Thursday, 30 December 2004

Winter Songs

With the traditional Yuletide (or Twelve Days of Christmas if you're Christian) coming near their end, I thought it might be a good idea to discuss "winter songs." What is a winter song? Well, that is a term I use for songs about various aspects of winter that make no references to Yuletide, Christmas, or the holiday. In other words, they are more or less about winter.

I first took notice of this genre in 1999 when I realised that "Winter Wonderland" makes no mention of the holidays whatsoever. Instead, it is a song about two lovers walking and frolicking in the snow. The lyrics refer to sleigh bells, snow, building a snowman, and relaxing by a fire, but no references are made to Yule, Christmas, or any of the trappings thereof. For all extents and purposes, "Winter Wonderland" could be played anytime during the winter. At any rate, it is one of the great standards. It was written by the team of lyricist Dick Smith and composer Felix Bernhard, who wrote the song in 1934. It was a hit for Guy Lombardo that year. It would be in 1946, however, that the song would come into its own. Both Perry Como and the Andrew Sisters released versions of the tune that year, establisihing it as one of the great songs played during the holidays.

Of course, "Winter Wonderland" was not the first winter song. I am not sure what was--it was probably written long ago--but one of the oldest that is still played is "Jingle Bells." The song, so identified with the Yuletide, makes no reference. This is perhaps with good reason--it was first written for Thanksgiving! The song was written by minister James Pierpoint in 1857 for a Thanksgiving programme at the church in Boston where he preached. It was so popular that its performance was repeated at the Christmas programme and it has been linked to that season ever since. "Jingle Bells" makes no mention whatsoever of the Yuletide, but merely describes a ride in an one horse open sleigh through the snow. In fact, its original title was "One Horse Open Sleigh"

It might be tempting to say that "Sleigh Ride," which covers the same subject, is also a "winter song," but I am not so sure that it is. While the song simpy describes a sleigh ride for the most part, it also has references to pumpkin pies (a favourite in some parts at the holidays) and Currier and Ives (well known for their Yuletide prints).

While "Sleigh Ride" maybe as much a Christmas carol as a winter song, the same cannot be said for "Let It Snow." Like "Winter Wonderland," "Let It Snow" is essentially a love song. The song is essentially about two lovers snuggled together inside as it snows. No reference is made to the Yuletide or any other holiday. The song was written by lyricist Sammy Kahn and composer Jule Styne in 1945. It was a huge hit for Bing Crosby.

Love seems to be the one them running through most winter songs. It is definitely the theme of "Baby, It's Cold Outside." The song was written as a duet by Frank Loesser in 1949 for the movie "Neptune's Daughter." There it was sung by Margaret Whiting and Johnny Mercer. Quite simply, the song is a conversation between two lovers, one of who is begging the other to stay, and not entirely because of the cold weather. At no point is the Yuletide mentioned and the song could easly be played in January or February.

As blantant as he protagonist of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is in his intentions, the protagonist of "I Love the Winter Weather" is even more so. Written by Ted Shapiro in 1941, the song is simply loving winter weather because it allows two people to stay warm togehter! The song has been a hit for Fats Waller, Lena Horne, Benny Goodman and many others.

I am sure that there are more winter songs aout there, but these appear to be the most famous. Interestingly, with the exception of "Jingle Bells," every one of them is a love song. This presents an interesting contrast to summer songs, which seem to be more often about having fun (going to the beach, whatever). I suppose that is proof that winter is the most romantic season of them all.

Of course, what I find curious is that none of these songs are generally played at anytime other than the Yuletide. This strikes me as odd as all of them simply deal with winter and winter imagery. Not one of them mentions Yule, Christmas, or anything of the sort. Realistically, there is no reason that they can't be played at anytime between December and March. I suppose that in the United States our image of the Yuletide is so tied up with snow and winter that any song that refers to such is automatically a Christmas carol. A shame in some ways, as "Winter Wonderland" and "Let It Snow" are beautiful tunes that should be played more often.

Wednesday, 29 December 2004

The Great Jerry Orbach

One of my favourite actors had pased on. Tuesday night Jerry Orbach died of prostate cancer at age 69. He is best known as Detective Lennie Briscoe on Law and Order, but he was also a song and dance man who dominated Broadway for decades. In fact, Orbach's first appearance on television was tied to his career on the stage. He appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show singing "Her Face" from Carnival! in 1961.

Jerry Orbach was born in the city that made him a star, New York (the Bronx, to be exact) in 1935. His father was a performer in vaudeville and his mother a singer on radio. In 1955, after a stint at Northwestern University, Orbach began his career on the stage in New York. He was part of the original cast of The Fantasticks, playing the narrator.

The Fantasticks led to more major roles on Broadway. Orbach appeared in Carnival!, Promises, Promises, Chicago, and 42nd Street. He won a Tony Award for his performance as Baxter in Promises, Promises (based on the classic movie The Apartment).

Beyond his successful career on Broadway, Orbach also appeared in motion pictures. playing roles in F/X, the 1985 version of Brewster's Millions, and Crimes and Misdemeanours. He did a good deal of voice work for animated films, his most famous being the work he did in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. He was the voice of Lumiere the Candlestick in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, complete with a vocal part in the movie's show stopper "Be Our Guest."

Of course, Orbach's greatest claim to fame is perhaps his role as Lennie Briscoe on Law and Order. Orbach was on the series for 12 years, longer than any other cast member of the series and one of the longest runs for any actor in prime time television. Orbach had a secondary role as Briscoe in the new spinoff, Law & Order: Trial by Jury. Although best known on television for Law and Order, Orbach also starred in the 1987 series The Law and Harry McGraw, playing the private detective of the title. He had previously played McGraw in several episodes of Murder She Wrote.

I am truly saddened by Orbach's passing. In recent years, Law and Order is one of the few series I have watched regularly and Detective Briscoe was always my favourite character. I also watched The Law and Harry McGraw and enjoyed Orbach's performance there. He was a versatile actor, capable of both humour and drama. And as he proved on Law and Order, he could bring humour to the most serious of situations. I regret to say that I have only seen a few clips of his performances on Broadway, but he seems to have had a remarkable voice. It is a shame that Orbach's career came about just as the Hollywood musical was on the way out--he could have been a great star of movie musicals. Regardless, he was a great actor and created one of the greatest characters on television. Given his success on Broadway, it would seem that Jerry Orbach will be remembered for a long time to come.

Sunday, 26 December 2004

The Odd Things One Learns in a Library

A while back at the library I was at work looking at our copy of Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, one of my favourite novels. In the new afterword to the 1999 Avon Books hardcover edition of the book, Bradbury tells an interesting story. There he discusses his encounters with circuses and carnivals, both on film and in real life. Bradbury then mentions that he and his wife were invited by Gene Kelly to a showing of Invitation to the Dance. The carnvial sequence in the movie) struck a particular chord with Bradbury. He told his wife walking home from the film, "I'd give my right arm to write a screenplay for Gene Kelly." His wife told him she was certain that in his files he had something dealing with carnivals or circuses.

The two of them looked through his files and found an unfinished story entitled "The Black Ferris" that had been meant for The Dark Carnival (Bradbury's first anthology and his first book). Bradbury wrote an 80 page screenplay and sent it to Gene Kelly. Gene Kelly loved the screenplay and wanted to both produce and direct it. Unfortunately, he had difficulty getting backing for the project. Gene Kelly sent the script back to Bradbury. Bradbury then re-wrote the screenplay as a novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which was published in 1962. Gene Kelly was then responsible for what many consider Ray Bradbury's greatest work!

Saturday, 25 December 2004

Yuletide Ends Too Soon

I have complained in this blog about merchants starting Christmas too soon. Now I am going to complain about it ending too soon. It seems to me that the American holiday season is a bit askew. It begins with Thanksgiving and, for all extents and purposes, now ends with Christmas Day. That does not seem right to me.

At least in much of Northern Europe and North America, the holiday season owes much to the pre-Christian, Germanic festival of Yule. Yule may well be one of the earliest Germanic holidays ever mentioned. Latin writer Procopius refers to a festival to celebrate the return of the sun held by the people of Thule (presumably Scandinava) on the first day of winter. Bede refers to the festival of Geol (modern English Yule) in his De Temporum Ratione. In Icelandic sources we are told that Yule lasted 12 days.

I don't know if Christianity followed the Germanic peoples' celebration of Yule in making the celebration of Christmas last twelve days, but properly it lasts twelve days nonetheless. Traditonally, Christmas began on the evening of December 24 (Chritmas Eve) and lasted until Twelfth Day (January 6). I am not quite sure when people stopped celebrating Christmas as a twelve day festival. I seem to remember references to Twelfth Night and the Twelve Days of Christmas in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. That means the Twelve Days of Christmas were still being celebrated as late as the mid-19th century, at least in England.

To a degree, I think remnants of the twelve day celebration persisted here in the United States. I know when I was growing up that we would not take down our Yule tree or our lights until January 1. The same held true for nearly everyone in Randolph County. Oh, one would not hear any Christmas carols after December 25, except in the odd commercial. And one would not see any holiday themed movies on television with a few rare exceptions. But the trappings of the Yuletide remained until New Year's Day.

In the few decades I have been alive, this seems to have changed. I have noticed that many people take down their lights and their trees the day after Christmas. This leads me to believe that many feel the holiays are over with December 26. Indeed, this may be well be the case nationwide. I just heard a commercial on television a while ago stating, "The holidays may be over..." Hello?! It's not even New Year's Day yet!

Granted I am biased, but I would like to see the Yuletide celebrated for twelve days throughout American society. Rather than being the end of the celebration, December 25 would be the beginning (or middle, depending on one's preferences). New Year's would simply be an extension of the holidays. Unfortunately, I doubt that this is going to come about any time soon.

Friday, 24 December 2004

Yuletide Songs

Today is Christmas Eve. Since I am not Christian, that doesn't really hold too much significance for me. But December 24 is a very significant date to me in another way, it is the birthday of a lovely young lady very dear to my heart. We usually get to chat on her birthday, but today being what it is, she has been tied up with family. I am hoping we will get talk later tonight, otherwise I am going to be pretty blue. We've never missed chatting on her birthday.

Anyhow, while I don't celebrate Christmas, I do have a keen appreciation for Yuletide songs. Obviously the more religious songs hold little meaning for me, although I can appreciate the artistry that went into the writing of "Silent Night" or "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." But I do love many of the more secular Yuletide carols. Like many people I have a warm spot in my heart for the standards. I have loved "White Christmas" ever since I was child, particularly the original Bing Crosby version. I remember that my mom would call me into the room any time it was playing. I also love "Silver Bells" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"--it is perhaps notable that all three songs come from movies. I don't think "The Christmas Song" was from a motion picture, but I love it all the same.

Of course, I also have a weakness for the more light hearted carols, those about the jolly old elf himself. "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Up on the Rooftop," "Here Comes Santa Claus," I love all of them. I also love "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers," I suppose because of the fancy of toys come to life.

As much as I like many of the older songs, I particularly like the songs of the rock 'n' roll era. Everyone has heard ""Jingle Bell Rock" and "Rocking Around the Christmas Tree," but Yuletide rock goes much deeper than that. I don't know what the first holiday rock song was, but Chuck Berry's "Run, Run Rudolph" is one of the best. Performed in the usual Chuck Berry style, it is a straight rock song that just happens to be about Santa and his reindeer. I also love Tom Petty's "Christmas All Over Again"--it just seems to capture the season. Of course, to me there are two Yuletide songs that stand above the rest. The first is "Happy Christmas" (War is Over) by John Lennon. To me it is perhaps the only song that captures the idea of Yuletide as a time of reflection, which it is for many. It also captures the joy of the season in a way that many other songs don't. But as for the all time, greatest holiday song of them all, that would "Christmas" (Baby Please Come Home) by Darlene Love. It is basically a love song in which someone longs for her loved one to be with her on the holiday. The song is great because it turns the old Yuletide cliches on their head--the snow coming down and the bells ringing are not signs of joy, but reminders of what has been lost. I don't think any song can't quite match its originality or its power.

Thursday, 23 December 2004

Yuletide Movies

I'm not Christian, although I do celebrate the Yuletide. And I have always enjoyed movies associated with the season. Tonight I watched The Santa Clause again. As far as recent movies with a Yuletide theme, it is one of my favourites. It has a very original premise, not to mention one of the most striking images of the North Pole on screen. Of course, The Santa Clause seems to be the exception to the rule. Most Yuletide movies released these days seem to fall far short of the mark. One need look no further than the wretched 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street to see how bad recent holiday movies can be.

Of holiday movies, I think it is safe to say that they don't make them like they used to. In fact, I would say that the Golden Age of Yuletide films took place in the mid to late Forties. It is amazing how many of the holiday classics were released in this era: Holiday Inn (1942), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop's Wife (1947), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and Holiday Affair (1949). I suppose that with World War II, people needed more Yuletide cheer than they do now.

Of course, the holiday classic is It's a Wonderful Life. Contrary to popular belief, the movie was not a total flop at the box office, although it was far from a smash hit. It was even nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year. Regardless, it did not become the monolithic Yuletide classic until a clerical error allowed the film to fall into public domain. When that happened, television stations across the United States were able to show the movie as often as they liked during the holiday season. As a result a lot of people discovered just what a wonderful movie it is. As I see it, It's a Wonderful Life is essentially a film about spiritual death and rebirth. Businessman George Bailey loses his will to live, only to be shown how much impact he has really had on people's lives. As a result he regains his will to live again. It is one of the most inspiring films ever made and, no doubt, Frank Capra's best film.

Miracle on 34th Street is nearly tied with It's a Wonderful Life when it comes to holiday classics. The movie has a deceivingly simple premise--a man who may or may not be Kriss Kringle visits New York and winds up working as Santa Claus at Macys. It is through this premise that the film lampoons the commercialisation of the holidays, corporate greed, and pop psychology, while at the same time addressing the importance of belief, faith, and charity. It is also one of the most inspiring movies of all time and remains a classic to this day. It has been remade many times, but none of the remakes (especially the dreadful 1994 version) have ever matched it, let alone surpassed it.

Beyond these two movies, it is debateable as to what the third greatest holiday film of all time may be. After all, there are several worthy candidates. One is a contemporary of both It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street--The Bishop's Wife. The Bishop's Wife features David Niven as a bishop who has lost his way while seeking to build a new cathedral. Into his life comes an angel, played by Cary Grant, who not only saves Niven's marriage, but restores his faith. The Bishop's Wife is also an inspiring movie, although a bit more blatantly Christian in tone than either It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street. The performances by its three leads (David Niven, Cary Grant, and Loretta Young) are priceless.

Another great holiday movie is the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, also known as Scrooge. Featuring Alastair Sim as Ebeneezer Scrooge, it is the quintesential version of Charles Dickens' novel. The film features an accurate recreation of Victorian London, stellar performances (Sim as Scrooge, Michael Dolan as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and so on), and a script that is largely faithful to Dicken's work.

Of course, another great film is the musical version of the tale, Scrooge from 1970. Albert Finney makes an excellent Scrooge, alternately cranky, pitiable, and tragic. The rest of the cast is great as well--the late Sir Alec Guiness as Marley's Ghost, Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Michael Medwin as Fred. The score by Leslie Bricusse is one of the best of any musical from the late Sixties or early Seventies, "Thank You Very Much" and "Happiness" are among the best songs.

When it comes to musicals, perhaps the holiday musical is Holiday Inn. The movie focuses on an inn of the same name that is open only on holidays. Because of this, the plot doesn't simply focus on the Yuletide, but virtually every holiday on the calendar. Its primary attraction is the Irving Berlin score, performed by Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Virginia Dale, and Marjorie Reynolds. The movie may well be best known for the great, classic, Yuletide song "White Christmas," although it includes other great songs as well--"Happy Holiday," "You're Easy to Dance With," and "Easter Parade."

Like most musicals of its era, Holiday Inn was a romance, but to me the romantic movie for the season is The Apartment. I have already discussed it here, so I won't discuss it further. But I will discuss another Yuletide romance, A Holiday Affair. The movie features the beautiful Janet Leigh as widow Connie Ennis, into whose life enters free spirit Steve Mason (Robert Mitchum). Naturally, Mason complicates Connie's life, not to mention brings up some uncomfortable feelings. The movie is remarkable in its even handed approach to the characters--neither of the rivals for Connie's hand, Mason and Carl Davis (Wendell Corey), are portrayed in a bad light. It is also very funny, with a hilarious scene with Harry Morgan (later of M*A*S*H) as a police captain. Although not as well known as many holiday classics, it is a must see.

Of course, when it comes to comedy, A Christmas Story is the Yuletide movie. Its premise is simple. Ralphie wants the Daisy Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action BB Gun for Christmas and tries to figure out how to convince his parents to get it. The film captures the flavour of childhood in the pre-World War II era quite nicely, with several hilarious setpieces (among them, the famous scene of Flick getting his tongue stuck to a pole and a somewhat frightening trip to see Santa). It flopped at the box office when first released, but throughout the years it has grown in popualarity until it nearly matches It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street in its status as a holiday classic.

These are only a few of the holiday films I consider truly great. There are many others, among them Meet Me in St. Louis (from which "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" came), The Lemon Drop Kid (in which "Silver Bells" made its debut), and The Lion in Winter (Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine fight it out through the holidays). Indeed, for me these movies are as much a part of the Yuletide as "Jingle Bells" or eggnog. It just wouldn't be Yule without them.

Sunday, 19 December 2004

Queen with Paul Rodgers?

I read a few days ago that Queen is planning their first tour in 18 years. I also read that they have replaced the late Freddie Mercury with Paul Rodgers, the former front man of both Free and Bad Company. While I am happy to see Queen on tour again, I am not so sure about Paul Rodgers replacing Freddie Mercury.

As a fan of Queen since the mid-Seventies, I have three problems with the inclusion of Paul Rodgers. The first is that I don't think Rodgers has nearly the vocal range that Mercury did. It is inconcievable to me that he could sing "Bohemian Rhapsody" or any of Mercury's other songs with any sort of finesse. It is hard for me to see how Rodgers is going to manage to fill Mercury's shoes. I just can't see it.

The other problem I can see is that Rodgers and Queen would seem to me to be at different ends of the musical spectrum. Most of the groups to which Rodgers belonged, Free and Bad Company in particular, have been AOR bands. On the other hand, Queen was a group that defied classification. Their songs ranged from the hard rock of "Tie Your Mother Down" to the folk sound of "39" to the over the top "Bohemian Rhapsody." Rodgers becoming part of Queen then seems to me something akin to Robin Zander of Cheap Trick becomeing part of Pantera.

Finally, for me Queen is and always will be John Deacon, Brian May, Freddie Mercury, and Roger Taylor. They are one of those bands like The Beatles or Led Zeppelin in which the membership simply cannot vary. In my humble opinion, replace one of the members of Queen and, well, they cease to be Queen. I would be a lot more comfortable with the situation if they were touring under the name Deacon, May, Rodgers, and Taylor or something of the sort.

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against Paul Rodgers. For his particular genre of music he is a fine singer. And I am a fan of Free, Bad Company, and The Firm (the band Rodgers formed with Jimmy Page). But I just cannot see him as a part of Queen and especially not as a replacement for Freddie Mercury. When it comes right down to it, it just doesn't seem right.

Saturday, 18 December 2004

The Assassination Bureau...Limited

A few days ago I watched The Assassination Bureau again, this time on DVD. For those of you who don't know, The Assassination Bureau was one of those offbeat comedies released in the late Sixties. It was directed by Basil Dearden, whose best known movie (besides The Assassination Bureau) here in the United States may have been 1966's Khartoum. Its screenplay was written by Michael Relph, who also Man in the Moon and The League of Gentleman. It was based on an unfinished novel by Jack London, later finished by Robert Fish.

The Assassination Bureau centres on Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed), the suave, educated head of the Assassination Bureau Limited, an organisaition of killers who will take the job of assassinating anyone--provided there is a moral basis for doing so. The plot is put in motion when reproter Miss Winter (Diana Rigg) makes an offer that Ivan cannot refuse--a contract put out on himself! Ivan concludes that this will help rid the organisation of any incompetents and as a result finds himself on the run from his own Assassination Bureau.

The Assassination Bureau is set in the Edwardian Era, at a time when women's suffrage and European politics were still hot issues of the day. The movie makes maximum use of the period, with sumptuous sets and very well done costumes. Both Reed and Rigg give fine performances. Indeed, it looks like they had a very good time making the picture. As to the plot, it is fairly well thought out, save for one thing. I still have to wonder at Miss Winter's motivation for putting a hit out on Ivan. Granted, it would be the story of the decade, but then it seems to me that it would also be illegal... Regardless, The Assassination Bureau is a good deal of fun. The film possesses that wry, British sense of humour found in many films of the decade. Some of the most hilarious scenes even venture into the area of black comedy. The action scenes are also well done, with some solid fight scenes. Indeed, the climax aboard a zeppelin is priceless.

The Assassination Bureau is hardly a well known film and I assume most people have never heard of it. Regardless, I highly recommend it. Don't simply rent the DVD, but go out and buy it. This is a movie one will want to keep.

Friday, 17 December 2004

Another Rant Against Reality TV

When did reality become T.V.
What ever happened to sitcoms, game shows...
("1985" by Bowling for Soup)

I have become convinced that this cycle towards so-called reality television is the nadir of broadcast history. The other day I was watching the news and I saw an ad for a show called The Will. The concept of The Will is that a family of potential heirs will compete for the head of the household's fortune. Yes, that's right. It is a show in which family members will backstab each other just to get included in a parent's will. Now I am aware that this probably does happen in real life (not in my family, but it probably does in others), but at least it does not get broadcast.

What is worse is that The Will is only the latest in a long line of exploitative reality shows. The Biggest Loser appeared to have a somewhat noble premise. It followed a group of people as they sought to lose weight. Unfortunately, it was executed with the typical exploitation of most reality shows. In one episode they exposed the poor folks to a mountain of treats--something like exposing a recovering achoholic to a beer truck. In another the poor folks were forced to make cupcakes or some other treat that they were expressly forbidden to eat. Now I am not overweight and I don't love eating that much, but I have been addicted to cigarettes. To expose these poor people to the very temptations they are trying to overcome is nothing short of sadistic in my opinion.

The Biggest Loser aired on NBC, which also showed The 25 Million Dollar Hoax. The premise of this show was that a young woman had to convince her family that she had won a sweepstakes--the catch is that she could share any of the "winnings" with her family. If she pulled off the hoax, the family actually won a fortune. Maybe I am just old fashioned, but I cannot accept a show that encourages someone to deceive their family. Furthermore, I cannot accept a show in which relationships are strained because of a hoax.

As if these shows were not bad enough, they are only more in a long line of reality series that emphasise sadism or immoral behaviour. Temptation Island, Are You Hot?, The Ultimate Love Test...the list just goes on and on. In fact, the number of reality shows which do not engage in sadism, encouraging people to immorality, et. al., can probably be counted on one hand.

The good thing is that it seems to me that the reality cycle might well be ending. This season will see more reality shows air than any other. Usually a cycle peaks not long before it ends. It happened with the Westerns cycle of the Fifties and the spy cycle of the Sixties. If the reality cycle goes the way of most cycles, then, we might see very few to no reality shows on the air in the 2007-2008 season. I do hope that I am right.

Sunday, 12 December 2004

The Father Christmas Letters

I just finished reading The Father Christmas Letters by J. R. R. Tolkien, not that it is a very long read. It is a collection of letters that Tolkien wrote to his children as "Father Christmas." They show, even before he wrote The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, the great creativity of the man.

As an Englishman, Tolkien reiles very little on the mythos created for Santa Claus by Clement C. Moore. There are references to reindeer and there are elves, but the Father Christmas of his letters is largely his creation. Father Christmas is the son of Grandfather Yule and is approximately 2000 years old. He is assisted in his duties by the North Polar Bear and the Snow Elves. Father Christmas' workshops and storage areas are under constant threat by Goblins. Father Christmas utilises Gnomes, sworn enemies of the Goblins, to drive them away from time to time. In his letters to his children, Tolkien created an entire cast of characters at the North Pole, from the Cave Bear to Father Christmas's secretary, the elf Ilbereth. Interestingly enough, Tengwar makes an appearance in the letters in message Ilbereth writes to the children!

The Father Christmas Letters are an absolute delight to read, showing the more whimisical side of Professor Tolkien. I would recommend it to anyone, particularly those with children, who would no dobut enjoy having the letters read to them.

Saturday, 11 December 2004

My Current Favourite Rock Groups

Like most people, my musical tastes have changed throughout my life. I have gone through my various phases. Like many I listened to New Wave and electropop in the Eighties. And I listened to alternative in the Nineties. But for much of my life there has been some consistency in my musical tastes. I have been a fan of the British Invasion since I was a baby. I have been fan of heavy metal since I first heard Black Sabbth and Led Zeppelin as a child. And I have been a fan of power pop since I first heard Cheap Trick's "Surrender" on the radio in the late Seventies (no surprise that I would be fan--power pop can be traced to the British Invasion bands...). It should be no wonder that my favourite groups of late tend to be either heavy metal or power pop.

For the past eight years among my favourite bands has been Fountains of Wayne. Founding members Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood met at Williams College in Massachusetts, where they discovered that they shared a love of the British Invasion bands. They went through a number of short lived bands and as Pinnwheel finally released an album. Unfortunately, legal difficulties prevented the album from every being released. Schlesinger joined indie-pop band Ivy, Collingwood joined Boston country band The Mercy Buckets. In 1996 they reunited and formed Fountains of Wayne. In the meantime, Schlesinger gained fame as the man who wrote the title tune for Tom Hanks' movie That Thing You Do. The song "That Thing You Do" was supposed to be the hit of the one hit Wonders, the fictional band of the movie. To Schlesinger's credit, the song sounds like something from 1964. It is also one of the most listenable songs of the late Nineties.

It is through That Thing You Do that I discovered Fountains of Wayne. With a sound reminiscent of The Beatles, The Who, and The Zombies, Fountains of Wayne were definitely power pop and thus they were right up my alley. Their sound brings to mind such British Invasion bands as The Beatles and The Zombies and such classic power pop acts as Cheap Trick and E'Nuff Z'Nuff. Beyond that, Fountains of Wayne are blessed with an incredible sense of humour that shows up in their songs. "The Valley of Malls," from Utopia Parkway, is an attack on Yuppies and their spending habits. Their bigget hit, "Stacy's Mom," from Welcome Interstate Managers, is a paen to teenage lust. Not only do the Fountains of Wayne have great riffs, they also have a great sense of humour.

Another favourite band of mine at the moment is Bowling for Soup. Like Fountains of Wayne, they are also power pop. And like Fountains of Wayne, they also have a sense of humour. Bowling for Soup was founded by Witchita Falls, Texas native Jaret Reddick in 1994 with the simple goal of creating a band that was, well, happy. They released an EP in 1997 on Denton, TX based FFROE. In 1998 they released their first full length album, Rock On Honorable Ones. They became very popular in the Dallas area. In fact, I discovered Bowling for Soup through my brother, who lives in Denton County. Their popularity in Texas led them to signing with a major label, Jive/Silvertone. It was on that label that they released Let's Do It for Johnny; however, it was their second album on Jive/Silvertone, Drunk Enough to Dance, that brought them to the attention of many. It was on that album they scored their first real hit, "Girl All the Bad Guys Want," the lament of a nerdy guy who wants a rather bad girl. They also wrote and performed the theme song to Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius. Their latest album, Hangover You Don't Deserve, features their latest and perhaps biggest hit, "1985," an unabashed bit of nostalgia for the Eighties. Bowling for Soup shows influences from both the First and Second British Invasions, New Wave, and the classic power pop bands, albeit with a joy and a sense of humour rarely seen bands today. They are among the funniest bands around.

At the other end of the power pop spectrum is The Killers. Compared to Fountains of Wayne and Bowling for Soup, The Killers are a very young band. The band was founded by Brandon Flowers and Dave Keuning with the intent of creating a guitar driven group. Founded in Las Vegas, The Killers came to the attention of London based label Lizard King. The group then journeyed to the UK where they had a small tour and "Mr. Brightside" was released in limited edition. After playing in New York City, they were signed to Island Records. It was on that label that they released their first album, Hot Fuss. Unlike Fountans of Wayne (who tend to see the world through a sardonic lens) and Bowling for Soup (who are very, very happy), The Killers' songs tend to be very, very dark. Their first single and best song, "Mr. Brightside," deals with the suspcions and jealousies in a relationshp and the paranoid fears that can arise form them. "Andy You're A Star" deals with stalkers while "Somebody Told Me" deals with confused sexuality. While both are guitar driven groups that are identifiably power pop, The Killers are about as far from Bowling for Soup as one can get (they certainly aren't happy...).

The last of my favourite groups of late is Velvet Revolver. Unlike the aforementioned groups, Velvet Revolver is heavy metal. In fact, it can be fair to say that it is more Guns 'N' Roses than Guns 'N' Rose is now. Velvet Revolver consists of three former members of that band--leader guitarist Slash, Duff McKagan and drummer Matt Sorum. The rest of the band are veteran musicians as well. Lead singer Scott Weiland was once with Stone Temple Pilots, while guitarist Dave Kushner had belonged to Wasted Youth and other bands. Not surprisingly, Velvet Revolver sounds a lot like Guns 'N' Roses--in fact they sound more like Guns 'N' Roses than GNR does now. They made their debut on The Hulk soundtrack with "Set Me Free" and cover of Pink Floyd hit "Money" for The Italian Job. From there they recorded their first album Contraband. "Do It For the Kids" is wonderfully raw--what if one crossed grunge with heavy metal? "slither" sounds like old G 'N' R to me, although I personally think Weiland is a better singer than Axl Rose ever was. The only thing I dislike about Velvet Relvolver are their power ballads, which fall a little flat for me. But then I never was a fan of power ballads...

Anyhow, those are the current groups that I really like. I suspect that all four of them will see much success in the future, even if it has taken awhile for Fountains of Wayne to see any. I know I would much rather kids today listen to these bands the current crop of rappers and teen divas...

Friday, 10 December 2004

The Apartment

Tonight I watched The Apartment again. I don't really know how many times I have watched the movie, but it is one of my favourite films of all time. I consider it Billy Wilder's greatest movie, even better than Some Like It Hot. Indeed, it is quite possibly the greatest romantic comedy of all time in my opinion.

The Apartment centres on C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a clerk at the huge Consolidated Life Insurance Company in New York City. Baxter has a unique problem. Becuase he once lent his apartment to someone who needed to change for a wedding, he now finds himself lending his apartment to his superiors for their various rendevous. This puts him in good with his bosses, but makes his life miserable otherwise. Worse yet, Baxter is carrying a torch for elevator operator Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), which leads to further complications... Wilder's inspiration for The Apartment came from a scene in Brief Encounter, in which the two lead characters have a rendevous in the apartment of an unseen character. Wilder was more fascinated by the unseen owner of the apartment than he was the two lead characters.

For me The Apartment is a nearly perfect movie. It is part comedy, part romance, and part drama. Billy Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond's script is excellent. It is a far cry from the sometimes shallow romantic comedies one sees today. The Apartment deals realstically with the compromises with principles and compromises to self respect that occur in the business world, even compromises that could cost a guy the girl he loves. Wilder and Diamond's script is both very dark and sardonic, yet at the same time it has many lighter moments. Somehow they worked out a balance between comedy and drama. As usual, the dialogue is sparkling and realistic--the sort of smart dialogue (complete with a few pop culture references) for which Wilder and Diamond were known.

As to the cast, the performances are fantastic. Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine make Baxter and Kubelik sympathetic, yet flawed. And both actors often reveal their characters' inner feelings subtlely--their facial expressions often revealing more than words could. Fred MacMurray also gives a convincing performance as the less than sympathetic Mr. Sheldrake (once you see The Apartment, you'll never be able to watch My Three Sons in quite the same way again.

I've loved The Apartment ever since I first saw it. While it is not a laugh out loud comedy (although there are some laugh out loud moments), it is one of the funniest films I have ever seen. It is also one of the most romantic films I have ever seen. There is no schmaltz, just genuine feelings in a fairly realistic film.

Sunday, 5 December 2004

Two of My Favourite Web Sites

I don't write about the web on this blog very often because there is already so much written about the web that is already on the web. I must admit, however, that I do spend a good deal of time on the web. And, of course, I do have my favourite web sites. Two of them are rather high profile.

The first is Amazon.Com. A large part of Amazon's appeal for me is that they carry books, DVDs, and so on that I wouldn't find at Sam Goodys or WalMart. I just bought the DVD of The Assassination Bureau (a fun period piece from the Sixties featuring Oliver Reed and Diana Rigg) and a copy of An Introduction to Old English Runes by R. I. Page. Neither of these would I be likely to find in Randolph County. But Amazon goes beyond being a simple bookstore where one can get books one might not find at Sam Goodys or Wally World. One of my favourite features is their Recommendations. This is a feature that is turned on when one logs into his or her Amazon account. Basically, Amazon recommends various books, DVDs, CDs, et. al. in which one might be interested based on a survey he or she takes and his or her previous purchases. Sometimes these recommdations are way off base (I loathe The Sound of Music). Other times they are right on target (the Recommendations is how I found they carried The Assassination Bureau).

Amazon also includes Customer Reviews (some more useful than others), which can give one an idea of what to expect from a particular book or DVD. For DVDs, they list the various features it has. For CDS, they have a track listing. For books, DVDs, and CDs they also include a list of works that customers also bought. (for instance, people who bought the wide screen version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone also bought the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings movies and Pirates of the Caribbean. Amazon also has "Market Place Partners," through whom one can buy used and new copies of DVDs, books, and CDS, often at a cheaper price.

Of course, the most important thing to me is that Amazon is reliable. I have always received whatever I have ordered within two weeks. And any item I have ordered, whether it is a book or a DVD, has been in good condition. I actually trust Amazon more than some shops.

Another one of my favourite web sites is the Internet Movie Data Base, better known as IMDB. As its name indicates, IMDB is a data base on the internet listing literally thousands of movies, TV shows, actors, directors, cinematographers, and virtually anyone else who has worked on a movie. With regards to movies, they have detailed information on each film listed, including its release dates, box office, cast, and so on. With regards to actors, directors, and others who have worked on films, it includes a complete filmography and usually a biography and trivia as well.

The fact is that I don't think I have seen any source of information on films and TV shows as IMDB. Even the most obscure films are listed. And I have learned numerous bits of trivia regarding various actors and directors from IMDB. It is one of the most useful, if not the single most useful web sites for any person interested in film or television.

The fact is that of web sites I visit, I probably visit Amazon and IMDB more often than most others. I would recommend them to anyone who loves books, films, or TV shows.

Saturday, 4 December 2004

Dino the Sinclair Oil Dinosaur

I don't know what was the first advertising icon to which I was exposed, but it could well have been Dino, the Sinclair Dinosaur. For those of you not familiar with Dino, he is the green apatosaurus (formerly "brontosaurus") that is prominently displayed on Sinclair Oil signs and absolutely tons of merchandise. For whatever reason, the green dinosaur struck a chord with me.

Dino grew out of an advertising campaign created by Sinclair advertising men in 1930 for Wellesville oils. The advertising men wanted to emphasise the idea that oldest crude oils make the best lubricants. They struck upon the idea of a series of advertisements, to be published in magazines and newspapers, featuring dinosaurs. The ads featured several different species of dinosaur, from the tricertops to the tyrannosaurus rex to the brontosaurus (as he was called then). For whatever reason, it was the brontosaurus that captured the public's imagination. The public soon named the critter Dino and Sinclair adopted him as their company mascot. Sinclair Oil Corporation registered the brontosaurus as a trademark in 1932. He appeared as part of the Sinclair logo, as he still does today. Sinclair gas stations, then as now, sometimes had figures of Dino on display (the station in Salisbury still does). The Sinclair exhibit at the 1934 Chicago World's Fair featured life sized replicas of dinosaurs, with Dino the star attraction.

The popularity of Sinclair's trademark resulted in the creation of tons of merchandise over the years. Among the earliest was a dinosaur stamp album distributed in 1935, with the stamps being filled once a week at gas stations. The image of Dino also adorned magnets, clocks, t-shirts, caps, and various other sundry things over the years. Naturally there were many toys. Over the years there have been plastic Dino figures, inflatable Dino toys, plush Dino toys, and many others. I remember having a tiny, green, plastic Dino as a child. Among the stranger bits of merchandise was Dino Soap--soap in the shape of the lovable apatosaurus.

Television brought a new era of advertising for Sinclair, and Dino was featured prominently in their commercials. I can remember them from a child. In fact, it may explain why I am fascinated with Sinclair's advertising mascot. I have only vague memories of the commercials, although I have read of one in which Dino curled up, died, and became crude oil...

The Sixties may well have been Dino's hey day. Sinclair had an exhibit at the 1964/1965 New York World's Fair. The exhibit once more featured a display of life sized replicas of dinosaurs. Featured were a brontosaurus (naturally), an ankylosaurus, a corythosaurus, an ornitholestes, a struthiomimus, a stegosaurus, a trachodon, triceratops, and a tyrannosaurus rex. At least three of the models were animated. Dino greeted people from the top of Sinclair's pavillion. To promote the World Fair, Dino even received a balloon in the 1963 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Dino remained a part of the parade until the late Seventies. I am not sure, but he may have been the first advertising icon to be turned into a Macy's Day balloon...

While I still see Sinclair signs all over the place and there is still a model of Dino in front of Salisbury's Sinclair station, I do not think I have seen an ad for Sinclair Oil on television for a long time. Maybe it is because I remember the commercials from the Sixties, but in some ways I do miss them. It is odd, but there is something comforting about Dino, the big green apatosaurus. I suppose it could be just that it is a fond memory from my childhood.

Friday, 3 December 2004

The 40th Anniversary of the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer Special

Wednesday CBS broadcast the 40th anniversary airing of the classic TV special Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. I imagine there are a few who think Rudolph originated with the TV special. Still more might think that he originated with the classic song written by Johnny Marks. In truth, his origins go back to a Montgomery Ward advertising campaign.

In 1939 Montgomery Ward asked copywriter Robert L. May to develop a a holiday tale that they could give away to shoppers. May came up with the idea of a reindeer named Rudolph who was an outcast because of his red nose. May's story differed considerably from both Johnny Marks's song and the Rankin Bass TV special. Rudolph was not one of Santa's reindeer and did not grow up at the north pole. Since Rudolph was not one of Santa's reindeer, he did not pick Rudolph out from his herd on that foggy Christmas Eve. Instead Santa found Rudolph when he was delivering presents at Rudolph's home. Santa thought that the nose could help him finish his deliveries in the thickening fog and adopted the reindeer.

Regardless, Rudolph the Reindeer was a hit. Unfortunately, May saw none of the money from the merchandising of the character, whose copyright belonged to Montgomery Ward. Eventually, in 1947, Montgomery Ward's president Sewell Avery gave May the copyright to his creation. May had copies of the original story printed in 1947 and 1948 saw a 9 minute theatrical cartoon based on the tale, produced by the great Max Fleischer. It was 1949 that really brought the Red Nosed Reindeer to fame. May's brother in law, songwriter Johnny Marks wrote the famous song based on the story, changing it considerably in the process. After being turned down by a number of artists, the song was finally recorded by Gene Autry in 1949. It became Autry's biggest hit and the 2nd best selling song of all time (only to "White Christmas").

This brings us to the Sixties and the TV special. In 1955 Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass founded Videocraft International, later renamed Rankin/Bass. Initially they produced television commercials, although they wanted to expand into both feature films and TV shows. In 1960 they did exactly that, producing a series of 130 stop motion cartoon shorts under the title The New Adventures of Pinocchio. They followed this in 1961 with a series of limited animation shorts entitled Tales of the Wizard of Oz, based on the works of L. Frank Baum. As it so happened, Arthur Rankin Jr. was neighbour to Johnny Marks. It was Rankin who suggested to Marks that the song could be adapted as a TV special produced using stop motion animation. Marks was reluctant, fearing that the special could endanger the success of his biggest hit song, but eventually Rankin won him over. In fact, Marks even wrote new songs for the special, including the now classic "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Silver and Gold." The script, written by Romeo Muller, drew upon Marks's song for inspiration, expanding on the story considerably.

The hour long Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer special took a year to make, with many hours devoted even to the shortest of sequences. While still in production, Rankin pitched the special to sponsor General Electric. General Electric bought time on NBC. It debuted on NBC in 1964 under the title The General Electric Fantasy Hour: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. The special was an immediate hit and aired on NBC every year until 1972, when it moved to CBS. It has been there ever since. Over the years the special has changed somewhat from when it was originally aired. In the original plot, Santa did not rescue the Misfit Toys from their island. A writing campaign convinced Rankin-Bass to change the ending and it was altered so that Santa did indeed save them. The songs "We Are Santa's Elves" and "We're a Couple of Misfits" were cut in the late Sixties, presumably to make way for commercials. They were restored in 1998.

I don't know when I first saw Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, but I must have been very young. I remember it was still on NBC and GE was still its sponsor. I am guessing it could have been as early as 1967. I do know that I watched it loyally for most all of my childhood. A few years ago I saw it again for the first time in many years and I was impressed. It was one of the few Yuletide specials that an adult can actually enjoy. It has a keen sense of humour (I swear some of the jokes would probably go over a child's head). The story still seems very good to me, supporting the individual's right not to conform to others' expectations. Rudolph gets to pull Santa's sleigh even though his nose makes him different from everyone else. And Hermey the Elf finally gets to be a dentitst instead of having to make toys like other elves. Of course, one of the special's greatest assets is the music. The songs are very good. Indeed, I cannot believe they cut We Are Santa's Elves" and "We're a Couple of Misfits" from the special, even if they wanted to make room for more commercials. Both songs are among my favourites.

At any rate, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is perhaps my favourite holiday special of all time (A Charlie Brown Christmas might come close) of all time. It seems that it must be other people's favourite as well or else it would not have lasted 40 years. I rather suspect it will last another 40 years and more.

Sunday, 28 November 2004

Christmas at Thanksgiving?

This was Thankgiving weekend, yet the television screen was filled with Christmas movies. NBC aired It's a Wonderful Life the first time this year Saturday and tonight they aired a musical version of A Christmas Carol. On Thanksgiving day itself, TNT showed A Christmas Story. That night ABC showed How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The Hallmark Channel showed nothing but Yuletide films this weekend.

Now don't get me wrong. I love Yuletide movies. Both It's a Wondeful Life and the original Miracle on 34th Street are among my favourite movies. And I have always loved both A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sim as old Ebeneezer and the musical Scrooge. But it seems to me that Thanksgiving weekend is a bit too early for such movies. What is worse is that it seems to me that the various TV outlets show all these holiday movies at Thanksgiving and, then, when the Yuletide itself is upong us, they stop showing them. Oh, one can still expect NBC to show It's a Wonderful Life and TNT to show A Christmas Story. And, of course, TCM will show Christmas movies up through December 25. But those many other TV outlets will simply stop showing Yuletide movies entirely. It seems to me that they are showing the movies at the wrong time.

What is worse to me is that in showing Yuletide movies on the weekend of Thanksgiving, it effectively denies Thanksgiving a character of its own. It seems to me that Thanksgiving is becoming more and more simply an extension of the Yuletide. If it contnues, I rather suspect people will forget about the autumn imagery previously associated with the holiday (corn stalks, pumpkins, fallen leaves) and opt for Yule decorations instead. Further, I have to wonder that Thanksgiving will become less about giving thanks. than it will preparing for Christmas (especially buying presents).

I suppose a lot of this is due to retailers. Sometime in the late 19th century, America's retailers (particularly the big department stores) decided that the day after Thanksgiving marked the beginning of the Chritsmas shopping season. Indeed, the Macy's Thankgiving Day Parade was originally named the Macy's Christmas Parade. And, with the exception of the year that he led the parade, the end of the parade has always marked the arrival of Santa Claus. It seems to me that in modern American society the Chritsmas shopping season has become conflated with the Christmas season itself. Is it any wonder that Americans don't celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas (the evening of December 24 to the night of January 6) any more?

Anyhow, I suppose that there is little I can do about it, but I wish the various TV outlets would hold off on the Yuletide cheer until at least December 1. Let Thanksgiving be celebrated as Thanksgiving and not as an extension of Christmas. And let the Yuletide remain merry and bright by keeping it in its proper time.

Friday, 26 November 2004

British Imports

Today I read that the British Broadcast magazine selected the best and worst American imports to British television. It got me to thinking how much of my time has been spent watching British TV shows imported to America. British television has a reputation for being of a higher quality than American television here in the States, although I am not absolutely sure that is true. I am sure that they have had their share of bad shows--it's just unlike the U. S. they don't insist on sending them abroad...

Anyhow, I am fairly certain that the first British show I ever saw was The Avengers. I can remember watching it at a very young age. The show centred on John Steed (Patrick Macnee), a spy in service of the British government, and his various partners over the years. When the show debuted in the United States, Steed's current partner was Emma Peel (played by Diana Rigg). I was captivated by Emma Peel, as well as the various strange adventures Steed and Mrs. Peel had. It is one of my fondest childhood memories and still one of my favourite shows.

The Avengers was just one of many British TV shows imported to America in the Sixties. Two of my other favourites were Danger Man (renamed Secret Agent here in the States) and The Prisoner. Danger Man featured Patrick McGoohan as secret agent John Drake, a decidedly different sort of spy. He never carried a gun. He never kissed the girl. And he sometimes wondered about the morality of his profession. The Prisoner also featured Patrick McGoohan, this time as a spy who is abducted and taken to a mysterious place known only as the Village. There his name was taken away and he was give a number--Number Six. The series concerned Number Six's various efforts to escape the Village and foil the plans of his captors. There has always been some debate as to whether Number Six is actually John Drake. I always thought that he was.

With the end of the Sixties the American networks stopped importing British shows. From that time forward British shows only appeared on PBS or local stations. And, for the most part, they were comedies. In fact, Monty Python's Flying Circus may have been one of the earliest British shows I saw. It was also perhaps the funniest sketch comedy show ever made. Indeed, it has had a lasting impact on American pop culture--from "The Lumberjack Song" to the use of the word "spam" for junk email (taken from a skit in which Vikings drown everything out by singing a song about spam...).

The other huge British comedy to come to America in the Seventies was Are You Being Served?. The series centred on the employess of the Ladies' Intimate Apparel and the Gentlemen's Ready-Made departments of Grace Brothers department store. It debuted in 1972 and ran for a total of ten seasons (an amazing run for any show). It is still being rerun to this day. I am guessing that it may well have been the most successful British show of all time. I know KETC reran it for years and I watched it faithfully.

Of my two other favourite British comedies (or Britcoms, as they are called), one is a period piece and one is a sci-fi show. Black Adder followed the various members of that family, through the days of Richard II to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I to the Regnecy period to World War I. In each Black Adder, the protagonist was Edmund Blackadder, a generally conniving and cowardly fellow, who was aided by his none to bright partner Baldrick. I always thought Black Adder was absolutely hilarious, with some very good pokes at history (and rewriting it).

The sci-fi show of which I spoke is Red Dwarf. Red Dwarf centred on Dave Lister, the last human alive. He was an employee aboard the mining vessel Red Dwarf before waking from stasis to learn the rest of the crew was dead and he had been in stasis for three million years. His only companions are Cat, a felinoid being who evolved from the cat he had brought onboard centuries ago, a hologram of his wicked roommate Rimmer, and the android Kryten. Red Dwarf is enjoyable on two levels. First, it can be enjoyed as one of the most outrageously funny comedies ever made. Second, it is actually quite good as science fiction, with some very original episodes. The series is still very popular on both sides of the Atlantic. It ran eight seasons and there is supposed to be a Red Dwarf movie at some point.

There are many more Britcoms that I have enjoyed. Keeping Up Appearances, Coupling (forget that horrible American version ever happened...), The Office. In some ways I think the British may just be better at comedy than we Americans. At any rate, I have always loved British TV shows. I just wish they would import more to the States. It would sure beat more episodes of some reality show...

Thursday, 25 November 2004

Thanksgiving

Well, today is Thansgiving. I have fond memories of the holiday from childhood. As a kid Thanksgiving meant two things to me. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and a turkey dinner. I loved both the parade and the turkey.

I don't know what my earliest memory of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is. I have a vague memory of being a very young child watching the parade and seeing the debut of the new Superman balloon. It was 1967 when the second Superman balloon debuted, which means my earliest memory of the parade is from when I was four years old. Regardless, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was a well established holiday tradition by then. And I supsect watching it had been a tradition since my family first got a TV set (apparently well before I was born).

The first Macy's Parade was held in 1924. Strangely enough, it was originally called "Macy's Christmas Day Parade," even though it took place on Thanksgiving. By 1927 it was renamed "the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade." During the 1925 and 1926 parades they actually had animals such as elephants and lions and tigers and bears (oh my!). It was felt that the animals frightened little children, however, so that in 1927 they were replaced with the giant helium balloons. Even from the beginning balloons were based on cartoon characters, with Felix the Cat being the first. The other ballons in that first parade were included Felix the Cat, The Dragon, The Elephant and Toy Soldier. Originally the balloons were released after the parade, but this practice was stopped in 1933. The parade was cancelled in 1942, 1943, and 1944 due to World War II, something I still find hard to believe ("They didn't have a parade?!"). The balloons were chopped up and donated to the government to help in the war effort (rubber was in high demand). This means that the original Superman balloon and the original Uncle Sam balloon are pretty much lost to us.

Over the years there have been a number of popular balloons. Mickey Mouse received his first balloon in 1934. The first Superman balloon debuted in 1939 as the first to be based on a superhero and a comic book character. The Golden Age for Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons may well have been from the Fifties into the Seventies. Balloons in the likenesses of Mighty Mouse (1956-1972), Smokey Bear, Popeye (1957-1969), Bullwinkle (1961-1983), Underdog (1965-1984), and Snoopy (1968-1985) all made their debut during this period. I have to admit that I felt a bit disappointed when the older cartoon character balloons were phased out in the Eighties. Indeed, no balloon except the 3rd Superman balloon, Spider-Man, Bart Simpson, and Sponge Bob have appealed to me as much as the old balloons.

Of course, the balloons have not always had it easy. Thanksgiving in New York in 1957 was particularly rainy. As a result water collected in the brand new Popeye balloon's hat and it dump it directly on the spectators below. In 1975 the Undedog balloon collided with a light pole. It seems to me that such incidents were rare until the Nineties when it seemed as if each year brought more reports of balloon accidents. In 1993 a balloon of Sonic the Hedgehog made a less than impresive debut when he knocked over a lamppost. That same year a balloon based on the character Rex from We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story split in two when it hit another lamppost. In 1997 the Cat in the Hat balloon actually knocked a lamppost into a crowd of spectators and injured a woman. As a result, the size of the balloons were restricted to 70 feet high, 78 feet long, and 40 feet wide. The required number of balloon handlers was also increased and Macy's increased the amount of training they received.

I have no idea why there were more balloon disasters in the Nineties than any other year. I have read that they reduced the number of balloon handlers in the Nineties from what they had been earlier. At any rate, it actually seems to me that the quality of the balloons have actually improved. Sponge Bob Squarepants, Charlie Brown, and Uncle Sam are more appealing than most of the characters in the Nineties parades (although they still have that damn Barney balloon...).

Over the years a number of celebrities have appeared in the parade. As early as the Thirties, people like Benny Goodman and Harpo Marx made appearances. In the Fifties Jackie Gleason and Jimmy Durante appeared. To tell the truth, I never paid much attention to the celebrities as a child and I still don't to this day. An exception is the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. Ever since I was a child I would eagerly await their appearance. I guess even when I was young I could appreciate cheesecake... Apparently, I'm not the only one. I seem to remember that when the Rockettes did their "The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" (in which the girls dress in soldier outfits--complete with pants) for the parade, they got complaints!


Of course, the mainstay of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade are floats. I really don't have a very good memory for them myself. I remember the mainstays--the Pilgrims and the turkey that flaps it wings. Other than that, I can only remember one float from a Macy's Day Parade. That was the Lord of the Rings float promoting the release of Ralph Bakshi's animated adaptation of the classic from the 1978 parade.

As long as I have been alive, NBC has broadcast the parade. They started doing so all the way back in 1948. As hard as it is to believe, there were two years that it wasn't broadcast on NBC. In 1953 and 1954, CBS aired the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. It returned to NBC in 1955. When I was very young Lorne Greene (Ben Cartwright from Bonanza) and Betty White hosted the parade. They hosted it from 1963 (the year that I was born) to 1972. To tell the truth, to me it still feels like they should be hosting the parade!

Beyond the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, my memories of Thanksgiving are primarily of Thanksgiving dinner. We always had a fairly good sized turkey, with plenty of mashed potatos, pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, sweet potatos, and many other foods. Mom always had to get up early to have it all ready by noon, which is when we had dinner. When my brother and I were older, we would actually take care of the turkey (they are one of the few things I can actually cook).

As to the rest of the day, it varied as to what we did. When I was really young, the networks and local stations would sometimes show various Thanksgiving oriented specials of the afternoon. One time NBC actually showed a failed pilot, The Hereafter, about a group of old men who sell their souls for youth and rock stardom. I don't really know if it was actually any good, although I liked it as a child. NBC also showed Start the Revolution Without Me one Thanksgiving afternoon. It was the first time I ever saw the movie. I still think it is one of the funniest movies that I have ever seen (I have it on VHS and plan to get it on DVD some day). Curiously, when I was a child, one never saw Yuletide movies and specials on Thanksgiving. Today it seems that there is all that is on. Personally, I liked it better when they didn't show Christmas movies and specials on Thanksgiving--the holiday should have its own character and not be an extension of the Yuletide. Anyhow, we didn't spend all our time watching TV on the holiday. Often my brother and I would go for a walk or simply play of a Thanksgiving afternoon.

I know a lot of people think of football where Thansgiving is concerned. I am not one of them. I like football and I do watch the occasional Rams game, but my parents were not huge sports fans. For that reason, I never have watched football on Thanksgiving. The two just don't go hand in hand to me.

At any rate, I do have very fond memories of Thanksgiving. As much as I loved the Macy's Parade, I ultimately think the time spent with my family was most important. And it was a time to give thanks. I know that I am thankful this year for my family, my friends, and a certain young lady (whom I won't name here). I just hope that others have much to be thankful for as I have.

Sunday, 21 November 2004

Terry Melcher R.I.P.

Terry Melcher died yesterday at age 62 after a fight with melanoma. Melcher was a songwriter and a record producer. He was also the son of Doris Day.

Melcher started singing on his own in the early Sixties. Eventually he formed the a partnership with songwriter and future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston. The two formed the group The Rip Chords,who had a major hit with "Hey Little Cobra." The two also recorded as Bruce and Terry. They had two very minor hits with the songs "Custom Machine" and "Summer Means Fun."

In the mid-Sixties Melcher became a record producer for Columbia Records. Melcher produced the first two albums of The Byrds, inluding their hits "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "Mr. Tambourine Man." He would later produce Ballad of Easy Rider, (Untitled), and Byrdmaniax for the band. Melcher was also the original producer of Paul Revere and the Raiders at Columbia. Melcher produced the band's singles and albums well from 1964 to 1967.

As a songwriter, Melcher co-wrote songs with Bobby Darin ("My Mom") and Mark Lindsay of the Raiders ("Just Like Me" and "Ups and Downs"). He also wrote "Him or Me (What's Gonna Be)" for the Raiders and "Kokomo" for the Beach Boys. Melcher also performed on The Beach Boys album Pet Sounds. Melcher made a bit of a comeback in 1974 with a solo album. He was executive producer on his mother's series, The Doris Day Show and helped run her charities.

I have always been a huge fan of both The Byrds and Paul Revere and the Raiders. In fact, I would have to say that Paul Revere and the Raiders are one of my favourite bands of all time. As the man who produced the Raiders' early albums and wrote some of their songs, Melcher had a small role in givng shape to my childhood. I have to say, then, that I am saddened by his passing. It is a shame that he had to pass away fairly young.

Saturday, 20 November 2004

The B Westerns of John Wayne

First published in The Old Cowboy Picture Show, July 2001, vol. 5 no. 7

If one were to ask a random person on the street to name a star of Western movies, chances are very good that the reply would be "John Wayne." Even today, twenty one years after his death, John Wayne not only remains one of America's favorite Western stars, but one of its favorite stars, period.

If John Wayne continues to be considered one of America's foremost cowboy stars, it is not without good reason. He first came to national prominence with Stagecoach (1939). With Red River (1948) he became a veritable superstar. Afterwards John Wayne became so identified with the Western that it is hard to conceive him doing anything else. While there can be little doubt that the classic films that John Wayne made with such directors as John Ford and Howard Hawks were largely responsible for his success as a movie star, it is also safe to say that the foundations were laid in a most unlikely place--Western B movies of the 1930s.

Throughout the Thirties John Wayne made a number of B Westerns for various studios, the best known perhaps being those he made for Monogram and Republic. In the majority of these pictures John Wayne received top billing (both as a lone hero and as one of the Three Mesquiteers). In fact, John Wayne was so successful as a cowboy star that he ranked in the top ten of the Motion Picture Herald's poll of favorite B Western stars for three of the years he spent in the field. It is perhaps a measure of his success as a B Western star that over forty of the sixty five movies he made in the Thirties were horse operas.

Despite John Wayne's success in the genre there is very little in his childhood that would have proved him as a future Western star, let alone the Western star. John Wayne was born to pharmacist Clyde Morrison and his wife Molly on May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa (Madison County). While John Wayne's birth name is often give as "Marion Mitchell Morrison" and sometimes "Marion Michael Morrison," his birth certificate gives his name as "Marion Robert Morrison." And while various authors conflict over John Wayne's middle name, there was apparently no conflict in his own mind. When Wayne requested a copy of his birth certificate from the Madison County courthouse, he signed a letter confirming his name was "Marion Robert Morrison." "Marion Robert Morrison" is also the name on his death certificate as well.

Marion Robert Morrison spent little time in Winterset. The economic realities of life in Iowa at the time forced the Morrisons to move several times in the first seven years of young Marion's life. In 1914 they left Iowa entirely and headed to California. There in an arid basin called Antelope Valley, Clyde Morrison tried farming. To a large degree Antelope Valley was still "the Old West." The area still depended on gas for lighting and outhouses were more common than indoor plumbing. Antelope Valley even looked like the Old West--it was a dusty area filled with wild game.

Oddly enough, the man who would later become America's foremost Western star initially hated the West. Young Marion disliked the gas lighting in his family's house and hated the rattlesnakes that haunted the outdoors. Even his first experience with a horse was a less than pleasant memory. He had to ride to school in the nearby town of Lancaster on a horse afflicted with a disease that kept it rail thin.

Fortunately the Morrisons did not remain in Antelope Valley long. In 1916 they moved to Glendale where Marion Morrison would have fonder memories of the West. It was there that he would first encounter the Western movies of Harry Carey Sr. Carey's performances would have a lasting impact on Morrison---of the cowboy stars of the early silent era, Marion Morrison found Harry Carey Sr. to be the only one who was totally convincing. It should come as no surprise that John Wayne patterned many of his own mannerisms after those of Harry Carey Sr. The cinema was not the only place young Morrison was exposed to the "Old West." A voracious reader, among Marion Morrison's favorite books were numbered the Westerns of Zane Grey.

It was also in Glendale that Marion Morrison befriended Bob and Bill Bradbury (Bob would later become famous as cowboy star "Bob Steele"). Their father, Robert North Bradbury, directed commercial shorts and would later direct John Wayne in Monogram B Westerns.

It was also about this time that Marion Robert Morrison became "Duke." He had never particularly cared for the name "Marion," which was the source of much teasing from other boys. As a twelve year old Marion threw newspapers and often took his Airedale, Duke, along with him on his route. One of his stops was the fire station, where the fireman jokingly called the dog "Big Duke" and young Morrison "Little Duke." Morrison liked the nickname and claimed it as his own.

At Glendale Union High School young Morrison participated in several school activities. He was a member of the dramatic society and was even chosen to represent the school at the Southern California Shakespeare contest. It would be his place on the football team, however, that would lead him to acting. Duke Morrison received a football scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he was one of the team's tackles. Hollywood regularly depended upon the USC football team for extras in the popular college melodramas of the day. Duke Morrison's first appearance on film was then while he was at USC. In Brown of Havard he doubled for Francis X. Bushman as a football player.

Duke Morrison found there was money to be made both working odd jobs at the studios and as an extra in movies. In the summer of 1926 he served on his first Western, The Great K and A Train Robbery with Tom Mix. Duke Morrison was an extra on the film and a prop boy as well. It was also around this time that Morrison met and befriended director John Ford. While Morrison would play a few bit parts in Ford's films of the time, it would be years before Ford would use Wayne in any important roles in his films.

After 1927 Morrison appeared in various films as an extra until he finally received a billing in Words and Music in 1929 (where he was billed as "Duke Morrison"). What could have been his big break came in 1930 when director Raoul Walsh cast him in the lead role of his Western epic The Big Trail. Raoul Walsh was already a bit of a legend in Hollywood. In 1929 he directed the first "Cisco Kid" movie, In Old Arizona, which was also the first Western with sound. Walsh taught Morrison how to ride (although it was with an "Indian slouch") and how to move convincingly. Walsh also gave Duke Morrison a new name--"John Wayne."

Unfortunately for the newly named John Wayne, The Big Trail would fail at the box office. Walsh's Western epic was an early example of a movie shot for wide screens on a 70 mm cameras. Concurrently it was also shot on 35 mm camera for the standard movie screen of the time. Naturally the 35 mm version lost a good deal of the picture and as a result much of The Big Trail's visual impact. This worked against The Big Trail at the box office as the vast majority of theatres showed the 35 mm version. After all, the Depression was well under way. Most theatres had only recently converted to sound. and, with little money to spare, could not afford the technology needed to show 70 mm films. With The Big Trail'sfailure at the box office it would be years before John Wayne would have a major role in a major motion picture.

In 1931, following the failure of The Big Trail, John Wayne signed a five year contract with Columbia Pictures. It was here that John Wayne appeared in his first B Westerns, although in the beginning it appears that he was intended for other things. John Wayne's first film was Men Are Like That (also known as Arizona), an adventure melodrama with Wayne as an army lieutenant and Laura La Plante as his former girl friend. It would be the casting of Wayne and La Plante that would inadvertently lead to Wayne's roles in Columbia B Westerns according to one apocryphal story. Supposedly Harry Cohn, the notorious head of Columbia Pictures, had more than a passing interest in La Plante. When rumors that Wayne and La Plante were having an affair reached Cohn, the studio head resolved to "punish" the young actor. Perhaps significantly, John Wayne's next role was that of a corpse in The Deceiver (1931).

Whether or not the story of a jealous Harry Cohn is true, John Wayne soon found himself playing secondary and even tertiary roles in Columbia oaters. Range Feud (1931) marked John Wayne's first appearance in a B Western. He received second billing to Buck Jones, playing one of Buck's friends who is falsely accused of murder. While Wayne's role in Range Feud was substantial and it was a fairly good B Western, it was not the start of a promising B Western career at Columbia. The Duke received only fourth billing in the Tim McCoy Western Texas Cyclone (1932), a movie which also marked Walter Brennan's first appearance on film. In Two Fisted Law (1932), another Tim McCoy Western, Wayne was reduced to little more than an extra, even though he received credit for his role.

Concurrent with and subsequent to John Wayne's work at Columbia, he made three serials at Mascot and a film at Universal. It was while working on the serials at Mascot that Wayne would meet Yakima Cannutt, the stuntman extraordinaire who would have a huge impact on Duke's future career. After Columbia did not renew his contract in 1932, it was not long before John Wayne signed with Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers had decided that it could make cheap, cost effective B Westerns by recycling clips from old, silent Westerns starring Ken Maynard. Maynard was perhaps the best trick rider in Western films of the silent era and his horse, Tarzan, was considered to be the best in the business. All Warner Brothers needed was a tall, handsome actor to substitute for Maynard and a magnificent horse to substitute for Tarzan. John Wayne provided the actor. Duke "the Devil Horse" provided the horse.

In all John Wayne made six B Westerns at Warner Brothers. Some were outright remakes of Ken Maynard films, though all of them used footage from Maynard's silent movies. In most of the films John Wayne played a character whose name was "John" and in each one Duke "the Devil Horse" played a significant role. The plots varied a bit in these movies. In The Big Stampede (1932) Wayne played a deputy who must stop cattle rustlers. In Haunted Gold (1932) John Wayne's character found himself in a ghost town with a real ghost! In Man from Monterey (1933) Wayne played a hero who must save a family ranch from land grabbers. Over all John Wayne's Warner Brothers B Westerns were enjoyable fare, with light humor and sometimes interesting plot twists.

Following his stint with Warner Brothers John Wayne signed a contract with Monogram. There he would make sixteen B Westerns for the studio's Lone Star label. Monogram could probably best be described as the bargain basement of Poverty Row and they made movies on a very thin shoestring. Often their films were regarded as little more than junk, although there were exceptions. Many of the series which Monogram produced still attract viewers today--everything from the Bowery Boys to Charlie Chan. Similarly, they produced a number of enjoyable B Westerns featuring such stars as Tex Ritter, Bob Steele, Buck Jones, and Johnny Mack Brown, among others. John Wayne's Lone Star Westerns were among these exceptions.

That John Wayne's B Westerns at Monogram were better than the studio's average product can largely be attributed to the team that usually worked on them. Robert North Bradbury, father of Bill and Bob (Steele) Bradbury, directed many of the pictures. Bradbury had long been in the business and his experience can be seen in his Monogram B Westerns. The camera man on most of the films was Archie Stout. Stout had shot Cecil B. DeMille's Ten Commandments (1923). Later he would win an Academy Award for his work on The Quiet Man (1952). But in the depths of the Depression he was forced to work on B movies. Despite the low budgets of the films, Stout's talent could still be seen on the screen. Finally there was Yakima Cannutt. Cannutt was a real life cowboy and a rodeo champion. By the time of John Wayne's films with Monogram, Cannutt was already well on his way to becoming the most famous stuntman of all time. He would revolutionize stunt work, instituting many of the safety procedures still observed today and inventing many devices which made stunts safer while keeping them convincing. As might be expected, Cannutt co-ordinated the action sequences on Wayne's Monogram Westerns.

Cannutt would also join Harry Carey Sr., Raoul Walsh, and Zane Grey as one of the man who had an impact on John Wayne as a Western star. Cannutt taught Wayne how to ride without the "Indian slouch" he had picked up from Raoul Walsh. Cannutt also taught Wayne how to stage a fight and perform other stunts convincingly. Indeed, Duke observed how Cannutt walked and how Cannutt talked. Wayne would even try to deliver his lines in the same low, slow, strong way Cannutt actually talked.

As shocking as it might seem today, Monogram initially wanted to use John Wayne as a "singin' cowboy" in a series of films featuring him as "Singin' Sandy Saunders." It should come as no surprise that the idea was probably doomed from the start. Wayne had always disliked the idea of singin' cowboys as it seemed to him to be unrealistic--cowboys in the Old West simply did not ride from town to town singing songs. This may have been the reason Wayne looks so uncomfortable in the scenes in which he had to "sing" in Riders of Destiny (1933), the only Singin' Sandy movie made. As it was John Wayne could not sing well and so his voice had to be dubbed for the scenes in which he sung. As to who dubbed Wayne's singing voice in Riders of Destiny, this has been a source of some controversy. Some claim that it was Robert North Bradbury's son and Bob Steele's brother Bill Bradbury. Others believe it was bandleader Smith Ballew. Still others think that it was Jack Kirk. The one thing on which everyone agrees is that Wayne did not do his own singing.

Despite the "singin' cowboy" concept, Riders of Destiny was a promising start for Wayne's Monogram career. While the movie is somewhat cliched and predictable, it featured some impressive camera work on Stout's part and some fine direction on Bradbury's part. For the most part Riders of Destiny is typical of Wayne's Monogram Westerns--entertaining if somewhat predictable movies with occasional touches of brilliance. Sometimes the pictures even featured inventive twists on the typical Western plot. For instance, The Dawn Rider sets up a love triangle between the hero, his best friend, and girl whose brother killed the hero's father! Wayne's Monogram Westerns also featured some interesting casting at times. In The Star Packer (1934) George "Gabby" Hayes (who appears in most of the movies) took a rare turn as a villain. The Trail Beyond (1934) featured both Noah Beery Sr. and Noah Beery Jr.

The Lone Star Westerns John Wayne made at Monogram also established Duke's screen persona so familiar to viewers today. John Wayne already moved with a rolling walk, already made the small but powerful gestures with his hands when emphasizing a point, and already spoke in that slow, strong voice. The heroes John Wayne played in the Lone Start B Westerns differed little from the heroes he played in A Westerns made for the major studios. The typical John Wayne hero of the Monogram B Westerns was generally a loner, strong of heart and strong of body. Not one for small talk, he was the man of action who defended the innocent and meted out justice to evil doers.

And even as early as the Lone Star B Westerns it was evident that the John Wayne screen persona appealed to audiences. When the Motion Picture Herald reviewed Blue Steel (1934), Wayne's fifth film for Monogram, it commented, "Of Wayne's popularity there can be little question, and a certain quota of Western fans can be relied upon to respond to the call of the Wayne name on the theatre marquee."

Despite the success of the John Wayne B Westerns, Monogram was not faring well in the mid-Thirties. With many of their other features failing at the box office, the studio was deep in debt. In order to survive Monogram merged with Mascot and Consolidated Film Industries to form Republic Studios in 1935 (Monogram would later regain its independence, but that's another story for another time...). For John Wayne the merger changed very little as he continued ot star in B Westerns for the new studio. He still worked with Bradbury, Stout, and Cannutt. One thing that did change was the budgets of the movies, which was generally larger. Wayne's first film for Republic, Westward Ho (1935), cost $34,0000.

The scripts for the Republic B Westerns differed very little from those of the Monogram B Westerns. With the United States still in the Depression it was fashionable to use big businessmen, bankers, or lawyers as villains in films. Lawless Range (1935) used the time honored plot of ranchers being forced off their land, this time by a crooked banker. In Winds of the Wasteland (1936) John Wayne played a former Pony Express rider who must compete with a crooked stagecoach operator for a government contract. In The Lawless Nineties (1936) a big rancher attempted to stop a territory from attaining statehood. With regards to casting, of particular interest is Ann Rutherford's appearances in there of the Republic B Westerns: The Lonely Trail (1936), Lawless Nineties, and Oregon Trail (1936). These are among her earliest appearances on film.

Over all, the movies John Wayne made at Republic from 1935 to 1936 were very well received. In all likelihood "John Wayne" was already a household name in the Southwest and the Midwest where Westerns were popular. In 1936 John Wayne ranked 7th in the Motion Picture Herald's poll of the most popular B Western stars. Even The New York Times took notice of John Wayne--their lead critic of the time, Bosley Crowther, praised The Lawless Nineties.

Despite his success, John Wayne was probably eager to move onto major motion pictures and may well have wanted a change of pace. It may have been for that reason that John Wayne signed a contract with Universal in 1936. The studio planned to star Wayne in acton movies which fell somewhere between A and B movies. Unfortunately none of the films succeeded at the box office.

On the one hand Universal's series of action movies probably failed because of more expensive, upscale acton films from larger studios. After all this was the Golden Age of action movies, when The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Mutiny on the Bounty, and many other classic action films were released. Too expensive to be considered B movies and too modest be considered A movies, Universal's series of action films simply could not compete. On the other hand, it is possible that Wayne's position as a B Western star played a role in the failure of the Universal acton films. Most of the people who knew who John Wayne was knew him as a B Western star. Perhaps they simply did not want to see him as a newsreel cameraman in I Cover the War (1937) or a pearl diver in Adventure's End (1937). It could be that Wayne's fans wanted him back on the range.

If that was the case, they soon got their wish. In 1937 Wayne made a B Western at Paramount, Born to the West with Johnny Mack Brown, before returning to Republic. Republic put John Wayne to work on their Three Mequiteeers series of movies. The Three Mesquiteers series was based on a series of novels by William Colt MacDonald and featured three friends, Tuscon Smith, Stony Brooke, and Lullaby Joslin, who constantly got into and out of scrapes. Both RKO and First National had made Mesquiteers films, but Republic took the idea and ran with it. From 1936 to 1943 the studio made fifty one Three Mesquiteers movies.

For the most part Republic's Three Mesquiteers series took place in the contemporary West. And nearly every one of the films followed a definite formula. Stony, Tuscon, and Lullaby would ride into a town, become entangled in that town's problems, and would have to solve the town's problems before they could leave. Stony was the handsome leading man wo often found himself engaged in a rivalry over some girl with Tuscon, the daredevil of the group. Lullaby provided comedy relief as a ventriloquist who had a dummy named Elmer.

John Wayne replaced Robert Livingston as Stony Brooke on the series. On the one hand there was sometimes discord between Livingston and Crash Corrigan, who played Tuscon, on the set. It was hoped that by replacing Livingston with Wayne that it would bring a bit more peace to the proceedings. On the other hand, Republic wanted to star Livingston in bigger budget, A movies. Of course, to do so would mean recasting the role of Stony Brooke. As a well known cowboy star, John Wayne must have seemed like the perfect choice.

As mentioned earlier, the Three Mesquiteers followed a definite formula that varied little from film to film. In Pals of the Saddle (1938), Wayne's first Mesquiteers movie, the trio rescue a girl on a runaway horse. It turns out that the girl is really a government agent investigating the smuggling of monium (a chemical used to make poison gas) into Mexico. Naturally the guys must help her out. In Santa Fe Stampede (1938) the Three Mesquiteers must help a man falsely accused of horse theft and Stony is implicated in a murder. Of particular interest to film buffs is Overland Stage Raiders (1938). Although not one of the best Mesquiteers movies, it is the last appearance of silent screen siren Louise Brooks on film.

The Three Mesquiteers movies made a good deal of money for Republic. And they continued to be quite popular with John Wayne as Stony. In the 1938 Motion Picture Herald poll of favorite B Western stars, the Three Mesquiteers ranked 5th. Unfortunately, John Wayne did not particularly care for the Three Mesquiteers films. Wayne told writer Maurice Zolotow that the movies were "horrible monstrosities."

For Wayne, then, it was fortunate that his old friend John Ford offered him the part of the Ringo Kid in Stageecoach (1939). Stagecoach has sometimes been characterized as a "B Western," although this hardly seems the case. Stagecoach was shot on a budget of $546,200, slightly more than the average B movie of the time. More importantly, its plot was in no way typical of B or even A Westerns of the period. In many respects Stagecoach was closer to movies of the Grand Hotel genre (Ship of Fools, Rules of the Game, and, of course, Grand Hotel are examples of this genre), in which a group of strangers are thrown together for a brief period of time in which whatever pretensions they might have are exposed.

Not only was Stagecoach not a B Western, but it did not spark the rebirth of the A Western as many have supposed. The year 1939 saw the release of many A Westerns (Destry Rides Again, Jesse James, and Dodge City to name a few), some of which were in production before Stagecoach. While Stagecoach alone did not revitalize the A Western, however, it did revitalize John Wayne's career. Many of the film's reviews praised Wayne's performance. Variety said of Wayne that he showed "talent hither to only partially used." Of course, much of Stagecoach's success at the box office might have been due to John Wayne's career as a B Western star. Audiences in the West and Midwest, familiar with Wayne's many horse operas with Monogram and Republic, may have flocked to the new Western featuring their hero.

One would think that John Wayne's bosses at Republic would take advantage of his new found success by casting him in A movies. Instead they sought to capitalize on his success with four more Three Mesquiteers films. These new entries in the series differed little from previous ones. In each the Three Mesquiteers became wrapped up in the problems of a community and must solve those problems to extricate themselves. In Three Texas Steers (1939) the Mesquiteers must help a circus owner save the ranch she owns. In New Frontier (1939), Wayne's last Mesquiteers film, they become involved in a land swindle.

These new Three Mesquiteers films did differ from previous entries in one major respect--John Wayne's role was expanded to take advantage of his success from Stagecoach. No longer were the Mesquiteers equal partners; Stony Brooke was now indisputedly the main character and the other two little more than sidekicks.

Like previous entries in the series, these new Mesquiteers movies are interesting to watch for their casts. Up and coming star Carole Landis appeared in Three Texas Steers. Phyllis Isley, who would later become famous as Jennifer Jones, appeared in New Frontier.

While Wayne described the Three Mesquiteers movies as "horrible monstrosities," in their defense it must be said that they were generally harmless, enjoyable pieces of fluff. Although they depended on a definite formula, most of the Mesquiteers pictures can still be enjoyed today for the interplay between Tuscon and Stoney and the antics of Lullaby. Regardless, fans certainly enjoyed the series in 1939. In the Motion Picture Herald's poll for that year, the Three Mesquiteers ranked 6th and John Wayne alone ranked 9th.

Regardless, John Wayne still disliked the series and wanted to move onto other things. John Wayne approached Herbert Yates, head of Republic Pictures, with the idea that Wayne would become the studio's A film star. While Wayne would continue to make movies for Republic, he would also be free to make films at other studios as well. Yates agreed and so ended Wayne's days in B movies.

That is not to say that for the rest of his career Wayne would only appear in major motion pictures on the big screen. With the advent of television John Wayne would make the rare cameo on a TV show--he appeared in both The Beverly Hillbillies and Laugh In. With regards to Westerns, John Wayne introduced the first episode of Gunsmoke, which debuted on September 9, 1955. John Wayne also made a cameo on old friend Ward Bond's TV series Wagon Train. In the episode "The Colter Craven Story" (first aired November 23, 1960), Wayne appeared as General William Tecumseh Sherman. Although shot in shadow, it is recognizably John Wayne.

In all John Wayne spent nearly ten years making B Westerns. Of the over sixty five films Wayne made between 1930 and 1939, the vast majority were horse operas. While today it is often fashionable to credit Wayne's success as a cowboy star to the films of Howard Hawks and John Ford, it seems likely that much of the success was due to the B Westerns he made in the Thirties. After all, "John Wayne" was already a familiar name to fans of B Westerns in the West and Midwest by the time he made Stagecoach. It seems possible, perhaps even likely, that these fans would still follow John Wayne even as he moved to major motion pictures. The fans who enjoyed Rainbow Valley (!935) and King of the Pecos (1936) as children may well have flocked to see Red River (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) as adults. The possibility that John Wayne's success in B Westerns led to his success in A Westerns seems all the more likely when one considers that the basic "John Wayne" persona was largely developed in his B Western career. Howard Hawks' Red River and John Ford's Westerns would further shape the "John Wayne" persona and the persona would vary a bit from film to film. But the fact remains that there is not too much difference between the stern, young loner John Brant in Sagebrush Trail (1933) and the stern, older loner Tom Doniphan in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

Even if the B Westerns John Wayne made in the Thirties cannot be credited with much of the success he had in later major motion pictures, they are fine examples of the B Western genre. In particular, the Monogram horse operas show how a talented director (Bradbury) and a talented stunt co-ordinator (Cannutt) could rise above extremely low budgets and create what were largely entertaining products. Even if John Wayne had not become a Western superstar, his B Westerns would still be worth seeing.