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.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Karin Dor Passes On

Karin Dor, a German actress who appeared in such films as The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967), and Topaz (1969), died on November 6 2017 at the age of 79.

Karin Dor was born Kätherose Derr in Wiesbaden, Germany on February 22 1938. She made her film debut as an extra in the film Der letzte Walzer in 1953. In the Fifties she appeared in such films as Rosen aus dem Süden (1954), Solange du lebst (1955), Santa Lucia (1956), Mit Eva fing die Sünde an (1958), So angelt man keinen Mann (1959), Ein Sommer, den man nie vergißt (1959), and Die Bande des Schreckens (1960).

It was in 1962 that Karin Dor appeared in her first English language film, The Bellboy and the Playgirls (1962). In the Sixties she appeared alongside Lex Baxter in a number of German made Westerns based on novels by Karl May, including Der Schatz im Silbersee (1962), Winnetou - 2. Teil (1964), Winnetou - 3. Teil (1965), and Winnetou und Shatterhand im Tal der Toten (1968). She also co-starred with Mr. Baxter in Die unsichtbaren Krallen des Dr. Mabuse (1962). She appeared with Sir Christopher Lee in the first of producer Harry Alan Towers's Fu Manchu movies, The Face of Fu Manchu. In the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice she played SPECTRE assassin Helga Brandt. In Topaz she played French agent' Devereaux's mistress and revolutionary Juanita de Cordoba. She also appeared in such films as Der Teppich des Grauens (1962), Die weiße Spinne (1963), Der Würger von Schloß Blackmoor (1963), Zimmer 13 (1964), Der unheimliche Mönch (1965), Die Nibelungen, Teil 1 - Siegfried (1966), Die Nibelungen, Teil 2 - Kriemhilds Rache (1967), Die Schlangengrube und das Pendel (1967), and Los monstruos del terror (1970). She guest starred on the American TV shows It takes a Thief, Ironside, and The F.B.I.

In the Seventies Karin Dor's career shifted largely to West German television, on which she appeared in several German TV movies. She guest starred on the TV show Achtung Zoll!.She also appeared in the feature films Haie an Bord (1971), Die Antwort kennt nur der Wind (1974), Dark Echoes (1977), Warhead (1977), and Frauenstation (1977).  In the Eighties she appeared in the film Johann Strauss - Der König ohne Kron (1987).  From the Nineties to the Teens she appeared on the TV shows Die große Freiheit, SOKO München, Inga Lindström, Das Traumschiff, and Rosamunde Pilcher. She appeared in the films Ich bin die Andere (2006) and Die abhandene Welt (2015).

Later in her career she appeared primarily on stage.

At least of those available widely available in the English speaking world, many of the films Karin Dor appeared in were not exactly Academy Award material. That having been said, whether she was in a low-budget B-movie like The Face of Fu Manchu or a A-picture like You Only Live Twice, Miss Dor could always be depended upon for a fairly good performance. She could also play a wide variety of roles, whether it was a murderess in Zimmer 13, a SPECTRE assassin in You Only Live Twice, a Native American woman in the Winnetou movies, or a scientist in The Face of Fu Manchu. Miss Dor was certainly beautiful, but she also had the talent to be convincing in many roles.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century Debuted on Radio 85 years Ago Today

It was on November 7 1932 that the radio show Buck Rogers in the 25th Century debuted on CBS Radio. It was historic as the first ever science fiction radio show. The series was based on the comic strip of the same name, which debuted on  January 7 1929. A Sunday comic strip was added alongside the daily strip on March 30 1930. The comic strip itself was based on  Philip F. Nowlan's Armageddon 2419 A.D., which had been published in the August 1928 issue of the science fiction pulp magazine Amazing Stories.

The original incarnation of the radio show Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was a 15 minute show airing on CBS Radio from Monday to Thursday.  The show was cut back to Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in 1936. It then went off the air on May 22 1936.  It would be three years before Buck Rogers would return to radio. This time it aired on the Mutual Broadcasting System. Mutual aired it from April 5 to July 31, 1939. After a break of over a year, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century returned for a brief run from May 18 to July 27 1940.  This run included a 30 minute version of the show that aired on Saturday.

Buck Rogers would be absent from the airwaves before returning on September 30 1946, once more on Mutual. This version was 15 minutes long on weekdays. It lasted until March 28 1947.

The success of the original version of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century would play a role in making the already popular comic strip even more popular. A year after the radio show debuted, in 1933, the first Buck Rogers toys appeared on store shelves. That same year Whitman published 12 Buck Rogers Big Little Books. Also in 1933 cereal maker Kellogg's of Battle Creek put out a  giveaway comic. They published another one in 1935. In 1939 Universal Pictures released the movie serial Buck Rogers.

Given the success of the radio show Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, it is surprising that it did not immediately lead to other science fiction radio shows. Buck Rogers's rival comic strip Flash Gordon was adapted as a radio show in 1935 and was notable for featuring Gale Gordon in the lead role. That having been said, it lasted a little under a year and Flash Gordon, although highly successful in other media, never returned to radio. For much of the Thirties and Forties, science fiction would only occasionally appear in episodes of such anthology shows as Suspense  and Escape. There would not be a rush toward sci-fi radio shows until the early Fifties, when radio shows such as Planet Man, Dimension X, Space Patrol (based on the TV show of the same name), Tom Corbett (also based on TV show), and yet other shows aired.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Jack Bannon R.I.P.

Jack Bannon, best known for playing assistant city editor Art Donovan on the TV show Lou Grant, died on October 25 2017 at the age of 77.

Jack Bannon was born June 14 1940 in Los Angeles, California. His parents were both well-known actors. His father was Jim Bannon, perhaps best known for playing Jack Packard on the radio show I Love a Mystery and the character Red Ryder in movies. His mother was famous voice actress Bea Benaderet, who did a number of radio shows and Warner Bros. animated shorts, and would later star on the sitcom Petticoat Junction. His parents divorced when he was around five years old.

Mr. Bannon studied acting at the University of California, Santa Barbara and graduated in 1963. That same year he made his television debut in an episode of Petticoat Junction, on which his mother starred. He would make several more guest appearances on the show (playing the recurring role of Roger Budd and later a different character every time). In the Sixties he also guest starred on such shows as The Beverly Hillbillies, Karen, Green Acres, Felony Squad, Judd for the Defence, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Andy Griffith Show, The Invaders, The Rat Patrol, Here's Lucy, Daniel Boone, Lassie, and Mannix. In 1967 he had a recurring role on the soap opera Days of Our Lives. He appeared in the films What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969), The Phynx (1970), and Little Big Man (1970).

In the Seventies Jack Bannon was a regular voice on the Saturday morning cartoon Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. It was in 1977 that he began playing Art Donovan on the TV series Lou Grant. He remained with the show until it went off the air in 1982. He guest starred on such shows as Night Gallery, Monte Nash, The Bob Crane Show, Kojak, Gemini Man, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Rockford Files, Quincy M.E., Charlie's Angels, Barney Miller, and Insight.

In the Eighties Mr. Bannon was a regular on the short-lived show Trauma Centre. He had a recurring role on Knot's Landing during the 1984-1985 season. He also had recurring roles on St. Elsewhere and the soap opera Santa Barbara. He guest starred on such shows as The Love Boat, Trapper John M.D., The Fall Guy, Simon & Simon, Remington Steele, Newhart, Matlock, Moonlighting, Designing Women, Hunter, Night Court, and Murder, She Wrote. He appeared in the film Death Warrant (1990).

In the Nineties Jack Bannon guest starred on such shows as MacGyver, Empty Nest, The Golden Girls, and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. He appeared in the films Da Vinci's War (1993), Distant Cousins (1993), Hard Vice (1994), To the Limit (1995), and The Basket (1999). In the Naughts and the Teens he appeared in Waitin' to Live (2006) and Without a Ladder (2013) .

He was a part of the company of the Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho for two decades.

Jack Bannon was very convincing as assistant city editor Art Donovan on Lou Grant, to the point that it was hard to believe he was merely an actor playing the role. And while the other characters on Lou Grant, including Lou himself could be very emotional, Art Donovan was always calm and attentive to the accuracy of what they did at the fictional Los Angeles Tribune. Over the years he made many guest appearances on TV shows, playing everything from medical doctors to police officers. In most all of those guest appearances he was as convincing as he was on Lou Grant. Jack Bannon was a fine actor with a good deal of talent.

Friday, 3 November 2017

The Late Great Fats Domino

Rock 'n' roll legend Fats Domino died on October 24 2017 at the age of 89.

Fats Domino was born Antoine Dominique Domino Jr. on February 26 1928 in New Orleans. His interest in music began when his family inherited a piano when he was 10 years old. His brother-in-law, traditional jazz guitarist Harrison Verrett, taught him the basics of playing the instrument. Afterwards young Antoine Domino became absolutely fanatical about playing the piano. He was influenced by such boogie woogie performers as Meade Lux Lewis, Pinetop Smith, and Amos Milburn.

By the time he was 14 years old Antoine Domino was playing in clubs in New Orleans. It was in 1947 that he began playing with bassist Billy Diamond and his band the Solid Senders at the club the Hideaway. It was Billy Diamonds who nicknamed him "Fats", not only because of his size but because he reminded him of pianists Fats Waller and Fats Pichon.

It was in 1949 that Lew Chudd, the owner of Imperial Records in Los Angeles, went to the Hideaway in New Orleans Mr. Chudd signed Fats Domino immediately. What is more, unlike many contracts of the time. Fats Domino's contract with Imperial Records specified that he be paid royalties based on continued sales rather than a flat fee for each song. It was in December 1949 that Mr. Domino's first single, "The Fat Man", was released. It proved to be a hit, going to number 2 on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart. It also proved to be very influential, as it is often counted as one of the first rock 'n' roll records.

In 1950 and 1951 Mr. Domino would have more hits on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart, including "Every Night About This Time" and"Rockin' Chair". His first hit to cross over to the Billboard singles chart was "Goin' Home", which went to no. 1 on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart and no. 30 on the singles chart. From 1952 to 1955 Mr. Domino would have several more hits. "Poor Poor Me", "How Long", "Please Don't Leave Me", "Rose Mary", "Something's Wrong", "You Done Me Wrong", "I Know", and "Don't You Know" all performed extremely well on the Billboard rhythm and blues chart. The song "Going to the River" also crossed over to the Billboard singles chart.

It was in 1955 that Fats Domino would have his first major crossover hit. "Ain't That a Shame" hit no. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart. It peaked at no. 10 on the Billboard singles chart. It eventually sold one million copies. It would also be Fats Domino's first hit in the United Kingdom, reaching no.23 on the British singles chart. The song would be covered multiple times by such artists as Pat Boone, The Four Seasons, John Lennon, and, most notably, by Cheap Trick. It was the first song John Lennon, later of The Beatles, ever learned to play.

Following "Ain't That a Shame" Fats Domino regularly had hits on both the Billboard singles chart and the Billboard R&B chart. What is more, some of his songs would actually chart higher than "Ain't That a Shame" on the singles chart. "I'm in Love Again" peaked at no. 1 on the R&B chart and no. 3 on the singles chart. Its B-side, Mr. Domino's cover of "My Blue Heaven" also charted, going to no. 5 on the R&B chart and no. 19 on the singles chart. At least going by its chart position, "Blueberry Hill" would be the biggest hit of Fats Domino's career. It went to no. 1 on the R&B chart and no. 2 on the singles chart. Fats Domino's other major hits during the era were "Bo Weevil", "When My Dreamboat Comes Home", "Blue Monday", I'm Walkin'", "Valley of Tears", "When I See You", and "It's You I Love".

Beginning in late 1957 Fats Domino's career went into a slight decline, although he would still have several hits over the next several years. His single "Whole Lotta Loving" went to 6 on the singles chart and no. 2 on the R&B in 1958.  That same year "I Want to Walk You Home" went to no. 8 on the singles chart and no. 1 on the R&B chart. The following year "Be My Guest" peaked at no. 8 on the singles chart and no. 2 on the R&B chart  In 1960 he had hits with "Walking to New Orleans" and "My Girl Josephine".

Unfortunately by 1962 Fats Domino was no longer having the hits he once did. That having been said, he was still a very popular performer around the world. In 1962 he toured Europe and met an up-and-coming band called The Beatles. It was in 1963 that Imperial was sold and Fats Domino left the label. He signed with ABC-Paramount Records. Sadly, only one of Fats Domino's songs recorded with ABC-Paramount would prove to be a hit. "Red Sails in the Sunset" went to no. 35 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 24 on the R&B chart.

While Fats Domino did not see the success that he once had, he continued to  record. He signed with Mercury Records in 1965, Broadmoor in 1967, and then Reprise in 1968. After "New Orleans Ain't the Same" he released only two more singles, "Sleeping on the Job" in 1978 and "Whiskey Heaven" in 1980.

Despite the fact that he would record no more singles, Mr. Domino recorded several more albums after 1970. In fact, he regularly released albums until 1981. His final album was released in 2006, Alive and Kickin'.

Fats Domino continued to perform even after he stopped recording. He made one last tour of Europe in 1995. After having fallen ill during the tour he retired from touring, although he continued to perform in the New Orleans area. He made yearly appearances the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, as well as other events in the New Orleans area. He and his family survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005, even though he lost everything.

It is not enough to say that Fats Domino was a rock 'n' roll legend. Quite simply, he was one of the inventors of the genre. He was recording rock 'n' roll records as far back as 1949, well before the genre would receive the name by which it would be best known. As might be expected as one of rock 'n' roll's earliest innovators, Fats Domino had an enormous amount of influence. At a 1969 press conference in Las Vegas, when a reporter called him "the king", Mr. Presley gestured to Fats Domino and said, "There’s the real king of rock ’n’ roll." The Beatles credited Mr. Domino as one of their influences. As mentioned earlier, "Ain't That a Shame"was the first song John Lennon learned to play. George Harrison said that "I'm in Love Again" was the first rock 'n' roll song he ever heard. Ultimately Fats Domino would be an influence on artists as diverse as Cheap Trick, The Voidoids, and Yellowman.

During his career Fats Domino sold 65 million singles. He had 23 gold records. He was the best selling African American recording artist in the Fifties. His style was buoyant and bouncy, a fusion of New Orleans boogie woogie and rhythm and blues. On a personal note, I think most people would find it difficult not to smile upon hearing a Fats Domino record. If he was so influential, it was because he was so very good at what he did and able to bring people joy while doing it.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

The Late Great Robert Guillaume

Robert Guillaume, who played Benson on the TV show Soap and its spin-off Benson as well as roles on numerous films and TV shows, died on October 24 2017 at the age of 89 The cause was prostate cancer.

Robert Guillaume was born Robert Peter Williams in St. Louis on November 30 1927. His mother was an alcoholic and he was raised by his grandmother Jeanette Williams. He attended a Roman Catholic school in St. Louis where he sang in the choir. In 1945 he enlisted in the United States Army. He received an honourable discharge in 1947. Following his service, Mr. Guillaume attended St. Louis University on the G. I. Bill where he studied business. He later attended Washington University in St. Louis where he studied theatre.

In the late Fifties he joined the traditionally all black Karamu House in Cleveland where he played Billy Bigelow in the musical Carousel. It was while he was at Karamu House that he adopted the stage name "Roger Guillame", "Guillaume" being the French version of "William". He felt that "Robert Williams" was far too common a name. In 1959 he joined the cast of  Harold Arlen's musical Free and Easy, which played in Amsterdam, but not the United States. It was in 1960 that he made his debut on Broadway in Finian's Rainbow.

The Sixties saw Robert Guillaume appear in the productions Kwamina, Tambourines to Glory, and Purlie on Broadway. In 1964 he appeared in Porgy and Bess at the City Centre in New York City. He made his television debut in 1966 in Porgy in Wien, a special which detailed the production of Porgy and Bess in Vienna. He guest starred on Julia and Marcus Welby M.D.

It was in 1977 that Robert Guillaume began playing Benson, the wisecracking butler on Soap. The character proved popular enough that he was spun off into his own series, Benson, in 1979. Mr. Guillaume also guest starred on Sanford and Son, All in the Family, and The Jeffersons. He appeared in the films Super Fly T.N.T. (1973) and Seems Like Old Times (1980). On Broadway he appeared in a revival of Purlie and Guys and Dolls. 

 In the Eighties Robert Guillaume continued to play Benson on Benson. He also starred on the short lived The Robert Guillaume Show. He guest starred on The Love Boat, Hotel, and Crossbow. Mr. Guillaume played Fredrick Dogulass in the mini-series North and South. He appeared in the films Prince Jack (1984), Wanted: Dead or Alive (1987), They Still Call Me Bruce (1987), Lean on Me (1989), and Death Warrant (1990).

In the Nineties Robert Guillaume starred on the short-lived series Pacific Station and the sitcom Sports Night. He was one of the voices on the short lived animated series Fish Police. He guest starred on such shows as L.A. Law, Jack's Place, A Different World, Diagnosis Murder, Burke's Law, Promised Land, The Outer Limits, and Moesha. He was the voice of Rafiki in the film The Lion King (1994). He appeared in the films The Meteor Man (1993), Spy Hard (1996), First Kid (1996), and Silicon Towers (1999). He appeared on Broadway in Cyrano - The Musical.

In the Naughts Mr. Guillaume guest starred on such shows as The Proud Family, 8 Simple Rules, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. He appeared in the movies 13th Child (2002), Big Fish (2003), and The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry (2008). In the Teens he appeared in the films Satin (2011), Columbus Circle (2012), and Off the Beach (2013). He had a recurring role on the show Wanda Sykes Presents Herlarious. Late in Mr. Guillaume's career he became the first African American to play the Phantom in a Los Angeles production of Phantom of the Opera.

Benson is one of the most memorable characters in America television, largely because of Robert Guillaume. Mr. Guillaume was an incredible talent, who could bring characters to life in a way that very few actors can. In addition to Benson, over the years he played a number of characters, including travelling preacher Purlie Victorious Judson, school superintendent Dr. Frank Napier in the movie Lean on Me, and historical figures Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King. Over the years he played characters from detectives to lawyers to priests. Robert Guillaume was a great actor who always gave great performances.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Happy Halloween 2017

It is a tradition here at A Shroud of Thoughts to post classic pin ups on certain holidays, Halloween among them. Here the are this Halloween's pinups.

First up is late 1930s model and actress Iva Stewart who is picking out a pumpkin for her Halloween celebration.

Next up is June Haver, who is admiring some Halloween decorations.

Next up is Jeanne Crain, possibly the most attractive scarecrow ever.

Cheryl Walker and Marjoie Henshaw are collecting jack o' lanterns!

Ellen Drew is having a relaxing Halloween

And, of course, it wouldn't be Halloween without Ann Miller!

Happy Halloween!

Monday, 30 October 2017

The Devil and Daniel Mouse: A Canadian Made Halloween Special

As surprising as it might seem now, there was a time when Halloween specials were a rarity on television. Even though literally hundreds of Christmas specials aired in the Sixties and Seventies. for much of that time It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown was the only Halloween special that aired with any regularity. That made 1978's animated special The Devil and Daniel Mouse somewhat of a rarity at the time it aired. What made this special, well, more special is that it was made in Canada. What is more it was also made by an animation studio that would soon be rather famous, Nelvana, Ltd. It would also play a pivotal role in animation history, but that will be discussed a little later.

Nelvana was founded in 1971 by Michael Hirsch, Patrick Loubert, and Clive A. Smith. The company was named for Canada's very first superhero, Nelvana of the Northern Lights. The company started out by making animated fillers for the CBC. They eventually produced a short-subject series, Small Star Cinema, for the broadcast company. Starting with A Cosmic Christmas in 1977, Nelvana began producing animated holiday specials. The Devil and Daniel Mouse would be their second holiday special, produced to air around Halloween.

The Devil and Daniel Mouse was written by Ken Sobol, who had already worked in animation for several years. He had written scripts for such American Saturday morning cartoons as The Lone Ranger (the Sixties version), Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and Fantastic Voyage. For Nelvana he had written their previous holiday special, A Cosmic Christmas. The special was very loosely based on Stephen Vincent Benet's short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster". It centred on two anthropomorphic mice who comprise the folk music duo of Dan (speaking voice by Jim Henshaw, singing voice by John Sebastian) and Jan (speaking voice by Annabel Kershaw, singing voice by Valerie Carter, billed as Laurel Runn). After the two are fired from their latest engagement they fall on hard times. Dan sells his guitar. Jan takes even more drastic measures, selling her soul to B.L. Zebub (voiced by Chris Wiggins) for fame and fortune. When it comes time for the Devil to collect his due, Dan must figure out a way to save Jan.

The songs for The Devil and Daniel Mouse were written by John Sebastian, formerly of The Lovin' Spoonful. They were sung by Mr. Sebastian and Valerie Carter. Valerie Carter spent most of her career as a back up vocalist, singing with such diverse acts as Don Henley, Linda Ronstandt, and Little Feat. She also wrote songs for such artists as Jackson Browne, Judy Collins, Earth, Wind, & Fire. She also recorded four solo albums.  

The Devil and Daniel Mouse was directed by Nelvana co-founder Clive A. Smith. Mr. Smith had already blended animation with popular music as part of the crew that worked on The Beatles Saturday morning cartoon as well as the feature film Yellow Submarine (1968). He would later direct Nelvana's first feature film, Rock & Rule (1983). Here it must be be pointed out that The Devil and Daniel Mouse would be historic as the first Nelvana project to feature the familiar Nevlana logo with a polar bear at the end.

The Devil and Daniel Mouse debuted on the CBC on October 5 1978. It would be syndicated to American television stations that same month. Nelvana Records also released a record album based on The Devil and Daniel Mouse in 1978. The following year Avon/Camelot released a storybook written by Ken Sobol and featuring lyrics and music by John Sebastian. The special would continue to air for the remainder of the Seventies and throughout much of the Eighties.

Of course, today The Devil and Daniel Mouse might be most famous for providing inspiration for the cult film Rock & Rule. Initially intended as a children's movie not unlike the holiday specials Nelvana produced, Rock & Rule would ultimately be an animated feature film that was definitely intended for an adult audience. That having been said, it is easy to see how The Devil and Daniel Mouse inspired Rock & Rule. Both incorporate rock music with animation. Both deal with diabolical figures. Perhaps the most obvious similarity between the two is that both use the idea of music being able to defeat evil (as Dan says in The Devil and Daniel Mouse, "...a song from the heart beats the devil every time."). While Rock & Rule would have a very limited theatrical run  that prevented it from making any money at the box office, it would go onto become a cult film and is now widely regarded as a classic.

The Devil and Daniel Mouse would have a somewhat spotty history on home video. It was released on both VHS and Betamax. In 1980 it was included in the collection Nelvanamation. It was also included on the collection The Devil and Daniel Mouse and Tales of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The Devil and Daniel Mouse and Tales of Fantasy and Science Fiction was only released on CED Videodisc, a format that lasted only briefly in the Eighties. It would later be included on both the two-disc DVD and two-disc Blu-Ray releases of Rock & Rule. Unfortunately the version included with Rock & Rule was a later one edited down to 22 minutes from the special's original 25 minutes to make room for commercials when it was syndicated.

The Devil and Daniel Mouse would be historic for many reasons. First, it was one of Nelvana's earliest projects. Nelvana would go onto become one of the most important Canadian animation studios. Second, it was a Halloween special at a time when Halloween specials were rare. Before The Devil and Daniel Mouse, there was It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and not much else. Third, it was the first of Nelvana's projects to feature the familiar polar bear logo. Fourth, it provided the inspiration for Rock & Rule, now regarded by many as a classic. The Devil and Daniel Mouse is rarely seen these days, but given its place in history (as well as the fact that it is rather well done), it really should be seen more often.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Five Reasons Why Turner Classic Movies Should Show Arsenic and Old Lace in October

Turner Classic Movies is my favourite cable channel. It is the one place where I am guaranteed to see classic movies every single day. I especially look forward to each October when TCM shows classic horror movies, particularly those from Universal, RKO, and Hammer. Unfortunately there is one movie that is often missing from TCM's schedule this time of year: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). It is true that Arsenic and Old Lace is not a straight forward horror movie. Indeed, it is a comedy. That having been said there are several reasons why it is the perfect film for TCM to show every Halloween season.

1. It is set at Halloween.

It is made very clear at the beginning of Arsenic and Old Lace that it takes place on Halloween. Indeed, the opening credits are filled with Halloween imagery: witches, a black cat, an owl, a jack o' lantern, and bats. If that was not enough, titles at the very beginning of the movie announce, "This is a Halloween tale of Brooklyn, where anything can happen..." Throughout the film there is dialogue to the effect that it is Halloween. That brings us to the next reason that Turner Classic Movies should show Arsenic and Old Lace just in time for Halloween....

2. It features what may be the first ever instance of trick-or-treating in a feature film.

Although it seems as if it has always been a part of the holiday, trick-or-treating is actually a relatively recent development. The first reference to trick-or-treating was in Alberta, Canada in 1927. From there it spread to the western United States. Throughout the Thirties the custom moved eastward until it reached the East Coast towards the end of the decade. For that reason trick-or-treating is not portrayed in any feature films made in the Thirties. No films made in the early Forties mention trick-or-treating either, with the exception of Arsenic and Old Lace. Shot in 1941, but not released until 1944 when the Broadway play upon which it was based had ended its run, Arsenic and Old Lace appears to have been the earliest film to portray trick-or-treating. The scene happens very early in the film, with Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha handing out jack o' lanterns to trick-or-treaters who arrived at their door.  The scene is brief, but it perhaps establishes Arsenic and Old Lace as being a Halloween movie more than any other scene in the film.

3. Arsenic and Old Lace is a horror comedy.

That Arsenic and Old Lace is a comedy there can be no doubt. That having been said, it is part of a particular subgenre of comedy, the horror comedy. Let's face it, the movie not only deals with little old ladies who poison lonely old men, but features a serial killer in the form of Jonathan Brewster (played by Raymond Massey). Add to this the fact that it is set in a creepy old house that is just across from a graveyard. What is more, Arsenic and Old Lace features some frightening moments, much more frightening moments than such fellow horror comedies as The Cat and the Canary (1939) or Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).  In other words, Arsenic and Old Lace would fit in quite well with the more serious Universal and Hammer horrors TCM shows during October.

4. Among the stars of Arsenic and Old Lace is Peter Lorre.

Today Peter Lorre is counted among the great horror actors. Following Arsenic and Old Lace he would make several horror movies, including Invisible Agent (1942), The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Raven (1963). Even in 1941 he would have had a link to the genre. A good argument can be made that M (1931) is as almost as much a horror movie as it is proto-film noir. Even if M is not counted as a horror movie, Peter Lorre starred in Mad Love (1935), in which he played a somewhat more sinister surgeon than Dr. Einstein in Arsenic and Old Lace. Of course, in the original stage version of the play there was an actor who even then was more firmly linked to the horror genre than Peter Lorre ever would be. Boris Karloff played the role of Jonathan Brewster. Unfortunately, the producers of the play would not release Mr. Karloff to do the movie, so Raymond Massey was cast in the role. That having been said, Raymond Massey was made to look as much like Boris Karloff as possible. That brings us to the fifth and final reason TCM should show Arsenic and Old Lace at Halloween.

5. There are a lot of Boris Karloff references.

Given Boris Karloff was cast in the role of Jonathan Brewster, the original play contained a number of references to the actor as in-jokes, including the famous line, "He looks like Boris Karloff." While Jonathan Brewster was played by Raymond Massey in the film, he was made to look as much as Boris Karloff as possible. What is more, the various Boris Karloff jokes remained in the film. Now there is perhaps no other actor as connected to Halloween as Boris Karloff, and not simply because he appeared in countless horror movies. He was often in demand as a guest on Halloween episodes, both in radio and on television. He appeared on the 1947 Halloween episode of Bing Crosby's radio show, where he sung "The Halloween Song" with Bing Crosby and guest Victor Moore. He later appeared on the 1950 Halloween edition of the Paul Whiteman Revue. On television he appeared, alongside Lon Chaney Jr. and Peter Lorre, in the famous Route 66  Halloween episode "Lizard's Leg & Owlet's Wing". He even appeared on the 1965 Halloween edition of the rock music show Shindig. If this were not enough to cement Boris Karloff's association with the holiday, he was the star of the stop-motion animated classic Mad Monster Party (1967), traditionally shown at Halloween. While Boris Karloff did not star in the film version of Arsenic and Old Lace, there are enough references to him to link him to the film and provide yet another link between the film and the holiday.

It is because of the reasons above that many people, myself included, enjoy watching Arsenic and Old Lace every October. Indeed, in the days when independent stations dotted the television landscape, it was not unusual for many of those stations to show the movie each October, often on Halloween itself. I am really hoping that next year Turner Classic Movies will show Arsenic and Old Lace in October and that they will do so from here on out. It really should be as much of a tradition for TCM to show Arsenic and Old Lace in October as it is for NBC to show Its' a Wonderful Life (1946) every December.