits with a corrupt defence attorney who does not mind that his clients are guilty and will do anything to get a verdict of "not guilty" for them. Simon Templar then  runs a con on the attorney's current client that certainly won't go well for the attorney. In "The Man Who Was Lucky", The Saint's target was a protection racket. While Simon Templar uses various confidence tricks throughout the series, he also sometimes resorts to outright breaking and entering. In "The Counterfeit Countess', in which Templar takes on counterfeiters, he breaks into one of the counterfeiter's offices and then opens a safe to find some bogus money.

Simon Templar was already a very influential character before the TV series starring Sir Roger Moore debuted. Arguably his influence would only grow even more after the TV show. Arguably the influence of The Saint can be seen in every show that centres on  individuals act as modern day Robin Hoods, using confidence games and sometime outright thievery to see that justice is served. In many ways such shows as Switch, Remington Steele, Hustle, and Leverage all owe something to Simon Templar. It is perhaps a mark of the show's success that after books, feature films, radio shows, a comic strip, comic books, and other television outings, that the Sixties version of The Saint not only remains in syndication, but remains the most familiar and popular incarnation of Simon Templar.

(Thanks to Ian Dickerson for corrections to and additional information for this article.)


Wednesday, 15 November 2017

The Five Best Train Movies

With the recent release of director Kenneth Branagh's adaption of Agatha Christie's novel Murder on the Orient Express, a few venues have compiled their list of the greatest train movies ever made. I have found myself disagreeing with some of these lists, as they often include movies with a few scenes set on trains while excluding movies that are set almost entirely on trains. I then thought I would come up with my own list of the five greatest movies set on trains ever made. My criterion for choosing the films was very simple. A significant amount of the movie had to be set on a train. It is for this reason that such films as Some Like It Hot (1959) and North by Northwest (1959) did not make the list. While both number among my favourite movies of all time, the amount of time spent on a train in either of them is not significant enough. In fact, my favourite scenes from both movies take place away from trains!

Without further ado, here are my top five best train movies.

1. The General (1926): To give you an idea of just how much of a role trains play in Buster Keaton's classic The General, the movie takes its name from a locomotive--the Western & Atlantic Railroad train for which Johnnie Gray (played by Buster Keaton) is the engineer. When Union spies commandeer The General, Johnnie gives chase, using any means of transportation he can to get his train back. Although The General received poor reviews and did badly at the box office upon its initial release, it is now regarded as one of the greatest silent movies ever made. It has also proven very influential. Indeed, a very good argument can be made that The General was one of the earliest blockbuster, action comedies ever made.

2. The Lady Vanishes (1938): I have to admit that it was very hard for to decide whether The General or The Lady Vanishes would occupy the number one spot, as they both number among my favourite movies of all time. I ultimately decided upon The General as I think it was a bit more revolutionary for its time. Of course, I have to admit to some bias where The Lady Vanishes is concerned, as it was the first film in which I ever saw Margaret Lockwood, who numbers among my favourite actresses of all time. And Margaret is certainly fantastic here, playing socialite Iris Henderson. When an elderly, fellow Englishwoman disappears from a train going through Europe, it is up to Iris and musician Gilbert Redman (played by the great Sir Michael Redgrave) to find out what happened to her. Except for the first several minutes, The Lady Vanishes it is set almost entirely upon the train. The film also marks the first appearance of  Charters and Caldicott (played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford), two Englishmen who are absolutely obsessed with cricket and would go onto appear in several more films over the years. The Lady Vanishes was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and remains one of his best films.

 
3. Twentieth Century (1934): Alongside the Orient Express, the 20th Century Limited is one of the most famous trains of all time. For those unfamiliar with it, the 20th Century Limited was a passenger train that ran on the New York Central Railroad from New York City to Chicago in the years between 1902 and 1967. A good portion of Twentieth Century is set aboard the 20th Century Limited, which  Broadway impresario Oscar Jaffe (played by John Barrymore) boards in disguise in order to escape his debtors. Unfortunately for Oscar, his former protegée Lily Garland (played by Carole Lombard) also boards the train. Twentieth Century is one of the best pre-Code comedies, featuring an excellent cast that includes Roscoe Karns, Charles Lane, and Edgar Kennedy. It also happens to be extremely funny.

4. The Train (1964): If there was a Golden Age for World War II movies, it was probably the Sixties. Among the very best of the movies about the Second World War released during the decade was John Frankenheimer's The Train. In The Train, art masterpieces stolen by the Nazis are being shipped by rail to Germany. After the Nazis remove works of art from the Jeu de Paume Museum, its curator turned to the French Resistance to somehow stop the train without damaging the precious works of art it carries. The movie was loosely based on an actual incident that occurred in August 1944 that was detailed in the 1961 book Le front de l'art by Rose Valland. Where the movie departed from history is that in reality the French Resistance managed to delay the train through paperwork, giving the Allies time to immediately seize the train when it was only a few miles away from Paris. While The Train may not be historically accurate, it is among the most exciting action movies to involve a train.

5. Night Train to Munich (1940): British star Margaret Lockwood had the rare, good fortune to star in two of the greatest movies involving trains ever made. In 1938 she appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (discussed above). In 1940 she appeared in Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich. The casting of Margaret Lockwood in Night Train to Munich would seem to be more than coincidence, as it seems likely 20th Century Fox hoped to repeat Gainsborough's success with The Lady Vanishes. Indeed, not only did Miss Lockwood appear in both films, but the screenplays for both films were written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder and both feature the characters of Charters and Caldicott. Of course, both films involve trains. That having been said, Night Train to Munich was not a mere imitator of The Lady Vanishes, as in many ways it was a very different movie. In Night Train to Munich Margaret Lockwood plays the daughter of Czechoslovakian scientist who is developing a new type of armour plating. Arrested by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp, she and another prisoner escape in an attempt to make their way to London and her father (who had escaped there). Night Train to Munich is filled with plenty of twists and turns, as well as some of Carol Reed's best direction.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Godspeed John Hillerman

John Hillerman, who played radio show star Simon Brimmer on Ellery Queen and  Jonathan Higgins on Magnum, P.I., as well as roles in such films as Chinatown (1974) and Blazing Saddles (1974), died on November 9 2017 at the age of 84.

John Hillerman was born on December 20 1932 in Denison, Texas. He went to the University of Texas in Austin before serving in the Air Force for four years. It was while he was in the Air Force that he became interested in acting, auditioning for a production of Death of a Salesman while he was stationed in Fort Worth. While in the Air Force he appeared in around two dozen plays. After his service, Mr. Hillerman moved to New York City where he studied acting at the American Theatre Wing.

Mr. Hillerman made his debut on Broadway in a revival of The Great God Brown in 1959. In 1960 he appeared on Broadway in Henry IV, Part II. In 1963 on Broadway he appeared in The Lady of the Camellias. He ultimately worked on stage for literally years in both New York City and Washington D.C. After years of appearing on stage he found himself with only $700 in his bank account. He then moved to Los Angeles to pursue a more lucrative career in film and television.

John Hillerman made his film debut in 1970 in a bit part as a reporter in They Call Me Mister Tibbs!. The following year he had a slightly more substantial role in the Western Lawman (1971). Mr. Hillerman would play ice cream parlour operator Howard Johnson in Blazing Saddles (1974) and the crooked deputy chief of the water department in Chinatown (1974). In the Seventies he also appeared in such films as The Last Picture Show (1971), Honky (1971), What's Up, Doc? (1972), The Carey Treatment (1972), Skyjacked (1972), The Thief Who Came to Dinner (1973), High Plains Drifter (1973), Paper Moon (1973), The Day of the Locust (1975), Lucky Lady (1975), Audrey Rose (1977), and Sunburn (1979). While he appeared frequently in feature films, John Hillerman would have a more significant career in television. He played Simon Brimmer, the radio detective who matches wits with Ellery from time to time on the cult TV series Ellery Queen. He was also a regular on The Betty White Show, playing Betty's ex-husband and director of the fictional television show Undercover Woman, John Elliott. He played Mr. Connors, Ann Romano's boss, on One Day at a Time. He guest starred on such shows as The Sixth Sense, The F.B.I., Maude, Kojak, Mannix, Wonder Woman, Hawaii Five-O, Little House on the Prairie, Hart to Hart, and Lou Grant.

It was in 1982 that John Hillerman began playing the role of Jonathan Quayle Higgins III, VC on the hit series Magnum P.I. He played Sir Francis Commarty in the mini-series Around the World in 80 Days. He also had a regular role on The Hogan Family starting in its final season. He guest starred on the show Tales of the Gold Monkey; Simon & Simon (on which he played Higgins); The Love Boat, and Murder, She Wrote (on which he appeared as Higgins). He appeared in the films History of the World: Part I (1981), Up the Creek (1984), and Gummibärchen küßt man nich (1989).

In the Nineties John Hillerman appeared in the mini-series Berlin Break and the feature film A Very Brady Sequel (1996). Afterwards he retired from acting.

When it came to erudite, but arrogant characters, no one was better than John Hillerman. Many will remember him as Simon Brimmer on Ellery Queen, the self-important radio detective and friendly rival to Ellery. Many more might remember him as Higgins on Magnum P.I., who was essentially Magnum's pompous and elitist foil on the show. While John Hillerman's two best known characters were fairly similar (enough that it is often said that Jonathan Higgins was based on Simon Brimmer), he did play other sorts of roles. In Paper Moon Mr. Hillerman played two roles as far from Brimmer and Higgns as one can get, bootlegger Jess Hardin and his corrupt brother Deputy Hardin. Yelburton in Chinatown also had little in common with John Hllerman's best known characters. While John Hillerman was very good at playing upper class, erudite, and arrogant characters, he did equally well in a number of other roles as well.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder


Many people when they hear the phrase "Hitchcock blonde" think of Grace Kelly. There is a very good reason for this. She made three films with Alfred Hitchcock. What is more they number among the most notable movies the director ever made. Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955) may be better remembered, but Grace Kelly's first film with Hitchcock,  Dial M for Murder (1954), remains remarkable for several reasons.

Dial M for Murder originated as a play by playwright Frederick Knott. The play would be remarkable in that it would not make its debut on stage, but instead on television. It was on March 23 1952 that popular British TV programme BBC Sunday-Night Theatre aired Dial M for Murder. The original television production of Dial M for Murder featured Elizabeth Sellars as Sheila Wendice, Basil Appleby as Max Halliday, and Emrys Jones as Tony Wendice. It was on June 19 1952 that Dial M for Murder would make its stage debut on the West End, where it proved to have a long run. Success on the West End would lead to the play's debut on Broadway not long afterwards. Dial M for Murder made its Broadway debut on October 29 1952 at the Plymouth Theatre. As Tony Wendice it featured Maurice Evans, now best known as Samantha's father Maurice on Bewitched. Gusti Huber, who would later play Anne Frank's mother in both the play and the feature film The Diary of Anne Frank, played Margot Wendice. The play proved success on Broadway as well.

Given the success of Dial M for Murder on both London's West End and on Broadway, it was perhaps no surprise when Warner Bros. bought the rights to the play. At the time Alfred Hitchcock was working on an adaptation of David Duncan's novel The Bramble Bush. As it turned out, Hitchcock had run into difficulties on the project. Warner Bros. was not particularly enthusiastic about The Bramble Bush, and at the time wanted Alfred Hitchcock to direct a film in 3-D, the technology being particularly popular at the time. Hitchcock gladly abandoned The Bramble Bush and decided to direct Dial M for Murder.

For those unfamiliar with Dial M for Murder, both the film and the play centre on the wealthy Margot Wendice. When she begins a relationship with another man (Max Halliday in the play, renamed Mark Halliday in the film), her husband, playboy Tony Wendice, decides to murder her. As might be expected, things do not go exactly to Tony's plans.

Given the importance of the role of Margot Wendice in the play, it would take a very special actress to play her. At the time Grace Kelly had already made three films: Fourteen Hours (1951), High Noon (1952), and Mogambo (1953). She had made a screen test for the role of Mary in the film Taxi (1953), a role that would ultimately go to Constance Smith. As it would turn out, her screen test for Taxi would lead to better things. After seeing the screen test John Ford cast her in Mogambo. As for Alfred Hitchcock, after seeing the screen test, he thought Miss Kelly might be perfect for the role of Margot in Dial M for Murder.

Grace Kelly and Alfred Hitchcock met in Burbank in June 1953. As it turned out, the two of them discussed topics from travel to food to fashion, everything except for the role of Margot in Dial M for Murder. It perhaps did not matter, as it was enough for Hitchcock to know that he was right in thinking she would be perfect for the role. Of course, for Miss Kelly to appear in Dial M for Murder, MGM had to loan her to Warner Bros. Fortunately, MGM agreed to do so.

Ray Milland, who had made a name for himself years earlier with his Oscar winning performance in The Lost Weekend (1945), was cast as Tony Wendice. Robert Cummings, who had already worked with Hitchcock on the film Saboteur (1942), was cast as mystery writer Mark Halliday. Two important actors from the Broadway production of Dial M for Murder were cast in the film. John Williams reprised his role as Inspector Hubbard in the movie. Anthony Dawson, who had played the role of Captain Lesgate in the Broadway production, was cast as Charles Swann.

Alfred Hitchcock and Grace Kelly got along very well on the set of Dial M for Murder, but the young actress was not afraid to speak her mind from time to time. For a scene in which Margot gets out of bed to answer the phone, Hitchcock wanted the costume department to make a velvet robe for Miss Kelly to wear. She would even have a fitting for it. Regardless, Grace Kelly did not think that it would be particularly realistic for Margot to put on a robe if she was all alone in her apartment. When she brought this up to Hitchcock, he asked her what she would put on to answer the phone. Miss Kelly told him she would put on nothing at all--she would simply get up and answer the phone in her nightgown. Alfred Hitchcock had to agree with her and as a result the scene was shot with Margot answering the phone wearing only her nightgown.

Grace Kelly would have a bigger disagreement with a makeup man on the film. The makeup man continually wanted to put more and more rouge on Grace Kelly, even in scenes where she realistically would not have had access to makeup. When she objected, the makeup man told her that studio head Jack Warner liked a lot of rouge on her actresses. Miss Kelly then said she would call Mr. Warner. When the makeup man informed her that Mr. Warner was in the south of France, she replied, "Well, you tell Mr. Warner that I refuse to wear all this rouge, and if he's angry with you, tell him I threw a fit and wouldn't wear it!" The makeup department told Hitchock about what had happened. Hitchcock once more agreed with Grace Kelly.

While Grace Kelly and Alfred Hitchcock got along very well on the set of Dial M for Murder, that did not mean that things always went smoothly for her. The famous attempted murder scene in the film took an entire week to shoot. Extra special attention had to be paid to each shot in the scene, something that was made all the more difficult because of the 3-D technology used to make the film. After about there or four days of this Miss Kelly often found herself leaving the set with bruises.

Despite this Dial M for Murder would be a pleasant experience for Grace Kelly over all. She and Hitchcock spent a good deal of time talking about his next project, which would be the film Rear Window. Other than working with Grace Kelly for the first time, Dial M for Murder would not be quite as enjoyable for Alfred Hitchcock. He was not particularly enthusiastic about the film itself, nor was he particularly thrilled about having to shoot it in 3-D. Quite simply, he felt 3-D was a fad and that it was already coming to an end just as Dial M for Murder had went into production.

Regardless, Dial M for Murder would be the first of three films that Alfred Hitchcock and Grace Kelly made together. It would also mark the beginning of a long friendship between the two that would last until Hitchcock's death. Along with Ingrid Bergman, she would be the only leading lady to make three films with Alfred Hitchcock.

Dial M for Murder would prove to pivotal beyond being her first collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. Indeed, it was the first film on which she was the leading lady (Katy Jurado was billed above her in High Noon and Ava Gardner was billed above her in Mogambo). What is more, in Dial M for Murder there is no doubt that it is Grace Kelly who is the star of the film. While both Ray Milland and Robert Cummings give solid performances, it is Grace Kelly to whom the audience is drawn. Indeed, it was with Dial M for Murder that she and Miss Kelly would create the screen image we most associate with her, that of a woman who is cool and restrained, and yet at the same time classy, vulnerable, and ultimately sexy. It would be an image that would be further refined with Rear Window, but it all began with Dial M for Murder.


Friday, 10 November 2017

The 50th Anniversary of The Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed

It was today in 1967 that The Moody Blues' seminal album, Days of Future Passed, was released in the United Kingdom. It would be released in the United States the following day. Days of Future Passed has since become regarded as one of the essential albums of 1967 and one of the most influential as well.

In some ways the release of Days of Future Passed must have seemed like a surprise to many in 1967, as it was unlike almost all of The Moody Blues' previous work. Founded in 1964 in Birmingham, The Moody Blues were originally a Merseybeat band with a strong infusion of rhythm and blues throw in for good measure. They would have a smash hit with the song "Go Now", which went all the way to number one in the United Kingdom and to number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States. Unfortunately, The Moody Blues' following singles would not be nearly as successful. Original members Clint Warwick and Denny Laine eventually left the band. At the time a second album, Look Out, was planned. It would never be released.

Clint Warwick and Denny Laine would eventually be replaced by guitarist Justin Hayward and bassist John Lodge. It was not long afterwards that The Moody Blues decided to move away from their rhythm and blues influenced Merseybeat sound to performing their own, original material. The first single released by the new configuration of The Moody Blues (Justin Hayward and John Lodge along with original members Graeme Edge, Mike Pinder, and Ray Thomas) was "Fly Me High"/"I Really Haven't Got the Time", but it would be their following single, "Love and Beauty"/ "Leave This Man Alone", that would truly signal the band's new direction. The song "Love and Beauty" featured Mike Pinder's mellotron, which gave it a slight symphonic sound.

Unfortunately, at the time The Moody Blues' contract with Decca Records was nearly at an end. The band still owed the label several thousands of pounds in advances, and had never produced a promised second album. Fortunately Decca A&R manager Hugh Mendl still supported the band. He had been pivotal in establishing Decca's new subsidiary label Deram Records and was able to get The Moody Blues a deal to record on the new label. It is from here that stories vary a bit as to what happened next. The Moody Blues claim that they were offered a chance to record a rock version of Antonín Dvořák's New World Symphony to demonstrate the company's Deramic Stereo Sound audio format, for which their debt to Decca would be forgiven in return. The Moody Blues insisted on total artistic control and instead decided to focus on what would become the album Days of Future Passed. This account is disputed by recording engineer Derek Varnals (who worked on Days of Future Passed), who has maintained there were no plans to record the New World Symphony in 1967 and that there was no talk of recording it until the Seventies.

Regardless of how it came about, Days of Future Passed would prove to be different from anything The Moody Blues, or most other bands at the time, had ever done. For one thing, it was one of rock music's earliest concept albums. Days of Future Passed centred on the day in the life of an average man. For another thing, it blended the music of The Moody Blues with the music of the London Festival Orchestra, which at the time was Decca Records' house orchestra. The album began with an overture ("The Day Begins") composed by composer-director-arranger Peter Knight. Mr. Knight also composed orchestral interludes that linked the various songs on the album, drawing inspiration from the themes in the songs by The Moody Blues. The album's climactic song, "Nights in White Satin" by Justin Hayward, would be the only song on the album recorded with the full London Festival Orchestra. In fact, "Nights in White Satin" would take five days alone to finish.

Following its release, Days of Future Passed  would prove extremely successful. The album's first single, "Nights in White Satin", reached no. 19 in the United Kingdom, This in turn propelled the album to number 27 on the British album chart. Initially Days of Future Passed did relatively well in the United States, but not nearly as well as it had in the United Kingdom. "Nights in White Satin" peaked at no, 19 on the Billboard Hot 100, while "Tuesday Afternoon [titled Forever Afternoon (Tuesday?)" on the album] reached no. 24.  Upon its re-release in the United States Days of Future Passed would surpass even the success it had in Britain in 1967. In 1972 the album peaked at no. 3 on the Billboard album chart. What is more, it remained on the Billboard album chart for two years. "Nights in White Satin" also did well upon its re-release in the States, peaking at no. 2 in 1972.

Ultimately Days of Future Passed would prove to a pivotal album for The Moody Blues. It would provide the template for all of their albums to come. Their following albums, from 1968's In Search of the Lost Chord to 1999's Strange Days, would owe something to Days of Future Passed. It would also prove to be a very influential album. It was one of the earliest concept albums in the history of rock music, released only a few months after The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and about a month before The Who's The Who Sell Out. Alongside works of The Nice, Pink Floyd, and Procol Harum, Days of Future Passed is considered one of the primogenitors of progressive rock. While the use of symphonic instruments go all the way back through such bands The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and The Rolling Stones to early rock 'n' roller Buddy Holly, Days of Future Passed and other works released in 1967 marked a much extensive use of them in rock music. For that reason, Days of Future Passed is one of the first examples of symphonic rock. It would be The Moody Blues' work on Days of Future Passed that would lead to such diverse bands as the Alan Parsons Project, the Electric Light Orchestra, Jethro Tull, and Queen.

Days of Future Passed was a remarkable album released in a year notable for remarkable albums. It would prove extremely influential, so much so that its influence can still be felt to this day. It seems likely its influence will continue to be felt for as long as there is rock music.