Sunday, 21 May 2017

A Pictorial Tribute for Raymond Burr's Centennial

It was 100 years ago today that Raymond Burr was born in New Westminster, British Columbia. Today he is best known as criminal defence lawyer Perry Mason from the TV show of the same name, but his career not only included other TV shows, but many movies as well. Curiously, before he was cast as Perry Mason, Raymond Burr more often than not played villains. In fact, his most famous role besides Perry Mason may well be that of suspected killer  Lars Thorwald in Rear Window (1954). Here is a look back at his career in pictures.

Raymond Burr's first significant role was that of Jeff Torrance in the 1946 film San Quentin. Here he is with Lawrence Tierney and Carol Forman.

 
Today we tend to think of Raymond Burr as starring in crime thrillers, film noirs, and a few sci-fi B-movies, but he did make other sorts of pictures. Here he is with Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Don Juan (1948)

While he generally played bad guys, Raymond Burr did play good guys sometimes early in his career. He even played a lawyer before Perry Mason. In A Place in the Sun (1951) he played District Attorney  R. Frank Marlowe. Here he is with Montgomery Clift. 

 In The Blue Gardenia (1953) Raymond Burr played womanising artist Harry Prebble. Here he is with Anne Baxter.

Possibly Raymond Burr's most famous role besides Perry Mason, that of the menacing Lars Thorwald in Rear Window

One of Raymond Burr's earliest good guy roles, that of American reporter Steve Martin in Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956). Godzilla, King of the Monsters was essentially the Japanese film Gojira (1954) re-edited for American audiences. In addition to eliminating many scenes (and thus changing the tone of the whole movie), new footage was made with Raymond Burr. This was done for essentially two reasons. First, reporter Steve Martin could explain what was happening for American audiences, allowing for less dubbing in the film. Second, it would add an American star who would be somewhat familiar to audiences in the United States. Raymond Burr would reprise the role nearly 30 years later in Godzilla 1985

It was in 1957 that Raymond Burr began a nine year run in his most famous role, that of defence attorney Perry Mason in the TV show Perry Mason. The character of Perry Mason had begun life in novels by Erle Stanley Gardner. By the time the TV show had debuted, the character had already appeared in six feature films and a radio show that ran for 12 years on CBS. Although Raymond Burr is now the actor most identified with Perry Mason, he was not the only actor considered for the part.  Richard Carlson, Mike Connors, Richard Egan, William Holden, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr., were all considered, and even Fred MacMurray was reportedly in negotiations with CBS for the role. While producer Gail Patrick had been impressed with Raymond Burr's performance as the district attorney in A Place in the Sun (1951), there were concerns about his weight. Raymond Burr went on a diet and did a second screen test for the role. In the end, he was chosen out of around 50 other actors trying for the part. 

Raymond Burr followed Perry Mason with another successful TV show, Ironside. Ironside featured Mr. Burr as Robert T. Ironside, a former San Francisco Chief of Detectives who became a consultant for the police department after he was paralysed from the waist down. Ironside proved quite successful, running for eight seasons.

Following Ironside, Raymond Burr appeared in such films as Out of the Blue (1980), Airplane II: The Sequel (1982), and Godzilla 1985. He reprised his role as Perry Mason in the TV reunion Perry Mason Returns in 1985. It was followed by 25 more TV movies starring Raymond Burr as Perry Mason. Perhaps fittingly, Perry Mason would be the final role he ever played. He last appeared in the TV movie Perry Mason: The Case of the Killer Kiss (1993). Having died on September 12 1993, it aired over two months after his death, on November 29 1993.

Friday, 19 May 2017

The Late Great Chris Cornell

Chris Cornell, founding member, lead vocalist, chief songwriter, and rhythm guitarist of Soundgarden, died on May 17 2016 at the age of 52. The cause was suicide.

Chris Cornell was born Christopher Boyle on July 20 1964 in Seattle, Washington. His parents were pharmacist  Ed Boyle and accountant Karen Cornell. He took to music at a young age, having discovered an abandoned collection of Beatles records in a neighbour's basement when he was 9 years old. Mr. Cornell had a somewhat troubled childhood. He struggled with loneliness and depression. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1994 he admitted to having been a "...daily drug user at 13.” After his parents divorced he dropped out of school when he was only 14. He worked various jobs to help support his mother, including working at a seafood wholesaler and as a sous-chef. Music became an outlet for him and he learned to play drums when he was 16. His first band was the Jones Street Band, in which he was both the drummer and lead singer.

It was in 1984 that Chris Cornell, bassist Hiro Yamamoto, and guitarist Kim Thayil formed Soundgarden. The band took its name from an artwork located at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "A Sound Garden". Originally Chris Cornell served as both Soundgarden's drummer and lead vocalist, but in 1985  the band hired Scott Sundquist as its drummer so Chris Cornell could concentrate on singing.

Soundgarden signed with Seattle record label Sub-Pop and their first single, "Hunted Down", was released in 1987. Their EP Screaming Life was released on the label that same year, followed by the EP Fopp in 1988. The two EPs were combined and released as the album Screaming Life/Fopp  in 1990. It was in 1988 that Soundgarden signed with independent label SST Records. Their debut album, Ultramega OK, was released in October 1988.  Ultramega OK received a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance. SST Records followed Ultramega OK with the EP Flower, released in 1989.

Following a tour to support Ultramega OK, Soundgarden signed with A&M Records. Their second album, Louder Than Love, was released in September 1989. Louder Than Love became Soundgarden's first album to reach the Billboard Top 200 album chart, peaking at 108. An EP containing outtakes from Louder Than Love as well as other material, Loudest Love, was released in October 1990.

While still working with Soundgarden, Chris Cornell teamed up with former Mother Love Bone members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, Soundgarden's drummer Matt Cameron, Mike McCready, and Eddie Vedder to record as Temple of the Dog. Messrs. Gossard, Ament, McCready, and Vedder would soon become famous as Pearl Jam. The supergroup's lone album, Temple of the Dog, was released in April 1991.

It was in October 1991 that Soundgarden's third studio album Badmotorfinger was released. It was the first to feature bassist Ben Shepherd. It proved to be their most successful album up to that time, peaking at no. 39 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart. It received a Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance. In June 1992 a special edition of Badmotorfinger was released that included the EP Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas. Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas included covers of Black Sabbath's "Into the Void", Devo's "Girl U Want", and The Stray Cats' "Stray Cat Strut", as well as other material.

Soundgarden's fourth album, Superunknown, proved to be their most successful album ever. It debuted on the Billboard Top 200 at no. 1 and sold 310,000 copies in its first week alone. The single "Spoonman" won the Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance, while the single "Black Hole Sun" won the Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance and was nominated for the award for Best Rock Song. Superunknown was released on March 8,1994. Superunknown was followed by the EP Songs from the Superunknown and the CD-Rom  Alive in the Superunknown. Both were released on November 21 1995.

Soundgarden's fifth album, Down on the Upside, was released on May 21 1996. The album debuted at no. 2 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart, which was also its peak. Unfortunately tensions rose among the group during its recording. Chris Cornell had wanted to move away from the heavy guitar that had become associated with Soundgarden, something that Kim Thayil disagreed with. The tensions within the band only increased during the worldwide tour to support the album. It was on April 9 1997 that Soundgarden announced that they were disbanding.

In the wake up of Soundgarden's break-up, Chris Cornell began work on his first solo album. Euphoria Morning was released in September 1999. The album peaked at no.18 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart and was well received by critics.

Chris Cornell afterwards joined former Rage Against the Machine members Tom Morello, Tim Commerford, and Brad Wilk to form the band Audioslave. After Rage Against the Machine vocalist  lead vocalist Zack de la Rocha left Rage Against the Machine, the other members decided to remain together and find a new vocalist. It was producer Rick Rubin who suggested they seek out Chris Cornell.

Audioslave's self-titled debut album was released in November 2002. The album peaked at no. 7 on the Billboard Top 200, although it received mixed reviews from critics. Their second album, Out of Exile, was released in May 2005. The album performed even better than Audioslave, reaching no. 1 on the Billboard Top 200. The single "Be Yourself" even reached the top forty of the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at no. 32.

Audioslave only released one more album. Revelations was released in September 2006. It did very well, peaking at no. 2 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart. Despite this, the album received mixed reviews. Audioslave were on a break while Chris Cornell co-wrote and recorded "You Know My Name", the theme song to the James Bond movie Casino Royale (2006). At the same time Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello went to work on his solo project, The Nightwatchman. As it turned out Chris Cornell would never return to Audioslave. In July 2006 he announced that he was leaving the band.

It was then in 2007 that Chris Cornell released his second solo album. Carry On peaked at no. 17 on the Billboard Top 200, but received mixed reviews. It was followed by Scream, which was released in March 2009. The album marked a shift in Mr. Cornell's musical style, with less guitar and more electronic music. Scream peaked at no. 10 on the Billboard Top 200, but receive mostly negative reviews. It was followed by the acoustic live album Songbook in 2011. Songbook featured a mix of Soundgarden songs, Audioslave songs, and his own solo work.

It was on January 1 2010 that Chris Cornell announced that Soundgarden was reuniting. It was in February 2011 that it was announced that they would be recording a new album. Soudgarden toured for the first time in years in 2011. They also recorded a new song, "Live to Rise", that was featured in Marvel's The Avengers (2012).  Their new album, King Animal,was released on November 13 2012. It peaked at no. 5 on the Billboard Top 200, and received positive reviews over all.

Soundgarden continued to tour in 2014. Chris Cornell released his final solo album, Higher Truth, in September 2015. The album peaked at no. 19 on the Billboard Top 200 and received generally good reviews. It was in January 2016 that it was confirmed that Soundgarden had returned to the studio to record a new album. At the moment it is not clear how Soundgarden will proceed in the wake of Chris Cornell's death.

Chris Cornell's last solo work was the  single "The Promise", which appeared in the film The Promise (2017).

The soundtrack of my life in the Nineties was largely comprised of The Posies, Monster Magnet, The Gin Blossoms, and Soundgarden. Chris Cornell's work then spoke to me in a way that the work of Kurt Cobain, Jerry Cantrell, or Eddie Vedder never did. The lyrics of his songs were often deep, sometimes humorous, sometimes dark. Even when the lyrics of a particular Soundgarden, Audioslave, or Chris Cornell song were dark, there was still a glimmer of hope behind them. Soundgarden's songs were not about necessarily how hard life can be, but the will to survive that hard live. Even when things were at their worst, I could be guaranteed that a Soundgarden song would help me feel better.

Of course, even beyond Chris Cornell's lyrics there was a musical complexity to his songs that was sometimes lacking in his contemporaries' music. He often used non-standard chord progressions, and the melodies were often unusual as well. It was not unusual for his music to use only major chord changes. Chris Cornell also utilised a variety of different styles of music throughout his career. Soundgarden alone ranged in style from the proto-punk of MC5 and The Stooges to melodic variations on heavy metal to psychedelia. Soundgarden was often counted as part of the grunge movement, but I have never thought they really should have been. While I love grunge, Soundgarden worked on a much broader canvas, to the point that they should perhaps be considered simply "hard rock" or "heavy metal", rather than simply "grunge".

Regardless, there can be no doubt that Chris Cornell was one of the greatest rock vocalists of all time. He was a baritone, but his voice could span several octaves. In addition to the lower register baritone of he could sing fairly high in the ranges of tenor. His voice also packed a good deal of power, so that I have to think he would not have had to use a microphone to be heard several yards away. Chris Cornell was extremely versatile as a singer, so that he could do everything from a gentle falsetto to harsh screams. When combined with his talent for songwriting, this ultimately made Chris Cornell one of the greatest front men in the history of rock 'n' roll.

George Stroumboulopoulos on CBC Radio said of Chris Cornell that ""He was the voice of an entire generation's youth." I really cannot argue with that. With a few possible exceptions (Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of The Posies, for example), Chris Cornell spoke to me more than any other rock star my age. The music of Soundgarden helped me navigate my late twenties and early thirties. It is then for that reason that I am very sad I am gone.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Godspeed Stan Weston, Godfather of Action Figures

Stan Weston, the licensing agent who was one of the creators of the action figure G.I. Joe, and who also created such action figures as Captain Action and "The World's Greatest Super Heroes", died on May 1 2017 at the age of 84. The cause was complications from surgery.

Stan Weston was born Stanley Weinstein in Brooklyn, New York on April 1 1933. He was only five years old when Superman first appeared in Action Comics no. 1 (June 1938) and he became a huge comic book fan. He was particularly a fan of the companies that would one day become the modern day DC Comics. He even rented comic books to other children in his neighbourhood from a makeshift stand on his front stoop. He attended  New York University and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Advertising and Journalism. He served in the United States Army and afterwards he returned to New York University and earned a Master of Business Administration degree. He took the surname "Weston" in order to avoid anti-Semitism.

Stan Weston went into advertising at the agency McCann Erickson. It was while he was at McCann Erickson that he met Allan Stone, whose brother Martin Stone was a producer on The Howdy Doody Show. Allan Stone founded Stone Merchandising Associates, which licensed movie and television properties. In 1959 Stan Weston went to work at Stone Merchandising Associates. He worked there only for a year before founding his own company, Weston Merchandising, in 1960. It was in 1962 that Weston Merchandising merged with the company Trans-Beacon. Stan Weston remained with Trans-Beacon for three years. As a licensing agent he was rather successful, and represented the TV series Dr. Kildare, The Kingston Trio, and comedian Soupy Sales, among many others.

It was in 1963 that Stan Weston would become involved in his most famous creation, the action figure G.I. Joe. Stories vary as to the origins of the famous action figure. According to one story, Stan Weston received inspiration for G.I. Joe from Elliot Handler, founder of Mattel. Mr. Handler, who was one of Mr. Weston's mentors, told him, “Stan, you’ve got to sell them the razor, then you can sell them a lot of blades." Of course, Mattel had seen great success in not only selling the Barbie doll, but in selling numerous outfits and accessories to go with the doll as well. Stan Weston looked through the Encyclopaedia Britannica seeking an idea for a toy that would also include numerous accessories, and fell upon the idea of a military themed toy. By making a military themed toy there could then also be several different uniforms, weapons, and other accessories sold to go along with it. 

According to another story it was  Larry Reiner, who was an executive at Ideal Toy Company, who came up with the initial idea for G.I. Joe. Mr. Reiner thought of an idea for a soldier toy and tried to interest Ideal in it, only to be told that boys would never play with a "doll". It was after the 1963 Toy Fair that Larry Reiner met Stan Weston, who liked his idea for a military toy. Mr. Weston then went to work on finding someone to buy the concept. Yet another origin story is that G.I. Joe began as a possible tie-in to the short-lived TV show The Lieutenant. Quite simply, Stan Weston approached Hasbro with the idea of a soldier toy based on the show. Regardless, Stan Weston always credited Larry Reiner with having come up with the idea that the soldier toy should have articulated joints.

Whoever initially came up with the idea of G.I. Joe first, Stan Weston and Larry Reiner approached Don Levine, then Creative Director at Hasbro with their concept for a movable soldier toy. It was Don Levine, a veteran of the Korean War, who ultimately came up with the name "G.I. Joe," remembering the movie The Story of G.I. Joe (1945). Because of fears that boys would not play with a "doll", Hasbro came up with the term "action figure", which has been used ever since for movable figures made for boys. G.I. Joe hit stores on  February 2 1964 and proved to be a huge hit.

The success of G.I. Joe saw the emergence of several more action figures in the mid-Sixties, among them another created by Stan Weston. He developed an idea for an action figure to be called "Captain Magic", a character who could transform into different superheroes. Mr. Weston pitched it to Larry Reiner, still an executive at Ideal Toy Company. Larry Reiner was not initially fond of the idea, and thought that children wouldn't be interested in an action figure that lacked its own identity. Larry Reiner eventually capitulated to Stan Weston, although the action figure was renamed "Captain Action". Introduced in 1966, the basic Captain Action figure came with a costume, a hat, boots, a belt, a gun, and a sword. In the first year outfits for The Lone Ranger, Batman, Superman, Sgt. Fury, Aquaman, Captain America, Steve Canyon, The Phantom, and Flash Gordon were sold separately.

In 1967 outfits for Spider-Man, Buck Rogers, The Green Hornet, and Tonto were added to the Captain Action line. Also added were new action figures. Captain Action was given a sidekick in the form of Action Boy, for whom outfits for Superboy, Aqualad, and Robin were made. Captain Action was also given an archenemy in the form of Dr. Evil (not to be confused with the villain from the "Austin Powers' movies). Unlike Captain Action and Action Boy, Dr. Evil could not change into different villains.  Captain Action would not repeat the success of G. I. Joe. Ideal ceased production on the line in 1968, after only about two years on the market.

In 1970 Stan Weston founded Leisure Concepts with Mike Germakian.  The company would have such licences as The Lone Ranger, Farrah Fawcett, James Bond, Charlie Chan, Marvel Comics, Star Wars, and many others. In 1995 the company changed its name to 4kids Entertainment Inc. In 2012 it became 4Licensing Corporation.

It was in the early Seventies that Stan Weston conceived an idea for a series of action figures called "The Worlds' Greatest Super Heroes". At the time Leisure Concepts had the licences for Marvel Comics' characters. Mr. Weston approached Jay Emmett, head of Licensing Corporation of America, which handled the licences for DC Comics' characters and struck a deal on a handshake to use their characters. Unfortunately, Stan Weston found "The World's Greatest Super Heroes" difficult to sell. Mattel, Hasbro, Kenner, Gabriel, and Ideal all turned the idea down. He then took the idea to Mego Corporation, a small toy company then manufacturing an action figure called "Action Jackson". Marty Abrams, the head of Mego, liked the idea. Leisure Concepts then set about getting the necessary rights from DC Comics, Marvel Comics, and the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate in order to proceed.

It was during the Christmas shopping season that the first action figures in "The World's Greatest Super Heroes" line were introduced in tests in the New York area. The first batch of characters were Superman, Batman, Robin, and Aquaman. In the autumn of 1973 the characters of Spiderman, Captain America, and Tarzan were added. "The World's Greatest Super Heroes" proved enormously successful, so that yet more characters were added to the line. In the end "The World's Greatest Super Heroes" line included over 30 different heroes and villains. "The World's Greatest Super Heroes" continued to be manufactured until 1983. Production on the line ended not because the action figures had declined in popularity, but instead because Mego Corporation had gone bankrupt after several bad business decisions.

Stan Weston would also do some work in the film industry. He was an executive producer on the films Vision Quest (1985) and Gardens of Stone (1987), and a co-executive producer on The Shadow (1994). He also appeared in front of the camera. As an actor he appeared in the films The Power (1984), Torment (1986), and The Book (2010). 

There can be no doubt that Stan Weston revolutionised the toy industry. Arguably, articulated figures meant for boys existed before G. I. Joe. In 1932 there was a wooden Popeye figure and in 1939 Ideal manufactured a wooden Superman figure complete with a cloth cape. That having been said, G.I. Joe was the first to be called an "action figure" and the one that created the demand for action figures that has persisted to this day. Stan Weston's "World's Greatest Super Heroes" line would transform Mego Corporation from a rather small company to the biggest manufacturer of action figures in the Seventies, with licences for Star Trek and Planet of the Apes action figures, among others. While Captain Action would only be manufactured briefly, the action figure developed a cult following that has persisted to this day. While action figures have certainly changed over the years (today's action figures are generally much smaller than the original 12-inch G.I. Joe), it seems that they might not have been possible without Stan Weston.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Late Great Powers Boothe

Powers Boothe died June 1 2017 at the age of 68. He appeared in such films as The Emerald Forest (1985), Tombstone (1993), Nixon (1995), and Sin City (2005), and on such TV shows as Philip Marlowe Private Eye, Deadwood, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Powers Boothe was born on a cotton farm near Snyder, Texas. In high school he played football and took part in school plays. He surprised many when, in his senior year, he quit football to concentrate on acting. He attended Southwest Texas State University where he received a bachelor degree and then received a masters degree at Southern Methodist University.

After graduating from Southwest Texas State University, Powers Boothe joined the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's repertory company. He played roles in  Henry V, Othello, and Troilus & Cressida. In 1974 he appeared in Richard III at the Lincoln Centre in New York City. In 1977 he made his film debut as part of the cast of Richard III in the film The Goodbye Girl. In 1979 he appeared on Broadway in Lone Star & Pvt. Wars.  He appeared in the films The Cold Eye (My Darling, Be Careful) (1980) and Cruising (1980). On television he had a recurring role on the TV show Skag and played Jim Jones in the TV movie Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980).

The Eighties saw Powers Boothe's film career take off. He was one of the leads in Walter Hill's Southern Comfort (1981) and the lead in John Boorman's The Emerald Forest (1985). He also appeared in the films A Breed Apart (1984), Red Dawn (1984), Extreme Prejudice (1987), Sapphire Man (1988), Voyager: The Grand Tour (1990), and Stalingrad (1990). On television he played the title role in the HBO TV series Philip Marlowe, Private Eye. He also starred in the two part TV movie Family of Spies (1990).

In the Nineties Powers Boothe appeared in such films as Rapid Fire (1992), Tombstone (1993), Sudden Death (1995), Nixon (1995), U Turn (1997), and Men of Honour (2000). On television he appeared in the mini-series Joan of Arc and the two part TV movie Attila.

In the Naughts Mr. Boothe was a regular on the TV shows Deadwood and 24. He was the voice of Gorilla Grodd on the animated series Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, as well as the voice of Lex Luthor in the straight-to-video animated film Superman: Brainiac Attacks. He appeared in the films Frailty (2001), Sin City (2005), The Final Season (2007), and MacGruber (2010).

In the Teens Powers Boothe appeared in the mini-series Hatfields & McCoys and To Appomattox, and had recurring roles on the TV shows Nashville and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. He guest starred on the TV show Moonbeam City and was a guest voice on the animated series Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated and The Looney Tunes Show. He appeared in the films Tattoo (2011),  Marvel's The Avengers (2012), Straight A's (2013), and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014).

During his career Mr. Boothe also provided voices for several video games, including Area 51, Turok, Ben 10 Ultimate Alien: Cosmic Destruction, and Hitman: Absolution.

Powers Boothe was an incredibly talented actor. Indeed, while various news outlets have noted the many villains he played in his career, I remember him best for his heroic roles. He was the cynical Texan Corporal Hardin in Southern Comfort; Bill Markham, the father seeking his son in the Amazonian Rainforest in The Emerald Forest; and, of course, Philip Marlowe in the HBO series of the Eighties. That having been said, Powers Boothe made for a very good villain in several films and TV shows. Perhaps no politician on film was as evil as Senator Roark in Sin City and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. As Cy Tolliver on Deadwood, Powers Boothe played a formidable rival to the show's primary villain Al Swearengen. On Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  He played Gideon Malick, one of the leaders of the criminal organisation Hydra. Such was Powers Boothe's talent that he played historical figures convincingly. He played Alexander Haig in Nixon, Curly Bill Brocius in Tombstone, Jacques d'Arc on Joan of Arc, and Jim Jones in Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones. Powers Boothe was convincing in almost any role offered him, whether he was playing a hero, a villain, or something in between.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Five Stars

Today is the 3rd annual National Classic Movie Day in the United States. To honour that day, Rick of The Classic Film and TV Cafe is holding the "Five Stars Blogathon" in which bloggers list their five favourite stars and why they are their five favourites. I did not learn about the blogathon until today, but I decided it would be a good way to honour National Classic Movie Day.

Here I must say that while I can name my five favourite movies of all time with ease, I have always had some difficulty limiting my favourite stars to even ten, much less five. For that reason this list should be taken with a grain of salt. On any other day I might have chosen a completely different set of five actors. I will say that I restricted my choices to stars who were best known for their appearances in films rather than on television. It is for that reason that Patrick Macnee and Dame Diana Rigg are missing from the list (they are both best known for The Avengers, my all time favourite TV show). Regardless, here are my five favourite stars (at least for today). I listed them in alphabetical order as there is no way I could decide which one was my absolute favourite.

Sir Dirk Bogarde: I'm not sure where I first saw Sir Dirk Bogarde. It might have been in the 1958 version of A Tale of Two Cities or perhaps Darling (1965). Regardless, he has long been one of my favourite actors for the simple reason that he was just so versatile. Throughout his career he played a truly wide variety of characters, from the somewhat nervous Dr. Simon Sparrow in the "Doctor" series to the heroic yet tragic Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities to the sinister valet Hugo Barrett in The Servant (1963) to the evil industrialist Friedrich Bruckmann in The Damned (1969). Sir Dirk Bogarde was something of a chameleon, able to play nearly any role offered to him.

Audrey Hepburn; Audrey Hepburn could be considered my first classic film crush, although when I first saw her in My Fair Lady the film was only about ten years old (I was eleven at the time). Having been released in 1964, I then don't think it was old enough to be considered a classic when I first saw it. Regardless, my father had to talk me into watching the movie (like many little boys I was not particularly a fan of musicals) and to this day I am glad he did. I fell in love with Audrey Hepburn that night and so I looked forward to her movies whenever they were on television. Of course, as I grew older I learned that she was not only a beautiful and graceful woman, but also a very talented actress. She gave impressive performances in everything from Sabrina (1954) to Wait Until Dark (1967).  I think my crush on her grew even greater when I learned that she wasn't just a great actress, but a fine human being too. She did a great deal of work for UNICEF.

Sir Christopher Lee:  Bela Lugosi fans might disagree with me, but for me Sir Christopher Lee will always be the quintessential Dracula. To me no other actor quite captured the character so well. Indeed, to this day Dracula remains his best known role. That having been said, Sir Christopher Lee played a vast array of roles over the years, and not all of them were monsters or villains. In The Devil Rides Out (1968) he played the hero of the film, Duc de Richleau, who finds himself combatting devil worshippers. He also played Sherlock Holmes in the TV movies Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady (1991) and Sherlock Holmes: Incident at Victoria Falls (1992). Often times the characters he played were neither hero nor villain, as in the case of  Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1973).  While he could play heroes and other characters, arguably he was at his best playing villains, and he played some of the best ever villains on film, including Doctor Pierre Gerrard in The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959),  Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974),  Saruman in The Lord of the Rings, and Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

Jack Lemmon: Having been born in the mid-Sixties and growing up in the Seventies, Jack Lemmon was probably one of the first stars I was ever aware of. He appeared in a number of films I loved even as a child: Mister Roberts (1955), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), How to Murder Your Wife (1965), The Great Race (1965), and yet others. While he appeared in a wide variety of roles throughout his career (even playing villains, such as Professor Fate in The Great Race), I think the appeal of Jack Lemmon for me was that no one played average guys as well as he did. Whether as Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts (1955), or C. C. Baxter in The Apartment (my second favourite movie of all time), Felix Ungar in The Odd Couple (1968), to me no actor was ever as convincing playing ordinary guys as Jack Lemmon.

Vivien Leigh: It was a couple of years after I fell in love with Audrey Hepburn that I finally encountered a rival for her affections. NBC aired Gone With the Wind (1939) and I fell in love with Vivien Leigh. Okay, I am aware that Scarlett O'Hara was not a very nice person, but as a boy in his Tweens having only recently discovered girls I was willing to overlook that. At the time I thought she was must have been the most beautiful woman ever. Of course, in time I would realise that she was a very talented actress who was much more than a pretty face and Scarlett O'Hara. While she made only a few films in her career when compared to other actors, she was very impressive in most of them, whether as Emma Lady Hamilton in Lady Hamilton (1941) or Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).


Saturday, 13 May 2017

Children of Paradise/Les Enfants du Paradis (1945)

(This post is part of the "No, YOU"RE Crying Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini

When it comes to romances, not many are as epic or as tragic as Children of Paradise (the literal translation of its original French title, Les Enfants du Paradis). Set in the Parisian theatres of the 1820s and 1830s, Children of Paradise centres around the courtesan Garance (played by Arletty). In the movie she is pursued by four men, although arguably it is her relationship with mime Baptiste Deburau that takes centre stage. It has been described as France's answer to Gone With the Win (1939), and the comparison is an apt one. The film's plot spans literally years. It was released in two parts, and its running time was ultimately 190 minutes.

Children of Paradise was made during the German occupation of France, so it should come as no surprise that it had difficulty getting to the screen. Worse yet, the weather was not always cooperative with regards to shooting the film. During the occupation film stock was rationed, so camera crews might find themselves without film. It was also not unusual for the set builders to experience shortages in supplies. The Nazi regime itself would also cause problems for the production. They banned producer  André Paulvé from working on the film because he had some Jewish ancestry. Ultimately production had to be suspended for three months. Fortunately French production company Pathé took over production of the film. Both set designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Joseph Kosma were Jewish, and had to work on the film in secret.

Unfortunately that would not be the end of problems for Children of Paradise, as the weather would sometimes interfere with its production. The primary set in the film, the Boulevard du Temple, was damaged in a storm and had to almost entirely be rebuilt. Naturally, this delayed shooting even longer.

Shooting would again be delayed following the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6 1944, although it seems possible that production was delayed so that the film could be finished once France was free. Regardless, Children of Paradise would not begin production again until after Paris was liberated in August 1944. Even once France was free of the Nazis, however, Children of Paradise would experience problems in production. Actor Robert Le Vigan, who had been cast as used clothes salesman Jericho, had supported the Nazis. Once France was liberated, he fled and the role was recast with Pierre Renoir, film director Jean Renoir's brother. As to Robert Le Vigan, he was eventually caught and sentenced to ten years hard labour in 1946.

Because Vichy France forbade any films longer than 90 minutes, Children of Paradise was released in two parts. In the end it would be the most expensive film made in France up to that time, costing about fifty eight million francs. Fortunately given the difficulties it faced in being made and the amount of money it cost, Children of Paradise proved to be a success. It was the third most successful film in France for 1945. The film would also prove successful elsewhere and is now considered one of the greatest films ever made.

Children of Paradise had its roots in history. In fact, set in the theatres of Paris in the 1820s and 1830s, it takes it title from the term "paradis" (literally "paradise" in English), which had once been used of the upper balcony of the theatre where seats were cheap enough that the poor could afford them. Some of the film's characters were actual historical personages. Jean-Gaspard Debureau was a famous mime who performed at the Theatre des Funambules.  Frederick Lemaitre was a popular actor of the time. Pierre-Francois Lacenaire was a well known criminal of the time and would provide the basis for the character Rodion Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

While Children of Paradise is unabashedly a romance, it is also a very sophisticated film. Nearly every class in Paris of the 1820s and 1830s is portrayed in the film, and class plays a large role in the film. Lacenaire's origins are strictly bourgeoisie, while the Count Edouard de Montray is from the nobility. Some have even seen Children of Paradise as a metaphor for the French Resistance, with Garance representing Occupied France. Indeed, many of the film's extras were agents of the Resistance, who used their work on the film as a cover.

That having been said, it seems likely that most viewers will enjoy the film primarily as an epic romance. And it is indeed a romance for the ages. Garance is pursued by three very different men (Baptiste Deburau,  Frédérick Lemaître, Pierre-François Lacenaire, and the Count Edouard de Montray), and it is her choice of one over the others that would ultimately lead to dire consequences. Children of Paradise is ultimately a tragedy, and one has to suspect that even those who do not cry at movies might shed some tears before it is over.

As mentioned earlier, Children of Paradise has been counted among the greatest films ever made. Cahiers du cinéma regularly ranked it among the greatest films ever made, despite the fact that magazine had never exactly supported the films of Marcel Carné. In 1995 a poll of 600 film professionals voted Children of Paradise the best film ever. In 2005 Time included it among their list of the All-Time100 greatest films made since 1923. Children of Paradise is then not only one of the all time great romances, but one of the greatest movies ever made.


Friday, 12 May 2017

The 50th Anniversary of The Jimi Hendrix Experience's Are You Experienced

It was fifty years ago today that the debut album of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced, was released in the United Kingdom. It proved to be a smash hit upon its release. It entered the British album chart at no. 27 and spent 33 weeks total on the chart. Are You Experienced peaked at no. 2 on the chart, kept out of the no. 1 spot by another legendary album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles. Are You Experienced would be released later in the United States on August 23 1967, featuring a different track listing than the British version.

Are You Experienced has since been considered one of the greatest debut albums of all time. The original British version of the album featured some of The Jimi Hendrix Experience's best known songs, including "Foxy Lady", "Manic Depression", "May This Be Love", and "Are You Experienced?".  It has also since been considered one of the most influential albums of all time. While psychedelia had existed prior to the release of Are You Experienced, the album's release was certainly a pivotal moment in the genre's history. It would also lay the groundwork for heavy metal, with many, if not most, metal guitarists emulating Jimi Hendrix's work. It has often been included in lists of the greatest rock albums of all time. In 2005 Are You Experienced was added by the Library of Congress to to the National Recording Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Without further ado, here is the title track, "Are You Experienced?"