Friday, March 24, 2017

Kong: Skull Island is a Monster of a Movie

For those with a fondness of monster movies, especially films from of the 1930s through the 1950s, Kong: Skull Island is a loving tribute to a bygone era. For a younger generation that has never watched a Godzilla or King Kong movie, we turn to DVD to be exposed to the classics that we all agree they don't make movies like those anymore... or at least, I used to think so. Kong: Skull Island should not be classified as a horror movie, but rather a monster movie... which will be a delight to a fan base best described by Ron Adams of Monster Bash as a generation of "monster kids." 

The King Kong franchise was launched in 1933 by RKO, followed by a sequel, Son of Kong, later that year. Over the decades the giant ape inspired multiple remakes, sequels and spin-offs (such as King Kong vs. Godzilla, pictured on the right). A period piece to be sure, the depression-era world of New York City suffers from the effects of a giant monkey running across the rooftops and climbing the Empire State Building, in an effort to catch his bearings in a man-made jungle. The original is still fun after all these years and this is why my wife and I rushed out to the theaters to watch was was obviously a reboot. Produced by the same folks who brought us the cool Godzilla film a few years back, I suspected we were in for a treat. What I was curious was whether a younger generation with a distaste for black and white could find a story about a giant monkey as much fun as we recall in our youth? 

This rendition, Kong: Skull Island blends the best of both worlds, providing the retro feel of 1973 Vietnam with a classic story of beauty and the beast. Giant spider? Check. Giant lizards? Check. Isolation on an island dominated by creatures that are practically prehistoric? Check. And of course, there is Kong, the eighth wonder of the world. When a group of scientists employ the U.S. Government to guide them onto an island discovered for the first time through satellite surveillance, they discover the hard way that man is not the dominant species on the planet. A battle for survival is evident but there is a backstory that provides (no spoilers here) a reason why Kong is king... and Kong has heart.

Thanks to Industrial Light & Magic, the special effects are top-notch. The cast, including Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Hiddleston, are perfectly cast. Sure, there are moments where they pay homage to Apocalypse Now and prior Kong movies, but there was something more important during a recent screening of the film: everyone involved with the production shared a love of classic monster movies. 

During the film's final action sequences I found myself doing something I have rarely done when viewing a modern-day movie. I was practically leaning in the chair and routing for one of the monsters... just as I did in my youth when I first watched those retro monster battles on local PBS. Being released in March, Kong: Skull Island will not win much along the way of awards but this is a popcorn movie that takes every monster kid back to an era when going to the movies and routing for your favorite monster during hand-to-hand combat was fun. After all, isn't that why we go to the movies?

If you are sitting on the fence about going to see this movie, go see it. And you absolutely need to wait through the entire closing credits for a teaser that will not disappoint. It's worth waiting for.

Friday, March 17, 2017

What is a Clipping File?

Newspaper clippings and magazine articles are one of many sources historians, scholars and authors rely on for digging into our pop culture past. Often times this involves spending hundreds of hours in archives across the country. One short cut at our disposal are "clipping files," compilations of newspaper clippings and magazine articles highlighting the work of musical groups, actors, actresses, directors and other performing artists. Numerous libraries across the country have clipping files available for researchers. For the historian, clarifying which articles are fluff pieces scripted by a publicity department and which ones have meat and potatoes pose just one of many challenges. But the fact that a clipping file could contain hundreds of vintage articles on a particular subject, gathered in one location, makes such a research trip necessary.

A clipping file is exactly what you think it is. Manilla envelopes and file folders containing anywhere from a few newspaper clippings to hundreds of magazine articles. They could be zeroed copies of old articles or the actual clippings, aged and yellowed. A clipping file on Frank Sinatra, for example, could include dozens of magazine articles about his radio appearances, marriages, movie reviews, and so on.

Before the days of the Internet researchers had to travel out of state to such institutions as the Billy Rose Theater Collection in Lincoln Center in New York City, to browse such clipping files. Flipping through a card catalog listing names of stage plays, motion-pictures, radio and television programs, actors, actresses, directors and playwrights, all one had to do was find the catalog number and request a librarian to pull the files from storage. With a few dollars you could have the contents copied on a photocopier. I remember going through a clipping file on Duffy's Tavern, the radio program, and coming cross a clipping from a New York City newspaper reviewing a stage play with the radio cast reprising their roles. Up to that time a stage play based on the radio program was news to me and this provided enough leads for me to dig further elsewhere. 

Funny story: I remember paying a visit to a library once and a friend was sitting across from me at the table, reading each and every clipping, trying to determine if there was any value to having it photocopied. By the time he got to the third clipping I grabbed the file, shut it closed and handed it to him. "Go copy everything," I told him. Budget be damned. By the end of the day we had a stack of photocopies the size of two telephone books. I could take the copies home and review them on my own time. For $40 in copy fees we saved three days of reading and reviewing, and $40 was far cheaper than two additional nights in a hotel room.   

Thanks to the Internet libraries are now giving serious consideration to scanning the contents of their clipping files and posting PDFs on their websites. This would save researchers considerable expense because the costs involved are many: gas, tolls, hotel and food expenses. Libraries have been slow, however, because red tape is preventing the digitization process from going public. As it was explained to me, one library is concerned about copyright violations. Should a researcher make use of the information in a clipping file online without proper attribution, could the newspaper or magazine that retains copyright of the article file a lawsuit against the library? Another library hesitates posting clipping files on the Internet because they fear it gives patrons another reason why they should not visit the brick and mortar building. Why stay operational if no one is walking through the front doors? A third librarian explained their concern is online piracy. Who is to stop someone from downloading the PDF files and posting them on their own web page rather than provide a link to the library's website?

I know of at least a dozen libraries that have clipping files. To date, a researcher still has to travel to those libraries to browse the files (or pay someone in the local area to visit the library and copy the contents of the files). On the plus side, two archives of clipping files are housed with private collectors/historians and not state and county-funded institutions. Sadly, one of these collectors passed away last year and bestowed his mammoth collection to me. I made two trips to his widow's house (five hours travel each direction) to fetch the collection. Systematically -- and with slow progression -- I am having all of these clipping files scanned into PDF files. And to ensure they are preserved, the files are backed up on an external hard drive and a dropbox account. By the end of this calendar year the entire collection should be scanned into PDF files by subject matter (Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Musical Steelmakers, Sky King, etc.) including my own personal collection of clipping files and those of another old-time radio historian who recently "cleaned house."

This blog entry was designed for two purposes: anyone researching vintage movies, stage plays, radio or television programs may want to consider searching clipping files for additional leads. (I know of authors/historians who did not know what a clipping file was until I told them.) Second, while the scanning process at libraries has yet to commence, legal red tape starting to be regarded as a minor deterrent so we may have something cool to look forward to in the future. In the meantime, here are links for two clipping files for your amusement.

Agnes Moorehead Clipping File

Edward R. Murrow Clipping File

Friday, March 10, 2017

HAVE GUN-WILL TRAVEL Acknowledged by Oscar

Two weeks ago the Motion Picture Academy presented the 89th annual Academy Awards and for a few minutes, on national television, they honored four individuals by bestowing them with Honorary Awards for their lifetime achievements. The awards were given out during an awards dinner on November 12 but the acknowledgment on national television during the Oscars was traditional. Present in the audience to be acknowledged were the award winners: actor Jackie Chan, film editor Anne V. Coates, documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman and casting director Lynn Stalmaster. The latter of whom made history.

Lynn Stalmaster, a native of Omaha, Nebraska, went to Hollywood in 1950 to seek out a career as an actor. He played all-too-brief roles in two movies, The Steel Helmet and Flying Leathernecks, while attending UCLA, then pursued a career as a production assistant at Gross-Krasne. When the studio system restructured as a result of the growing television industry, Stalmaster, along with his wife Marion Dougherty, opened their own casting office.

Among his first projects was casting supporting roles and guest spots for television’s Gunsmoke, The Lone Wolf and Official Detective. Over the next five decades Lynn Stalmaster handled casting for more than 200 feature films and dozens of weekly television programs. In case you are wondering what a casting director does in the entertainment industry… Lynn Stalmaster was basically the man that producers turned to and said, “find me a cast for my movie” or “find me four extras who play henchmen in next week’s television episode.”

Stalmaster is credited for the careers of Richard Dreyfus, John Travolta, Christopher Reeve, Jill Clayburgh, Jeff Bridges, Scott Wilson and Jon Voight, among others. He was responsible for casting such films as In the Heat of the Night, Tootsie, The Graduate, Inherit the Wind, Pork Chop Hill, Deliverance, The Right Stuff and many others.

Casting directors, believe it or not, is the only position in Hollywood that appears during the opening credits of motion-pictures and has yet to receive acknowledgement by the Academy with an Oscar category of its own. So for Lynn Stalmaster this award meant something more.

As a fan of television’s Have Gun- Will Travel I found it amusing that, among Stalmaster’s achievements featured in a brief montage on the screen during the Oscar ceremony, was the television Western by name. Amusing when you consider the fact that the Motion Picture Academy honors motion-pictures, not television.

So for fans of a television Western that premiered almost sixty years ago and never conceived of the notion that it would – even for a brief glimpse – be acknowledged during the annual Oscar awards… well, it happened!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

It is Official: "Cinema is Dead"

It is now official. The era of real cinematic film-making is at a close. So says film director Martin Scorsese in a recent interview last month. 

Martin Scorsese
“Cinema is gone. The cinema I grew up with and that I’m making is gone. The theatre will always be there for that communal experience, there’s no doubt. But what kind of experience is it going to be?” he questioned. “Is it always going to be a theme-park movie? I sound like an old man, which I am. The big screen for us in the ’50s, you go from Westerns to Lawrence of Arabia to the special experience of 2001 in 1968. The experience of seeing Vertigo and The Searchers in VistaVision.”

Well, we all agree that as technology evolves over the years, so will the craft of story-telling. Big blockbusters involve special effects, invasions from outer space, superheroes battling costumed villains and explosions that are so far fetched they could never happen in real life. There are few filmmakers today that know how to truly direct a motion-picture: Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, M. Night Shyamalon, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. These men respect the classic movies of the 1930s through the 1950s and, inspired by the way movies were directed during the height of Hollywood's Golden Years, often mimic the proper use of telling a story through the lens. Sadly, most of today's directors come from an era of video tape which means liberal use a hand-held camera and quick cuts during editing. Someone needs to remind today's film students that a using a hand-held camera is not direction. In fact, if the camera moves about too much I get motion sickness and I know I am not the only person who suffers from this.

To me, there is something special to watching a Hopalong Cassidy Western on Saturday morning or a Mary Pickford silent on a snowy winter evening. Of course my wife and I still watch the latest movies that appeal to our inner preference, but last year's motion-pictures featured more duds than hits. Oddly, 2015 gave the appearance that Hollywood finally figured out the recipe for making an entertaining movie. In 2016, Hollywood did the exact opposite. Ghost Busters, for example, was poorly edited and a disaster from the viewpoint of Screenwriting 101. But when the movie came out on DVD with scenes not seen in the theatrical release, the entire film worked perfectly. (Why they did not release the DVD version in the theaters I will not know.) Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad also suffered from bad editing. Regrettably, the DVD releases of those movies did not do them justice.

Jungle Book and The Legend of Tarzan were surprisingly better than I expected and neither featured ghosts, monsters, demigods, exploding buildings, car wrecks or costumed characters. Let's be frank: it's all about demographics these days. The majority of ticket buyers in this country are under the age of 30. Scorsese points to the proliferation of images and the over-reliance on superficial techniques as trends that have diminished the power of cinema to younger audiences. “It should matter to your life,” Scorsese says. “Unfortunately the latest generations don’t know that it mattered so much.”

Which brings me to the social commentary of the week. Last month I met a man much older than myself who lodged a complaint: "They don't make good movies these days. It's all about superheroes and zombies and car chases. Even the superheroes are looking younger with each movie. Hollywood isn't what it used to be." 

So I asked him what was the last movie he saw in the theaters. His response? "Oh, I haven't been to the theaters in twenty years."

And that is why they don't make the kind of movies he wishes they would make.