Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Ultimate Book on Laurel and Hardy

With respect to everyone who wrote a book about Laurel and Hardy in the past, and will do so in the coming future, the latest from Randy Skretvedt, a massive 628-page cockroach killer, is a must-have. There can be no doubt that others will follow with their own tomes, documenting new discoveries and/or attempting to out-shine past endeavors, but Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies practically covers everything as a massive compilation of all things Laurel and Hardy. Even if you watched every Laurel and Hardy film short, twice, reading the entries under each film short and full-length motion-picture will make you want to watch the films again. 

Where to begin? 

His first edition was written back in 1987 and 29 years later, much has happened to the legacy of Laurel and Hardy. The Hal Roach films were purchased by Hallmark Cards, who wanted the film as collateral when trying to obtain funding for their Hallmark Hall of Fame television specials. They virtually did nothing with their films, and thought so little of the films that they almost destroyed the original 35mm master materials, which were saved by the eleventh hour by a Laurel and Hardy scholar and the staff at the UCLA Film and Television Archive. 

Thankfully, the rights to the Hal Roach talkies eventually returned to the custody of RHI Entertainment, the 35mm materials donated to UCLA, and restored prints are presently being funded. And this is where Randy's new book comes in to play. Adding to the continued legacy of the comedy duo that almost faded from the mainstream, decades of continued research made up this 628-page book, slick glossy paper, consisting of 800 photographic images -- many never-before-published with photos from Oliver Hardy's personal collection. Randy interviewed actors and actresses for recollections and anecdotes, and tracked down locations where the team filmed many of their famous scenes. Having access to the shooting scripts, Randy compared the finished product to determine which jokes were improvised on the set, unscripted, and which scenes were filmed but ended up on the cutting room floor.

Randy debunks the story Hal Roach told in Brownlow's Hollywood documentary, regarding the mistaken house used in Big Business (1929), how Jean Harlow's grandfather was outraged when he discovered his actress daughter appeared on camera (just shy of 18 years) showing off her figure in Double Whoopie (1929), and why they made a brief appearance in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. I was not aware that the steps used for The Music Box (1932) has become an official landmark in the City of Los Angeles (complete with special signage), an un-filmed ending for Towed in a Hole (1932) is documented in detail, and photos from a deleted scene in Twice Two (1933) adds sugar on the icing.

This is definitely one of those books that you watch a film short, laugh your head off, and then take a moment to read up on the behind-the-scenes trivia to take a deeper appreciation for the craft.

Considering only one film short remains missing in its entirety, Hats Off, the information in this book is extremely valuable. Such documentation preserves history.

Even with a dozen reference works about Laurel and Hardy on my bookshelf, each a pleasant read, Randy's hardcover will now be the first -- and probably only -- book I pull off my shelf when I need to know something about Laurel and Hardy. The retail price may be as hefty as the book itself, $80 plus postage, but with a limit print run of 2,000, do not hesitate. The book has only been available for two years and the author told me he only has 300 left. Grab your copy today.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Obscure Trivia About Robert Wagner

From September 13 to 15, 2018, Robert Wagner will be signing autographs and posing for photos with fans at the 13th annual Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention. He will be joining a number of celebrities including Stefanie Powers, Loni Anderson, Barbara Eden, Diahann Carroll and Ed Begley, Jr. (It is my hope that I can talk to Mr. Begley for a spell about his father, who played the role of Charlie Chan on radio for a number of years.) The non-profit event benefits children with treatable cancer and will be among one of the first fan gatherings for Robert Wagner. Until now he never made an appearance at a convention to sign autographs for fans.

I thought I would take a few moments and provide some cool trivia about the actor.

* Robert Wagner was considered for the role of the Sundance Kid in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He turned it down.

* After being submerged in an industrial strength foaming agent during the bathtub scene in The Pink Panther (1963), the actor went blind for four weeks. The studio wanted Wagner replaced, under the circumstances, but director Blake Edwards stuck by the actor and Wagner ultimately finished the picture.

* Robert Wagner has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. One for motion-pictures and one for recording.

* In his autobiography, Wagner confessed that he had a four-year relationship with actress Barbara Stanwyck, who was more than twenty years older than he. According to Wagner, she was his first great love and that she gave him more than any woman in his life.

* He was engaged to Tina Sinatra for more than a year.

* He made seven movies with his wife, actress Jill St. John. (See if you can name all seven off the top of your head...)

* Robert Wagner was asked to play the role of Tom Lopaka on the television series, Hawaiian Eye, but he instead wanted to concentrate on movies. He recommended his friend Robert Conrad for the role, which led to Conrad being cast. 

Friday, July 6, 2018

Best Buy and CDs: The End of an Era

If you are a frequent customer of Best Buy, you may have noticed a major change of recent. If you have not noticed, you soon will. A few months ago the powers that be at Best Buy corporate office decided to stop selling music CDs by July 2018. The reason is quite obvious — sales of music CDs have continued to drop over the years, making way for paid downloads through various platforms such as Amazon and iTunes. 

Best Buy operates in the same manner as most retail chains — the store shelves are valued real estate. Take the cost of operating expenses, divided by the total feet of shelf space in the store, and a dollar value is equated to every square foot of shelf space. If other merchandise such as tee shirts and action figures sell better than CDs, the retail value of compact discs diminishes. 

They say you either change with the times or the times change you. While a large percentage of customers have not progressed to the digital audio file format, retail sales are the driving element for the evolution of music formats. Long gone are 8-track and 45s, and compact discs are diminishing in the war between CDs and digital downloads. Granted, YouTube has been the major pirate source for illegal listening for more than a decade that the music industry has yet to crack down hard enough, providing access (and free digital downloads) for those who take a few minutes to learn how to click a button and listen. 

All of this does not mean you have to rush out and buy your favorite bands and singers before the CDs become obsolete, but when you visit flea markets and fan gatherings and the price is right, you may want to consider making a purchase. Once you own the CD, you own the recording for life and CDs are still the true on-demand. As music is digital on CDs, you can always convert to a new platform later such as an iPad or hard drive.

Many of the new cars sold on the market today do not include a CD player, instead focusing on Bluetooth connections for digital playlists on smartphones. Best Buywill continue to sell gift cards with serial numbers that grant you downloads of music purchased in the store, but one questions how long those will be continued as anyone can do the same with their smart phone from the convenience of sitting on their sofa. 

Best Buy is only the first major chain to make the decision to pull the plug on CDs. Other retail outlets will eventually follow, the trend will soon become the norm, and the studios and production companies that lose income as a result of a major drop in sales will eventually consider whether it is worth continued production of compact discs. As for myself, I am proud to have a collection of my favorites sitting on the shelf, which will continue to grow in the coming months, in preparation for what might be a sign of the music industry apocalypse. 

Sunday, June 24, 2018

SerlingFest 2018

Early this week the SyFy Channel announced the cancellation of the annual Fourth of July Twilight Zone marathon. The network refused to cite a reason for the cancellation but the tradition of watching multiple episodes in one day became routine for tens of thousands of fans who, on specific Facebook groups, discuss the episodes as they air live. The annual tradition has been a SyFy staple for more than a decade. Christopher John Sorick, administrator of the Twilight Zone Fan Page, is encouraging fans to voice their disgust on the SyFy Channel Facebook page. Fans have been voicing disappointment on other Facebook groups, but the decision was no doubt financial for the network.

Thankfully, we have something more interactive to look forward to. On July 6 and 7, in Rod Serling's home town of Binghamton, New York, SerlingFest 2018 will offer fans of the television program a chance to meet Anne Serling, Rod's daughter, and a number of authors/historians, during a weekend of film screenings, documentaries and a trivia contest. The event is held at the DoubleTree, which is already sold out, but you can find a room at a neighboring hotel if you use google or hotels.com.

I hope to see a bunch of you at the event in a couple weeks!


Saturday, June 23, 2018

Clint Walker, Tall in the Saddle

It is with sad and heavy heart that I report the untimely passing of Clint Walker, one of the three surviving members of The Dirty Dozen, but who will forever remain in my heart as Cheyenne Bodie from the weekly television Western, Cheyenne. He passed away on May 21, from congestive heart failure. 

Having spent time professionally with a large number of Hollywood actors, especially at fan gatherings and film festivals, I can truly say Clint was one of the few individuals who was sincere down to the marrow of his bones. Down to earth, very little ego, and as you saw him on the screen in both movies and on television, that was how he was in real life. A tall, larger than life man to look up to… the same man who inspired me to eat healthy many years ago when I had lunch with him and he generously provided some dietary tips regarding vegetables, red meat and protein. 

When he made a public appearance at the Memphis Film Festival a decade ago, I quickly observed the fact that he never took time to pose for photographs with fans. When I asked him why one morning, he explained, “at my age and with these knees, getting up and down all day is troublesome and would become painful. I do not mind signing autographs and answering questions, though.” So I guess I was one of the lucky ones to have my photo taken with Clint one morning, not so much at my request as it was his. He insisted on the photo before the door opened and fans caught him posing for the camera.

This might disillusion a few people reading this, but having been in the hotel rooms with Hollywood celebrities over the years, I have always observed the numerous gifts bestowed upon the celebrities during autograph sessions… Amateur artwork, scrapbooks, refrigerator magnets, and in one instance, action figures. Self-obsessed fans never seem to have trouble finding time to create mementos inspired by the legends they get to meet at conventions and fan gatherings. Celebrities accept gifts from fans solely to maintain Goodwill and appreciation, but realistically they never have enough room in their luggage or in their house for all the gifts that have been given to them over the years. For this, academically, I can understand. With Clint Walker, however, he was always sincere when he received gifts from fans. I remember when Clint was enamored by someone who created a pair of leather shows and their talent at leather burning… They had an image of Clint Walker as Cheyenne Bodie on the side of the shoes. He literally stopped the autograph line for a few minutes to admire the craftsmanship. 

In closing, I would like to re-count a story he once told me that is worth sharing… Clint Walker was the Captain of the Guard, a small and brief scene in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. This was among his first acting jobs in Hollywood. On the way to the studio that morning Walker observed a woman who had pulled over to change a flat on her tire. Being the kind soul that he was, the actor pulled over to assist. (As big and built as he was I can only envision him jacking the car up with his own hands to speed the process.) Upon finishing the task, he apologized for not staying any longer to except her verbal appreciation as he was already late for work. When he arrived at the studio, he expected to be fired for being late to the interview. DeMille was furious until Walker explained his reason. The director looked at Clint Walker for a few seconds and remarked, “I know all about the fix-a-flat. That was my secretary and she explained it to me a few minutes ago.” 

Rest in peace, Mr. Walker. 

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Triumphant Return of Rocky and Bullwinkle

2018 promotional poster
Let me state for the record that one of my two favorite animated cartoons is The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Breaking the fourth wall, adult jokes that would normally fly over the heads of youngsters, bad puns and thrilling escapades are part and parcel of the weekly television series. I religiously bought all five seasons as they came out on DVD, then found myself traumatized in 2000 when a big screen, live-action film was released in theaters. (To date, I have never fully recovered from that horrible movie.) 

So imagine my surprise when it was announced last year that the moose and squirrel were making a comeback on Amazon.com's Prime streaming service... and soon after the May 11 premiere, the short run, 13-episode mini-series went under scrutiny from this avid fan boy.

Once again, Rocky and Bullwinkle are thrust into harrowing situations but end up saving the day time and time again. Their innocent and silly ambitions to become rock stars, find lost treasure and win the annual Frostbite Falls Pie Contest (using grandma's stinky pie recipe) somehow dovetail with Fearless Leader's sinister plans for world domination. Enter stage left, Boris and Natasha, the notorious super spies, who seem to always fall victim to the diabolical boobytraps originally created for moose and squirrel.

There are three story arcs for this new series, "The Stink of Fear," "The Dark Side of the Moose" and "Moosebumps." Marco Schnabel wrote the first, which brilliantly captures the spirit of the original series, leaving me hooked long enough to view all 13 episodes. While I am not a fan of this new style of animation, there was enough here to binge-watch in two-and-a-half hours. Mr. Know-It-All segments, Bullwinkle's Corner segments, and "Hey Rocky, Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat" segments are few and far between. There are no fillers such as Peabody's Improbable History or Fractured Fairytales. The adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle last 21 minutes each, long enough for you to witness a cliffhanger that leads into the next episode.  

In an era where Hollywood continues to look at vintage property and attempt an update, rather than take a chance on an original concept, and without the voice legends of William Conrad, June Foray and Paul Frees, it is gratifying to know that the characters we have come to love are being introduced to a generation that never grew up with the original cartoons. As for this fan boy, it would be nice to see a second season with a few cartoon fillers (such as a Mr. Know-It-All segment). My only hope is that the new series will expose youngsters to the original series.

Friday, June 1, 2018

78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene

Whoever thought a documentary on the making of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, most notably the shower stating scene, would remain entertaining and fascinating for 90 minutes? Alexandre O. Philippe's last documentary, 78/52, referring to the 78 camera set-ups and 52 edits over the course of three minutes, proved that 90 minutes is just not enough time. The documentary reminds us of the domestic times when Psycho hit theaters, how the film went to combat Hollywood censorship, and the impact that one scene had on the future of American cinema. Commentary from editors, scriptwriters, actors and filmmakers, along with a frame-by-frame expiration of the scene as it was edited together, was equally engrossing. If you are a fan of Alfred Hitchcock and/or admired the shower stabbing scene for all its celluloid glory, this is a must-see documentary.

Practically anyone in Hollywood who was affected and influenced by the movie provides trivial bits of knowledge about the movie, from bookend frame shots, the type of chocolate syrup used to simulate blood in the shower, to both visual and verbal references forecasting gloom in the movie that the audience never picked up on with the first viewing. Jamie Lee Curtis discusses her mother's involvement in the movie, Peter Bogdanovich recalls the first screening permitted for movie critics and columnists, Danny Elfman recalls how Bernard Herrmann's music score influenced him as a musician, author Stephen Rebello discusses some clever behind-the-scenes production trivia, and Marli Renfro (the stunt woman for Janet Leigh) discusses how she got the job and which scenes you can clearly see her in the movie. 

Archival footage of screenwriter Joseph Stefano, actress Janet Leigh, and director Alfred Hitchcock also provide commentary courtesy of archival footage. 

The documentary examines the movie Psycho from the perspective of the shower scene, while covering numerous other topics such as the music score, and the decision to film in back and white, while the narrative shifts back to the construction of the shower sequence. Did you know that the wallpaper design in the Bates Motel was copied for the hotel hallway scene in The Shining? Did you know that Martin Scorcese virtually captured the Sugar Ray Robinson boxing match in Raging Bull alongside the shower stabbing scene? (A split screen is shown for comparison, with Scorcese confessing his intention.) Did you know how many melons were tested to create the sound of a knife cutting into human flesh?

Covering a lot of ground in a short period of time, while capturing commentary in black and white to match scenes from Psycho, the film also provides the atmosphere of a group of film geeks chatting about the movie... with you alongside them. Honestly, this documentary could have gone on another 30 minutes and I still would have been begging for more. As it stands, this is a wonderful diversion that any fan of horror films, Alfred Hitchcock and cinema studies should take time to check out. Now available on DVD, this documentary comes recommended.

Also recommended (and I cannot speak highly enough) are two books worthy of reading about the subject, listed below. I have been recommending them for years and those who accepted by recommendation were never disappointed.

Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock (by Francois Truffaut, 2015 edition)
Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (by Stephen Rebello, 2013 edition)

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Purview Press: The Saint and The Falcon

Fans of both The Falcon and The Saint will be pleased to know there were two new books recently published, taking into full account the radio programs of the same name. Author Ian Dickerson is responsible for both publications, released through his independent Purview Press.

Simon Templar, better known as “The Saint,” began as a series of dime novels, later adapted for the big screen, comic-strips and multiple television series (starring Roger Moore and Simon Dutton). A recent television pilot was filmed for a revival of The Saint, which failed to capture interest with a network, but thankfully we have the RKO classics available commercially on DVD to enjoy. To date, at least 15 actors have played the role of Simon Templar and when one thinks of the radio program, they tend to think of Vincent Price – who once quipped, “I really enjoyed playing The Saint.” 

The Saint on the Radio is aptly titled as the history of the novels, motion-pictures, comic-strips and other mediums are not covered extensively here. After all, there is already an all-inclusive book documenting the history of the franchise. Instead, Dickerson chose to focus on what has often been dismissed by biographers of Leslie Charteris, creator of the Simon Templar character. 

Beginning with Terence de Marney as The Saint over the BBC Forces Band, first transmitted in October of 1940, the book extensively covers the history of future incarnations from Edgar Barrier (early 1945), Brian Aherne (summer of 1945), Vincent Price (1947-1951), to Paul Rhys (1995). Also included is documentation of audio books, and a reprint of two radio scripts (one written by singer-actor Dick Powell). A major portion of the book consists of an episode guide but the history of the program, including behind-the-scenes documentation for each incarnation, is a fascinating read.

Of greater interest was Dickerson’s Who is The Falcon?, a comprehensive history of the fictional detective that is considered by many as a bland imitation of the Leslie Charteris character. Guy Stanhope Falcon, the freelance adventurer and trouble-shooter, originated from Michael Arlen’s 1940 short story. To others he is Guy Lawrence, the English gentleman detective portrayed by George Sanders in the RKO films of the early 1940s. “Ready with a hand for oppressed men, and an eye for repressed women,” The Falcon character was once referenced in Leslie Charteris’ 1943 novel, The Saint Steps In, as “a bargain-basement imitation.” 

Very little has been written about The Falcon, which is why I was pleased to see the fictional character and the franchise documented extensively. Commentary on the character’s birth in print, a complete overview of his time on the silver screen, a broadcast log of his adventures on radio (both in the United States and in Australia), and an accounting of the short-lived television program is contained within the 360 pages. There is also a full reprint of a Falcon story from Radio Mirror magazine. Help show your support and display of thanks to Ian Dickerson for going to the effort by digging through archives to produce these welcome tomes.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Calvin and the Colonel: The Animated Adventures of Amos n' Andy

In the fall of 1961, a new half-hour animated cartoon made it primetime network, one year after The Flintstones premiered as the first primetime animated cartoon series for network television, and the networks were all scrambling to compete. The series was Calvin and the Colonel, the creation of Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, produced by Kayro Productions in association with MCA-TV/Revue Studios. The cartoon was anything but new; it was the reincarnation of Gosden and Correll's Amos and Andy radio program, also voiced by Gosden and Correll.

Colonel Montgomery J. Klaxon, a shrewd fox and Calvin T. Burnside, a dumb bear, were the central figures (ala Kingfish and Andy). Their lawyer was Oliver Wendell Clutch, who was a weasel (literally). The colonel lived with his wife, Maggie Belle, and her sister Sue, who never trusted the colonel. Colonel Klaxon was in the real estate business, but always tried a number of get-rich-schemes with Calvin's unwitting help.

Several of the radio scripts were adapted for use on the animated series, with minor revisions to character names and locale. Because of low ratings (not because of complaints from Southern television stations as rumors commonly and falsely circulate), the program was cancelled after two months. The series returned later in the season to complete the terms of the contract. Lever Brothers, makers of Rinso Soap, sponsors of the radio program, bought time slots for the animated rendition and their contract was for 26 half-hour episodes. Reruns were later aired on Saturday mornings, syndicated across the country afterwards, but the minimal number of episodes handicapped syndication success. 

Because Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, script writers for the radio program and the animated series, also produced television's The Munsters, a brief clip from one of the episodes can be seen on a television set in the 1966 episode, "A Visit from Johann." 

Comic book fans know of the two Calvin and the Colonel Dell Comics that were published in 1961, highly sought after by fans of Amos and Andy.    

The episodes "supposedly" fell into the public domain, copyrights never renewed after the 28-year initial issuance. Twelve of these episodes have been floating about in collector hands from 16mm masters, a few easily found on YouTube and a few recently released commercially with a company logo superimposed on the screen, along with the addition of sound effects to the sound track to brand the altered version. (Before purchasing any episodes, ask the vendor if their copies are "un-altered.") 

Of recent a new book was published through Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research publishing label, written by historian Kevin Scott Collier. Documenting as much information about the television series as possible, Collier explores the two animated Amos n' Andy cartoons produced by Van Beuren in 1933 (which have recently received restoration through Thunderbean DVD), and the radio program for which Calvin and the Colonel originated. Publicity photos, budgets, the NAACP controversy, artist model sheets for the characters, and much more can be found in this book. Godson's recollections are quoted, and reprints of episode promotional synopsis were scanned and reprinted. 

After reading the book I was pleased to learn things I did not know about the television program. I knew the program was filmed in color but was unaware that ABC still telecast in black and white at the time so viewers never saw the cartoons in color in 1961. There was a Calvin and the Colonel board game, "High Spirits," and two talking dolls produced by Mattel in 1962. There was also a coloring book which I am now seeking out on eBay this week. (Yeah, I was bitten by the collecting bug years ago when it comes to Amos n' Andy.) The 65-page book is available from Amazon.com and if you want to buy a copy, a link is provided below for your convenience. Fans of Amos n' Andy will want a copy of this book.


Netflix Brings Back Lost in Space

Count on the folks at Netflix to deliver us another winner. With the convenience of having statistics on their side (they know which DVDs were the most rented, which TV programs were streamed more than others) they chose to co-produce a reboot of the Lost in Space saga made famous by Irwin Allen in the mid-sixties. Avoiding the pitfalls of the Batman-camp style from the 1960s, this rendition is a tad moe gritty, dark and intriguing. A vast improvement for those who know the characters but disliked the cheap production of the original.

Set 30 years in the future where Earth has become a wasteland of pollution, and colonization on another planet half way across the universe appears to be mankind's only hope, the Robinson family join others through the silence of space for dangers unknown. Along the way something goes horribly awry and the survivors find themselves stranded on an alien planet. The first episode pretty much summarizes the first half of the first season, with the Robinson family facing more perils than most television protagonists face in a given season. 

Subtle nods to the original series are evident from one cameo, alias names (June Harris was obviously a tip-of-the-hat to original cast members June Lockhart and Jonathan Harris), and similar perils faced in the original series. Thankfully, no space hippies or giant vegetable rebellions here. The Robinson family is progressive with a black daughter from a prior marriage and a female rendition of Dr. Smith, while a tad dysfunctional as they gather their bearings on the new world. John and Maureen also have an ongoing marital relationship on the rocks and it takes a number of death-defying perils for them to settle their differences.

Parker Posey as the evil Dr. Smith
Overlapping the entire premise are a number of teasers: just how did we get such advanced technology so fast without alien involvement? Why did the robot go crazy and start killing humans on the space station? What did Maureen trade in return for that favor from a mysterious figure so Will could qualify for the mission? Such questions may be answered in the second season.

The casting is superb: everyone who plays a role was perfectly cast. Standing above all others is Parker Posey as Dr. Smith, both lazy and incompetent, but always with a hidden agenda that benefits one. Will Robinson bonds with an alien robot via Spielbergian touches, and it does not take long for the catch-phrase to utter from the robot's mouth.

If you try to compare this new rendition with the original, you will be disappointed. If you are looking for something to binge watch this summer, and were on the fence about streaming the remake, take my word for it: this is worth watching. I am so looking forward to the second season.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (Spoiler Free Review)

Avengers: Infinity War marks the 19th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and as post-credits teasers and interjected scenes have routinely suggested, this was the movie that would culminate ten years of superhero action. Up until now the routine for most Marvel films has been simplistic: hero develops powers, villain tries to gain control of some weaponry that can destroy the hero’s home or universe, hero faces inner turmoil while villain blows things up, people run and scream, second battle, final showdown and of course, a Stan Lee cameo and a post-credits sequence.
Throughout the past few years Marvel Studios, taking a page from Disney, focused on the story-telling agenda so each sequel was never the same as others in the franchise. Thor: Ragnarok was an intergalactic buddy road trip, Iron Man 3 quickly eliminated the arch nemesis and Downey Jr. was more Tony Stark than Iron Man, and Spider-Man: Homecoming was a teen comedy told entirely from the viewpoint of a teenager. This ballsy approach is what sets Marvel films apart from superhero movies produced by other studios.
Avengers: Infinity War continues this formula with Thanos, “The Mad Titan,” who sets out to collect and wield the power of six infinity stones in a customized gauntlet. If he accomplishes his mission, Thanos can destroy fifty percent of all life in the universe with the snap of his fingers. Believing this will create balance in a universe of chaos, Thanos becomes the central character in this movie through a number of flashbacks, revealing his motive. Standing in his way are The Avengers.
With the superheroes secondary characters in this particular film, every superhero receives equal screen time throughout the movie, each with a number of fantastic scenes that give the audience something to cheer for. This balance was a crowd pleasure, to be sure, and essential for the closing minutes of the movie that set the stage for the second half of the story arc — Avengers 4, due out May 2019. The action is relentless and top-notch, with verbal exchanges witty and at times humorous. With each scene transitioning from a closing remark in the previous scene, it can be assumed that the formula was established by Joss Whedon, who scripted the first Avengers film and Marvel Studios, while parting ways with Whedon after the sequel, was inspired to copy the same success.
The story was easy to follow even for someone who has not watched all 18 Marvel movies up to now. The closing act in the film may frustrate some in the theater, without understanding that this is only the first half of an intergalactic epic that will conclude on a high note one year from now. During the screening on opening night, I was witness to people sobbing and crying at the end of the film… but is this not a movie that was supposed to jar your emotions? Yes, because this was epic.
So was Avengers: Infinity War worth all the hype, and ten-year publicity build-up? Much certainly so. This was a funny, balanced and ambitious movie that raises the bar… and leaves you speechless during the film’s closing minutes. The financial payoff will be huge for Marvel Studios in the weeks to come as fanboys will return to the theater more than once to witness the spectacle that will be talked about at Comic Cons for the next twelve months.
Post Script: You do have to wait until after the closing credits for a brief scene that is essential for The Avengers 4.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Box of Pearls: The Janis Joplin Collection

It comes as no surprise that Janis Joplin, who passed away at the age of 27 from a heroin overdose, is legendary for her screaming voice -- who recorded only a total of four albums during her career. Her second album, Cheap Thrills, debuted on the Billboard charts in August of 1968 and reached the number one spot quickly. The proposed title of the album was "Dope, Sex and Cheap Thrills," which properly described her personal life off the stage. Her first two albums were a result of a record contract as part of Big Brother and The Holding Company, a San Francisco rock-and-roll off-the-wall band that entered the mainstream market a couple years too early. The Midwest had not adjusted to hippies in 1967, and the band played to an audience of five or six in clubs that could have held 200. But they got a record deal as a result of the tour and Janis Joplin was introduced to the American public.

At the Monterey International Pop Festival in June of 1967, Big Brother and the Holding Company performed on stage. Overnight Janis Joplin's name spread like wildfire. She overshadowed the band and after two albums with Big Brother, it was obvious that when the tour expired, she was going to venture off on her own. Her third and fourth/final albums are, in my opinion, some of the best music she ever created. No single style of music could do that -- not the country blues or bluegrass, not folk, rhythm and blues, or rock and roll. But there was clearly an element of rhythm and blues and she defined music her own way. 

By the end of 1969, Joplin disbanded the Kosmic Blues Band (the second band, her third album) and took some time off. She went to Rio de Janeiro for Carnaval. She backed off from alcohol and drug use that had sometimes affected her performances with Kosmic Blues. She cleaned up her act. And during those reflective months, her luck changed. In her first year as a leader of her own band, she had learned a lot. Now she was ready to put those lessons to use. Her fourth and final album was released after her death, leaving behind a legacy that most aficionados agree was only a rising point in her career. A darn shame as future albums would have launched her into stardom that few female performers would have accomplished at the time.

A few years ago there was talk that actress Amy Adams was going to play the lead in a biopic about Janis Joplin. Adams would have earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress -- the role is perfect for her. But something fell through and the movie is not going to be made. Big disappointment but we do have her albums to enjoy.

In 2009, a special five-CD box set was released titled, Box of Pearls. The commemorative booklet contains print so small that I have to criticize what the producers were thinking. My youthful eagle eyes were put to a test. But all four albums are on four CDs, along with bonus tracks (recorded alternate takes) and is a magnificent just-starting-out package for people wanting to explore Janis Joplin. The fifth CD contains a few rare unreleased tracks but her third and fourth albums are treasures. Amazon.com offers a bargain out-of-print price and the purchase of the album also contains free music downloads... a surprise I was not expecting.

For anyone wanting to own every track she ever recorded, there are other collections including "Best Of" releases, which contain different live versions of songs, the "Live at Winterland" with Big Brother and "Farewell Song," plus the three-disc set called "Janis" which has lots of her earlier material and a birthday message for John Lennon. Having purchased the Box of Pearls set for $22, I can state that I am fully satisfied having all four of her albums, including bonus tracks. Worthy for anyone looking to add music CDs to their library. And consider the fact that Best Buy just announced they will be discontinuing CDs in their stores this July, owning music CDs is more essential. Owning CDs is the true on-demand.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Lone Ranger on Radio, Film and Television Book Review

Following the adage, "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it at all," negative book reviews are not my cup of tea. Ed Andreychuk's recent book, The Lone Ranger on Radio, Film and Television, released a couple months ago by McFarland Publishing, warrants an exception. Honestly, this is not a bad book. But the price McFarland charges, along with a major flaw of knowing there is more information about The Lone Ranger on the internet vs. what can be found in this book, left a bad taste in my mouth. Having researched the subject for more than a decade, including archival collections across the country, I may be one of the few who could be highly critical. There are nuggets of information I would rarely expect anyone to have and with this disclosed, the myths and errors that continue to be reprinted in multiple reference guides and fanzines, are expected. But those type of flaw will not be exposed here. 

Andreychuk's book is 182 pages thick, index and table of contents included, but information about The Lone Ranger is minimal. The entire first chapter is devoted to the history of the Texas Rangers. What that directly has to do with The Lone Ranger radio and television program, I do not know. Naturally, I skipped those seven pages and moved on to the second chapter. On page 11, the author cited James Jewell being responsible for creating the name of Tonto, a.k.a. "Wild One," which was, as everyone in the OTR hobby knows, created by Fran Striker and "Wild One" was never used on the program. Andreychuk also claimed Trendle hired a Native Indian to replace actor John Todd, but we all know that is also inaccurate. Two pages into the chapter devoted to the radio program and already observed two errors. 

Beginning with chapter three, focusing on the cliffhanger serial produced by Republic, I found myself skimming various paragraphs due to unnecessary padding. What I mean by "unnecessary padding" is information that steers away from the title and subtitle of a book. The flaw continues throughout the remainder of the book. There are pages loaded with brief biographies of supporting cast members, and their non-Lone Ranger-related screen credits, that made me wonder why background production on the television programs, cartoons, movies and serials were not covered extensively. Actress Lisa Montell, for example, receives coverage of her screen career for half of page 114. It would have been enjoyable to know what her involvement was with The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold, rather than acknowledge her screen credits on television's Cheyenne and The Gene Autry Show

From pages 50 to 80, there is an episode guide for the television program. Episode number, title, broadcast date, actors and a one or two sentence plot summary is all that can be found. No behind-the-scenes trivia, no on-screen bloopers, or quotes from cast and crew. This is going to come off as an insult but you can get more information about the television episodes on IMDB. And thirty pages of the book devoted to this guide.

In short, for someone who cannot afford Dave Holland's From Out of the Past, or Dick Osgood's WYXIE Wonderland (recently reprinted), this might fill a void on your bookshelf. Expressing disappointment is difficult for me so I guess this book review serves as a warning to consider other options.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Ready Player One Movie Review

Ready Player One is a feast consisting of meat and potatoes for fans of media pop culture. Godzilla, Batman, Back to the Future, Tron, Freddy Krueger, Lara Kroft, Han Solo, Chucky, King Kong and many other classics of the past fill the screen in the latest film from director Steven Spielberg, whose excellent Oscar-nominated movie, The Post, hit theaters just a couple months back. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Ernest Cline, the story is set in the dystopian future of 2045, where an energy crisis from the depletion of fossil fuels, overpopulation and economic stagnation forces people to retreat into the OASIS -- a virtual reality simulator where people jump online and interact in a Willy Wonka world of video games and interactive romance. Wade Watts, the protagonist, is one of the millions who escape into the dream world daily, discovering the creator of the OASIS hid an Easter Egg. The first person to find the egg would not only receive financial wealth, but ownership of the OASIS. The creator may be long dead, but his legacy -- and true agenda -- mimics that of Willy Wonka. Along the way, Nolan Sorrento, head of operations at Innovative Online Industries (IOI), recruits debt-indentured players to find the Easter Egg and gain control of the OASIS. World domination was never so simple, and never so challenging.

Visually, this movie is a feast for the eyes. Spielberg himself said he never devoted more time overseeing the special effects for a movie since Saving Private Ryan, and had this movie been released in late 2017, it would certainly have won a few Oscars for special effects. Choosing to avoid competition with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, both Spielberg and Warner Bros. decided to move the release date to March for profit over awards. The visuals are dazzling at times while some scenes (more than likely deliberate) replicate the feel of a modern-day video game. One makes me wonder, though, if video games and virtual reality will be far superior in 2045 than depicted in this movie.

The story is perfect for a modern-day blockbuster, the kind of movie one expects to get from the price of admission and a bucket of popcorn. And while most of the elements were adapted faithfully from the novel, what changes were made are necessary improvements for visual storytelling. The two flaws in this movie -- which are essential for great story-telling -- are more than likely the result of getting as much use out of the licensing that took years to iron out. The overall lesson learned by the end of the movie -- spending time outside the OASIS (a.k.a. the Internet) to develop real-world relationships -- is obvious but not emphasized through example except for slum-like cities with barely any explanation of overpopulation, pollution, corruption and climate change. 

The love interest between the two leads (Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke) lack chemistry. Yes, they kiss at the end of the movie and he professes his love early in the story, but with the exception of those three scenes, one has to wonder where was the sparkle in her eyes? Have motion-pictures ventured into such cookie-cutter formula that we now expect the leads to fall in love but the necessity of how they meet, discover an attraction and motif for running into danger for the sake of the other no longer necessary for the story?

Do not get me wrong. This is a fun film. Had the script writers, editors and Spielberg included scenes explaining the horrific "real-world" issues that led to where mankind retreats into a virtual utopia, and had the two leads built a growing admiration for the other, this movie would have been the first film of the year to whole-heartedly recommend. That being said, if you can forgive those two flaws going in, you will enjoy the film.

Loaded with Easter Eggs throughout, my wife caught The Joker, Harley Quinn, a nod to Knight Rider and another to The Breakfast Club, which I overlooked. So many pop culture references you have to watch the film multiple times to catch them all. It was amusing to see nostalgic pop-culture references such as a verbal nod to the angel Clarence from It's a Wonderful Life, two references to Rosebud from Citizen Kane, and a pleasant surprise to hear Max Steiner's music score from the 1933 classic, King Kong, when the giant ape rampages through New York in the opening street scene. 

All of which is ironic when you consider the fact that Spielberg has spent the last decade or two investing money in video games and one wonders if this movie was not just a blatant commercial for the products he profits. 

Researching Old-Time Radio

Nothing bothers me more than reading a book or magazine article that, one or two paragraphs in, I notice half a dozen errors. This usually turns me off reading the rest of the scholarly attempt, defeating the author's purpose. With respect to many of those who research old-time radio, or think they know how to research old-time radio, the following is a free 14-page PDF providing "A Primer For Researching Old-Time Radio."

A little more than seven years ago I wrote a five-part article focusing on where to find archival materials, tools of the trade, resources to use, and pitfalls to avoid. As computer and communications technology evolved, so have the methods of research, and a revision to those articles are in order. What I did was condense the information into one length article and update some of the bullet points.

Among the more important was clarification of sponsor vs. product. People look at me funny when I tell them Jell-O was never a sponsor of The Jack Benny Program. General Foods was the sponsor. Jell-O was the product. A product, an article or substance manufactured or refined for resale, cannot physically sponsor a program. Kudos to the advertising agencies that wanted radio listeners to associate the product with the program, but historian have to avoid that “trap.”

Today, a weekly check on eBay can provide -- on occasion -- obscure historical items such as contracts, inter-office memos and product tie-ins that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Of recent, a new tool for tracking down someone is Facebook. While not everyone is on Facebook, I found the daughter of a radio scribe in less than 60 seconds. We communicated and two months later I was in her barn looking over her father’s papers and photographs that gathered dust in a filing cabinet. 

Your local library probably offers ProQuest for free. This service grants you access to newspaper archives across the country. Many libraries will allow you access to ProQuest from your home computer with a library card and password/pin number. 

The iPhone/smart phone has become a researcher's best friend. Rather than pay or copy fees at the library (which can add up to hefty dollars), many libraries will allow researchers the use of the camera on their phone provided the sound and flash is turned off.

In short, this free PDF provides anyone researching old-time radio with an added benefit: what to ask a librarian before traveling out of state to an archive, clarifies the difference between a collector title and a script title, why half of the death dates listed on websites for celebrities are incorrect, and why you never want to consider anything found in a newspaper and magazine article as the gospel. 

Today, there are less than one dozen historians of old-time radio who research and publish their findings. For three of them, researching old-time radio is a full-time job. These numbers are expected to dwindle over the coming years. It is expected that, on occasion, there will be revived interest and possibly additional discoveries to be published. It is my hope that this essay will provide a primer for those newcomers. 

To view the free PDF file, click here: 


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Cinevent Film Festival Turns 50

This is big news. So big it will be the only blog post I make this month.

In May of 2018, thousands of classic film fans will gather in Columbus, Ohio, for the 50th consecutive year to attend the Cinevent Classic Film Convention. The convention, first held in 1969, celebrated the history of movies with screenings of dozens of movies, including silent films with live piano accompaniment, and an enormous dealers room for the buying, selling, and trading of films, movie posters, and a wide variety of other film-related merchandise.

The mid-1960s saw the beginning of classic film conventions starting with Cinecon and then followed by regional Cinecons. In 1967 and 1968, Bob Cooper, who owned Cooper’s Film Rental, held regional conventions just an hour’s drive down I-70 from Columbus in Dayton, Ohio. When he decided to not hold another convention in 1969, two of the founders of Cinevent -- John Stingley and Steve Haynes -- asked Bob if he would mind if they took over the show. With help from other members of the Columbus Cinelodeon Club, they held their first convention (not yet named Cinevent) in May of 1969 at the Neil House in downtown Columbus.

Steve Haynes, co-founder of Cinevent.

Little did they know that this first convention was the beginning of what would become an annual tradition that would span decades. It started out with just a few dozen attendees. The films were not prearranged -- people brought along films they wanted to propose showing -- and the only dealer/vendor was Bob Cooper who sold items from the back of the screening room during breaks between films. Nevertheless, the show was a hit and later in the year the crew started talking about holding another show the following year.

For the second convention, the club decided to rent a print of Harry Langdon’s The Strong Man and advertised that it would be screened at the show. Today, if you search for “Harry Langdon Strong Man” on YouTube, you will find the film in its entirety. In 1970, however, this was a hard-to-find film and Langdon was a major draw for attendees to come see it. For the second year the convention moved to Hotel Fort Hayes, another downtown Columbus venue.

It was not until the third convention, held in 1971, that the name Cinevent was used. Due to a disagreement about what qualified as a “Regional Cinecon,” the Columbus group was asked not to use that name any more. A local attorney and jazz film collector John Baker, generally considered one of the three founders of Cinevent with Stingley and Haynes, came up with several suggestions and he and Stingley and Haynes proposed Cinevent as the name for the 1971 show. Forty-seven years later, the name remains.

Throughout the 1970s, the convention quickly grew, from thirty or so people at that first show in 1969 to hundreds at the shows in the late-1970s. At some point during this time, the first official dealer’s room was set up as well. With this growth came the need to move from hotel to hotel to accommodate the larger gathering. Among the hotels Cinevent called home was a Howard Johnson’s on 161 and a Marriott on the southeast side of Columbus.

Example of movie posters and lobby cards you can find in the vendor room.

The film schedule formulated by request of the attendees, selecting specific actors and film series at certain times of the day. While a minimalistic “program book” printed for 1974’s event does list ten specific screenings, there were also nine spots for features “To Be Announced.” By 1980, only a reference to “informal screenings” before the 7pm Friday program start remained as a vestige of those early schedule-free shows. Also beginning at this time was the scheduling of Cinevent over Memorial Day weekend – a weekend that attendees could almost always count on to remember the dates of next year’s show.

Another noteworthy development from the 1970s was the addition of Art Graves, an associate of John Baker’s, as one of the convention co-chairs. Baker was older than both Stingley and Haynes and, knowing he would be retiring sooner than the other chairs, he brought Graves in to the management of the convention to help fill his eventual departure.

Leonard Maltin, guest of honor at this year's show.
Every year there are at least a dozen movies screened that have never aired on television in decades, or been released commercially on VHS or DVD. This provides attendees an opportunity to enjoy something rare. As with the 1970 screening of The Strong Man, the staff of Cinevent are proud to continue that tradition of screening hard-to-find movies. In 1981, a screening of The Black Pirates with Douglas Fairbanks was planned, but the deal to rent the print fell through and it was not until 1989 that it was screened at Cinevent. There were other notable titles shown such as the 1935 version of She, which had been thought to be lost for many years until a print turned up several years before it was shown at the 1984 convention.

The 1990s were a boom era for Cinevent with an article in Ohio state magazine, contributing to a major attendance boost, as well as a recurring nostalgic boom in the trade industry. In the middle of that decade, Morris Everett’s annual Hollywood Poster Auction started running alongside Cinevent every year and in 1999 the convention began offering Sunday morning 35mm screenings at The Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts – with buses hired to transport hundreds of filmgoers. The first such screening was of 1924’s PETER PAN with Betty Bronson where longtime Cinevent accompanist Dr. Philip Carli and the Flower City Society Orchestra performed Carli’s newly written score for the film. While the Sunday Wexner Center screening program only lasted for several years, the Wexner Center continues to schedule a Wednesday evening classic film double-bill to help kick off the convention.

The turn of the millennium saw more change come to Cinevent. In 2002, Art Graves stepped down as co-chairman and as he was not officially replaced, Haynes and Stingley were responsible for running the show from there. Only several years later, in early 2007, John Stingley passed away, leaving Steve Haynes as the sole surviving founder of Cinevent (Baker had died as well, in 1998.) Throughout all this, the convention kept rolling along, year after year with dozens of film screenings and its traditional enormous dealers room, packed with goodies.

The Internet helped promote the event, along with articles in the monthly Classic Images publication. It seemed like nothing to top the momentum of Cinevent until 2015, which brought a seismic shift to the convention as preparations for its 47th occurrence were under way. In late January of that year, Steve Haynes fell outside his home and went in for surgery to repair his broken leg. It was there that he discovered he had advanced-stage cancer. His son, Michael, began working on the activities needed to prepare for the convention, as did others, but there were more obstacles to come. In mid-February, the convention’s longtime hotel suddenly closed. With just over three months until the show was to be held, Cinevent had no home. Dozens of calls were placed to area hotels, trying to find a fit for the show, but between hotels that were already booked or were too small or were too expensive, finding one began to look unlikely. The convention was too large to fit into any hotel. Finally, a deal was struck with the Renaissance Downtown hotel, bringing Cinevent back to downtown Columbus for the first time in almost 40 years.

Sadly, Steve Haynes did not live to see the ultimate success of Cinevent 47, despite its many obstacles, as he died in April of 2015. The convention that year saw many tributes to the last of its founders and the attendees were delighted when new chair Michael Haynes announced that Cinevent would continue.

Cinevent signed a multi-year deal to stay at the Renaissance in 2016 and 2017. In 2017 a special screening of the recently-rediscovered print of Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century occurred and Cinevent announced that the convention would return to the same location in May 2018 for its Golden Celebration.

Already announced as part of this year’s show are screenings of Dreamboat with Ginger Rogers, Sea Spoilers with John Wayne, The King of Wild Horses featuring Charley Chase in an atypical role, and Don’t Change Your Husband with Gloria Swanson. The John Wayne film, as a perfect example, is one of five or six action films he did for Universal Studios in the early-to-mid 1930s, before he became known as a cowboy star. If you thought you saw every John Wayne film ever made, guess again. In addition to the film program and the massive dealer’s room, New York Times best-selling author Scott Eyman will be attending, as well as film critic Leonard Maltin. There will also be a reception to celebrate the milestone year, a commemorative program guide, and other special events.

Information about attending this year’s show can be found on the Cinevent website (www.cinevent.com) and you can follow their Facebook page (www.facebook.com/cineventconvention) for updates.

STRONG PERSONAL NOTE: If you cannot afford the expensive luxury of flying to California and attending the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival this April, consider attending Cinevent. Fifty years is a milestone and worthy of attending. You will not regret it.