Friday, September 14, 2018

Frances Langford Finally Receives Her Due

To date there has never been a biography about Frances Langford in print form, which makes Ben Ohmart's latest contribution to the reference library all the more valuable. She really was the Sweetheart of the Armed Forces, once quoted of saying "God knows I would gladly give my life to help end this terrible affair and send those boys home to their families and friends where they belong." With her vocal talents as both movie star and radio personality, her career has been immortalized in recorded form. Her personal life restricted to the tabloids and gossip columns of the times, she donated everything she owned -- including letters, scrapbooks and photographs to the Martin County Historical Society in Minnesota. Anyone can visit the Elliott Museum and browse through her collection, but Ben Ohmart saved us an expensive trip across the country with this 333-page book documenting her personal life, her radio career, her screen career and more than any other aspect of her career... what she devoted to troops overseas. 

"Frances cared a lot about her war work," Ohmart explains, "and more than anything, I wanted this book to showcase her amazing patriotism." Chapter three focuses on her tour with Bob Hope for the U.S.O. 

I could go on paragraph after paragraph of what this book contains but if you are seeking a biography that covers all aspects of her life and career, this is the book. The most impressive aspect is the fact that this book features hundreds of never-before-seen photographs from Langford's personal collection and are a rare treat. Most biographies have a handful of rare photographs, sometimes as a centerpiece in the middle of a book. Ben Ohmart gave us not just a slice of the pie, but multiple pies of various flavors. The photos alone are worth the price of this book.


Friday, September 7, 2018

Forever and a Day: The Origin of James Bond

"There is only one recipe for a best seller. You have to get the reader to turn over the page."
-- Ian Fleming

It is not every day that I receive an advance copy of a novel to be published months from now and I have to confess both my sincere appreciation and excitement when I discovered it was a James Bond novel. Not just any novel, but the official prequel to Casino Royale (1953), which provides an origin for James Bond.

Casino Royale was a magnificent read. The prose was fantastic and the story simplistic. Establishing the world of spies and international intrigue the novel described celebrated world cities, beautiful women and his motif for working with them, being captured by the villain, enjoying upscale brands, and a muted violent streak that verges on cruelty. Subsequent novels were enjoyable, but nowhere near the caliber of Casino Royale. In fact, if you are going to read any other Ian Fleming novels, I recommend his third, Moonraker (1955), simply because so many elements in that novel crept into the cinema formula of the Bond movies.

Other authors took over the mantle after the passing of Ian Fleming and dozens and dozens of Bond novels have been published over the past few decades. Of recent, Anthony Horowitz took on the task and with credits to his name (the Alex Rider novels and teleplays for Poirot, Midsomer Murders and Murder Most Horrid) it was a surefire success. His first, Trigger Mortis is enjoyable and one can hear the John Barry 007 theme numerous times during action sequences. His second, due for publication in November, is Forever and a Day.


In this new entry, James Bond has just been promoted to 00 status and is sent to the Riviera (and environs, particularly Marseille) to discover who killed his predecessor and why. There he meets with a woman who may or may not be on the side of the angels, an American industrialist making film stock for Hollywood and a grotesquely fat Corsican syndicate head who deals in drugs and could be straight out of Dick Tracy’s gallery of villains. He also encounters a CIA operative who appears to be a reliable good guy. Throw in some car chases, some great food and drink and you have a classic Bond thriller.

If you do not want to wait until November, you can purchase a copy of the book from England because it was released commercially overseas back in May. But if you are seeking adventure and escapism this holiday season, treat yourself and order a copy of this book.

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Russell Brothers Circus Scrapbook

With the American Circus a dying breed, it warms my heart to see that there are a number of good folks who are taking the time to dig into archives, newspaper files and track down family relatives to compile reference guides documenting and preserving the big top. Keith Webb and Joseph F. Laredo recently published The Russell Brothers Circus Scrapbook with dozens of rare and previously unpublished photographs. 

Little did I know that the circus was featured in the 1942 Alfred Hitchcock suspense classic, Saboteur, the great animal trainer Clyde Beatty would join forces with the Russell Brothers Circus, and that silver screen cowboys made professional appearances over the years: including Hoot Gibson, Reb Russel, and a brief appearance by Ken Maynard.

Hollywood celebrities were also part of the program from time to time, often to promote their motion-pictures. The circus sometimes crept into the participation of film production. The elephants in the circus were transported to the Iverson Movie Ranch for Tarzan's New York Adventure. Johnny Sheffield, known as "Bomba, the Jungle Boy," was among the endless parade of movie personalities dining in the Russell Brothers cook hour on tour, along with Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, Betty Grable, Alice Faye, Gene Tierney, and others. Maureen O'Hara apparently possessed a tomboy streak so she took to the animals. There is a story about John Barrymore drinking too much at the circus, and how the circus helped with the war cause during the Second World War.

The book is available at www.russellbrotherscircus.com

Friday, August 17, 2018

Mae West: Between the Covers (Book Review)

"In my long and colorful career, one thing stands out: I have been misunderstood."
           -- Mae West

Mae West: Between the Covers, edited by Michael Gregg Michaud, is not a biography of Mae West though first impression from the outside was that this was a 540-page biography. I welcome a biography that can dig up more facts than the prior volumes but this is not that type of book.

The name Mae West conjures up a sex symbol whose status diminished as a result of the Hayes Code,  but few remember that she broke box office records, earned an Oscar nomination for "Best Picture" with She Done Him Wrong, and fought against William Randolph Hearst who insisted his editors avoid mention of her name in his newspapers. In private, she was different from her screen counterparts: he led a quiet, moral life. It was West herself who confessed, "I am a showman and I know that the public wants sex in their entertainment, and I give it to them." 

It is this last remark that makes up the majority of the book -- reprints of vintage magazine articles of the times, chronicling her career as it was documented on the newsstands beginning with an article from Liberty magazine, August 10, 1927. As most serious scholars and historians will attest, many articles in magazines and newspapers of the times were fluff pieces -- with quotes and information provided by the movie studios and their publicity departments. In short, we take what was on the printed page with a grain of salt. 

The earliest articles in this book provide interesting information on the stage plays she starred and co-starred, including one from 1929 that appeared in the International Police Bugle, printed and circulated in Detroit, Michigan. The year of 1933 featured numerous articles warning readers to be prepared for the Mae West that was coming to a theater near them, with such headlines as "Broadway's Most Daring Actress Drops Into Hollywood" and "Look Out! Here's Mae West!"

The supposed daring jewel heist from which Mae West was a victim is documented in the January 1933 issue of Movie Classic, Lew Garvey's fascinating article "I Fired Mae West for Doing the Shimmy," and "Mae West's Personal Maid Tells All" from January 1934 verified she was headline news of the time. Of amusement was a rash of articles from late 1933 and early 1934 suggesting sh knew more about sex than the average reader, with such articles as "Sex is Beautiful, Mae West Sex-plains It All," "Mae West Tells How to Handle Men," "Mae West Discusses Men and Sex Appeal" and "It's the Caveman Within Us Calling for Mae" that suggest she would say almost anything to hype her latest motion-picture.

For a fan of old-time radio, such as myself, the March 1934 issue of Radio Stars featured "Can Mae West Beat the Radio JINX?" The articles venture to May 1977 when After Dark printed an article about her personal and screen career.

The book is a fascinating and entertaining read. If you love reading those old magazine articles from the 1930s and 1940s, you will enjoy this book. If I had but one complaint... there is no index which would have been great when someone like me wants to look up Cary Grant or Edgar Bergen to see how her name was reported alongside those personalities.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Christopher Robin (2018): Pooh has Pathos

In an era where superheroes destroy half of Manhattan in an effort to save the human race from an alien invasion, and young children cheer on as Jedi knights duel lightsabers on the silver screen, Christopher Robinmay be Disney's attempt to close down the Winnie the Pooh franchise to make way for more promising marketing potential. Christopher Robinwill not even come close in box office dollars compared to Soloor The Avengers: Infinity War, and one has to wonder if this was the studio's attempt to reboot a franchise that was destined to make way for Intergalactic fisticuffs. 

There are numerous movies that fall into a genre that has yet to be defined: husbands and fathers who are too busy with work to focus on the real importance of living. An element of fantasy creates intervention with the curmudgeon, long enough for them to catch a glimpse in the mirror and make amends. James Caan in Elf, Robin Williams in Hookand even James Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life fall into this category. The latest entry in the Disney live-action film franchise based on lovable animated cartoon characters is Christopher Robin, and is not a motion-picture for children. The first third of the movie is so depressing that one almost wondered what type of storytelling was attempted. But a film addressing the psychological exploration of a man's mind during trial and tribulation would have been welcome had the film stayed on course.

The stories of Winnie the Pooh and his friends in the Hundred Acre Woods was clearly the imagination of a nine-year-old boy who, with no friends to play with, kept himself preoccupied with fairytale creatures that existed only as stuffed toys. As Robin grew up and forgot about his friends, they ceased to exist. After being reminded of Pooh through a cartoonish drawing he made as a child, Pooh wakes to find himself alone in the woods -- and sets out to find his friends. As Robin's boyhood memories come back to him, so do Tigger, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore, Kanga and Roo. A number of quick cuts and questionable "displacement" of real-life artifacts establish that Pooh and friends are mere fantasy in the mind of Robin. One momentarily questions whether Christopher Robin (played by Ewan McGregor) is suffering from a breakdown as a result of a major deadline due Monday at work.

Over the years there have been motion-pictures centering on fantasy cartoon characters who get sucked into our world, defined as "the real world," establishing a difference between the two worlds, and vice versa. (Fat AlbertThe Smurfsand others come to mind.) They were dreadful because the suspension of disbelief is difficult to maintain with celluloid. Thankfully the computer graphics for Winnie the Pooh and friends is magnificent; acting by everyone in the cast is satisfactory under the circumstances. But asking people in the real world to interact with fictional characters during the final third of the movie is where the film, as depressing as it might have been up to that point, is flawed. Perhaps there had to be a Disney-esque ending to this movie... but I suspect the resolution, though somewhat expected in this genre, could have been applied without the whimsical humor.

Until the recent Star Wars and Marvel acquisitions, Winnie the Pooh was the second highest-grossing merchandise for the Walt Disney Company (with Mickey Mouse number one). As Winnie the Pooh himself says in the film, "I would have liked it to go on for a while longer." If this be Pooh's swan song, this would be a satisfactory final chapter.  

Friday, August 3, 2018

Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman's The Fantastic Four

In 1994, Roger Corman produced a low-budget movie based on Marvel's popular comic book series, The Fantastic Four, starring Alex Hyde-White, Jay Underwood, Rebecca Staab and Michael Bailey Smith. This marked the first of what would be four live action renditions. Regardless of the fact that the three movies to follow had huge million-dollar budgets, fan boys at comic cons generally agree that the 1994 film is perhaps the best of them. Yet, the Roger Corman film was never released theatrically in theaters, commercially on VHS or DVD, and continues to sit on the shelves gathering dust. In fact, the only way anyone can watch the movie is to buy a VHS or DVD bootleg. Even worse is the fact that the movie was produced with no true intention to release the film - ever!

In the mid-1980s, German film producers, Constantin Films, bought the screen rights from Marvel Comics for an initial $250,000. Among the terms of the contract was that the studio had to produce a movie within ten years or the screen rights would revert back to Marvel. Just before the ten-year option ran out, and in order to meet the terms of the contract, executives at Constantin hired Roger Corman and hurriedly put this film into production. According to the story, executives at Marvel were not impressed at the low-budget results and in order to avoid damaging the brand the studio quietly bought the few existing film prints and negatives from Constantin Films to avoid the possibility of a theatrical or video release. Both Roger Corman (who produced the film), director Oley Sassone and the cast and crew of the film were not consulted or informed of this move, as there were indeed plans in place for a small theatrical release. (A movie trailer was made with this in mind.)

Constantin Films was able to maintain another ten-year option on the screen rights, secured funding from 20th-Century Fox, and the big budget 2005 version was the end result. A 2007 sequel and a terrible 2015 reboot followed.


While the movie was a means to tap dance around a contractual clause, fan boys today have managed to secure a primitive form or preservation by mass duplicating copies of the 1994 movie on VHS and DVD. It is estimated that every fan of The Fantastic Four, across the country, have a copy of this movie in their collection. (I had the good fortune to watch the movie at a fan gathering in Michigan a number of years ago.) If executives at Marvel or Constantin wanted to keep the movie locked away, their plan failed. To believe the film could be suppressed at this point would be futile. 

So you can imagine my pleasure when I learned that two years ago director Marty Langford produced an 84-minute documentary titled Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman's The Fantastic Four, providing the view from the ground of what it was like to pour your heart and hopes into something that was never going to be seen by the general public. Practically every actor, writer, producer, director, stunt man and crew technician was approached and interviewed for commentary, providing background into the film that today you can find easily on YouTube. It is pop culture documentaries like these that I find enjoyable. Now available on DVD through Amazon.com, I recommend this to anyone who loved the 1994 Roger Corman gem. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

Dick Tracy Meets The Green Hornet

This might have slipped under the radar for fans of The Green Hornet... in April our heroes, Britt Reid and Kato, made a crossover appearance in the newspaper strip, Dick Tracy. Because newspapers across the country are cutting the budget by eliminating comic strips from their daily papers, not everyone has the advantage of keeping up with Dick Tracy. Over the past few years, artists Joe Staton and Mike Curtis have been introducing other pop culture characters into the Dick Tracy adventures -- Little Orphan Annie, etc. Thankfully, there is a website that posts Dick Tracy on the internet and if you click the link below, you can start reading the story arc. 


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 Buy will 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!

http://rodserling.com/SerlingFest2018/SerlingFest2018promo1.html


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.

https://www.amazon.com/Calvin-Colonel-Reincarnation-Amos-Andy/dp/1986106152/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1525475595&sr=8-1&keywords=calvin+and+the+colonel+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.