Christmas Movie Review: “The Great Rupert”

“The Great Rupert” (aka “A Christmas Wish”) (1950) Starring Jimmy Durante, Terry Moore and Tom Drake. Directed by Irving Pichel. From Eagle-Lion Films.

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Interesting that Rupert does not appear on this poster.

What defines a “Christmas movie”? Is it a film that simply takes place at Christmas, like “Die Hard”? Or does the entirety of the plot need to concern Christmas, like “Scrooge”? We’ll leave that to discuss another time.

Old Joe Mahoney (Jimmy Conlin) can’t book his ‘squirrel act’. Rupert is a dancing squirrel but he is simply not ‘box-office’ so Joe sets him free and vacates the little apartment where his rent is months in arrears.

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Rupert, the dancing squirrel. Just not ‘box-office’.

The Amendola Trio has fallen on similarly hard times. Louie (Durante), Rosalinda (Moore) and Mama (Queenie Smith) are an acrobatic/musical act looking for a place to live. They meet Joe and he turns them on to his recently vacated digs. The Amendola’s go to check it out and, despite the hole in the skylight that lets the snow in, decide it’ll do nicely. They meet Pete (Drake), son of the tight-wad landlord, Mr. Dingle (Frank Orth). Louie sweet talks Pete – who is smitten with Rosalinda – into letting them move in without putting any money up and they set up housekeeping in the little apartment. Little does anyone know that Rupert the squirrel has moved back in to his old place. He looks down on the Amendola’s from the roof beam outside his hutch above.

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The Amendola’s negotiate with Pete. They soon turn the dump into some pretty fair digs; with some help from above.

Meanwhile, Mr. Dingle has received a letter saying that a gold mine has payed off and henceforth he will be receiving a cheque every week in the amount of $1500! Every Thursday he gets his cheque and every week at 3 PM he goes to the bank to cash it. But Mr. Dingle is too smart to keep his money in a bank – “those chiselers!”. He drills a hole behind a baseboard in his house and slips the money through, giggling and rubbing his hands all the while. Someone is not very happy with Dingle’s weekly deposits; the hole he has drilled leads right into Rupert’s hidden hutch!

Below in the Amendola apartment, Mama is overcome with sadness. It’s Christmas Eve and the family has no money, no prospects and Rosalinda needs a new pair of shoes. Exhausted, she slumps in a rocking chair and begins to pray. At about the time that she finishes her prayer for help from above, Rupert is removing the obstreperous 15 one hundred dollar bills that are cluttering his living space. One by one they seem to float down from the heavens, much to Mama’s joy! She has been granted her “Christmas wish”. What should she do with this windfall? Where should she say she got it? Will Papa and Rosalinda believe her?

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George Pal and friend.

What follows is a clever little film brought to you by producer George Pal. Pal was born in Hungary and came to America in 1939. His “Puppetoons” series of animated films employed a novel style of stop-motion animation and for these he was awarded an honourary Oscar in 1943. Interesting to note that one of the “Puppetoons” characters was an African American named Jasper. While he was conceived innocently, Jasper, unfortunately, was another racial stereotype during this classic era of old Hollywood. What is notable is that Pal was given somewhat of a pass by Ebony Magazine which stated in a 1947 article that while Jasper displayed negative tropes, Pal himself grew up in Europe and was not raised with racial prejudice.

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Photo courtesy of “The Time Machine Project”.

Pal then moved into film production and directing with “The Great Rupert” being his first production. Pal used his stop-motion expertise to make the talented squirrel come alive. He also appears in the film; something I learned courtesy of The ColemanZone, a site dedicated to Pal’s “The Time Machine” (1960). He would go on to produce and/or direct several notable films, not all of which required his techniques as an animator: “The War of the Worlds” (1953), “Houdini” (1953), “The Naked Jungle” (1954), “Tom Thumb” (1958), and “7 Faces of Dr. Lao” (1964). He passed away in 1980, aged 72.

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Irving Pichel as Sandor with Gloria Holden in “Dracula’s Daughter” (1936).

For his director, Pal chose Irving Pichel. A Harvard graduate, the erudite Pichel began as a character actor in the 1930’s with roles in “An American Tragedy” (later remade as “A Place in the Sun”), “I’m No Angel”, “Dracula’s Daughter” and “Jezebel”. He would later narrate many films including “How Green Was My Valley” and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”. He turned to directing and helmed “The Moon is Down” (1940) based on John Steinbeck’s novel and “The Miracle of the Bells” (1948) with Sinatra before making a triumvirate of significant films in 1950: “The Great Rupert”, “Quicksand”, Mickey Rooney’s film noir and “Destination Moon” which was another film Pichel made with Pal and one that is notable as being an early “space age” film that depicted the inherent dangers of traveling from the Earth to the Moon and back.

In 1947, Pichel was blacklisted as one of the “Hollywood Nineteen”. Although it was not initially confirmed that Pichel was a Communist, he was forced to leave the United States to direct his final pictures and it was after being blacklisted that he developed a heart condition that took his life in 1954. It was confirmed after his death that he was, in fact, a member of the Communist Party.

Speaking of Communists… Ted Allan was a writer from Montreal. As a member of the Young Communist League of Canada, Allan infiltrated fascist organizations so he could write about them for Canada’s Communist newspaper, the Clarion. Allan also wrote a children’s story called “Willie the Squowse” that he sold to Hollywood. It went through several alterations and emerged as “The Great Rupert”. Eventually, Allan published “Willie the Squowse” as a children’s book in 1977.

For years, Allan worked closely with Dr. Norman Bethune. Bethune – a Canadian and a Communist – single-handedly brought medicine to rural China during the Second-Sino Japanese War (1937-1945). Today, Bethune is a revered figure in China. Allan fought for years to get a film made of Bethune’s life, finally succeeding in 1990 with Donald Sutherland playing Bethune. Interestingly, one of Allan’s plays was directed by Sean Connery in London in 1969.

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Jimmy Durante: the Schnozzola.

“The Great Rupert” stars “The Great Durante”. And Jimmy Durante….needs his own post. Suffice it to say that Durante is a legend in the entertainment business and has few peers and there has certainly never been anyone like him. “Rupert” came at the end of a long run of films for Durante and he would only star in two more films. He is typically great in this film.

Terry Moore is a fascinating actress. “Rupert” was the third film she made billed as “Terry Moore” (the second was “Mighty Joe Young”). Afterwards she appeared in small films until 1952 when she received an Academy Award nomination for “Come Back, Little Sheba”. Later, she was seen in “Beneath the 12-Mile Reef”, “Daddy Long Legs”, “Bernardine” and “Peyton Place”. She is perhaps more well known for her five husbands and a long relationship with Howard Hughes. She claimed that her and Hughes were actually married although the courts denied her widow’s rights. The Hughes estate, however, acknowledged her long relationship with Hughes with a settlement that Moore described as “not more than eight figures” but that a Hughes biographer says was more like $350,000 – well, Moore wasn’t lying, I guess. Terry Moore is still with us at 89 years of age.

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Pretty Terry Moore with Tom Drake on Christmas morning in “The Great Rupert”.

Tom Drake was born in Brooklyn and usually played the boy-next-door type. He is probably best known for playing the boy next door, literally – next door to Judy Garland – in 1944’s “Meet Me in St. Louis”. He worked steadily through the late 1940’s making appearances in “Courage of Lassie” (1946) and “Words and Music” (1948). After “The Great Rupert”, things began to dry up. His only other notable film appearance was in “Raintree County” in 1957. He moved into TV and then passed away relatively young at 64 in 1982.

A rather benign music score was provided for this film by composer-conductor Leith Stevens. Stevens is revered in some quarters today for his many edgy “crime jazz” scores for film noirs in the late-’40’s and early-’50’s such as “Larceny”, “Beware, My Lovely”, and “The Bigamist”. He was also George Pal’s go-to composer, working on the Pal-produced “Destination Moon”, “When Worlds Collide” and “The War of the Worlds”. He also scored “The Wild One” with Marlon Brando and “A New Kind of Love” with Paul Newman. If you want an audio companion to the dark mood and dire straits of the film noir world, you can look to Leith Stevens. An interesting side note; his last composing credit appears on the 1971 TV movie “Assault on the Wayne”, a Cold War-themed action film that co-starred Leonard Nimoy and that was originally broadcast the same night that “All in the Family” premiered. Sadly, he died of a heart attack when he was 60 after hearing of his wife’s death in an auto accident.

So, a Canadian Communist writes about a dancing squirrel and a Canadian surgeon who was a hero of the Chinese Revolution? And from this we get Durante in “The Great Rupert”? True story. And it’s a pretty engaging film. It doesn’t stay “Christmas” for very long but it’s charm lies in the subtleties of the plot: the precision of Dingle making his deposits into the wall leading to Rupert clearing his hutch aligning with Mama saying her prayers and looking up at the hole in the skylight. It’s a pleasant little story with a likeable cast. The film is in the public domain and you can watch it at the Internet Archive  and on YouTube.

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“Silent Night” Turns 200

One of the best known and most often recorded songs in history is the Austrian Christmas carol, “Silent Night”. It was first performed in German 200 years ago this Christmas Eve in the tiny St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf, Austria. And this Christmas Eve, 200 years later, it will undoubtedly be sung again in places of worship – and in living rooms – all over the world. There are many events planned this year in Salzburg – 20 minutes from Oberndorf – to commemorate the bicentennial of this song that, in 2011, was listed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

A young Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics to the song in 1816 and gave it it’s proper title: “Stille Nacht, heilige nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”). Two years later, Mohr took his lyrics to organist Franz Xaver Gruber and asked him to have music written for his words in time for the song to be performed for the Christmas Eve mass. Interestingly and quite unique for it’s day, Mohr requested Gruber write for guitar accompaniment. The song was performed that Christmas Eve but no report exists indicating how it was received. The oft-told story that it was written for guitar because the church’s organ was under repair is untrue.

Over the years, the original manuscript was lost and subsequently Joseph Mohr’s name was forgotten. It wasn’t until 1995 that a manuscript in Mohr’s handwriting was found that confirmed that he wrote the words and Gruber the music.

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Like the town where it resides, the Silent Night Chapel is pretty, tiny and quaint.

The original St. Nicholas church was severely damaged by flooding in the 1890’s. In fact, the whole town of Oberndorf had to be rebuilt upstream in 1899. The church continued to sustain damage, so much so that the decision was made to tear down the chapel and erect a new one. Today, you can visit the quaint Silent Night Chapel in pretty Oberndorf and you can take a 25-minute tour for 3 Euros.

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Picture this times 30 million. Note that only Gruber is credited.

The song began to become well known, with fans of it distributing it to churches and traveling singers until it was first performed in the United States in New York City in 1839. It quickly became a perennial favourite, adored the world over. Almost one hundred years after hitting American shores, in 1935, Bing Crosby recorded “Silent Night”. It was suggested to him that he try his hand at this treasured Christmas song and immediately he demurred. At the time, Bing was the biggest singer in the land and had already revolutionized the art of popular song. He initially refused to record the song owing to the fact that he was a pop singer who sang in night clubs. He was also an owner of racehorses and he felt it would be inappropriate. Bing had attended the Jesuit Gonzaga University and was a religious man. Eventually, though, he was persuaded. One of Bing’s first 78RPM albums was “Christmas Music”, released in December of 1940, and it contained his initial recording of “Silent Night”. He re-recorded the song in 1942 and released it as a single. It was enormously successful and went on to sell – wait for it – 30 million copies. This is historically significant for two reasons. Consider that only TWO other records in the history of mankind have sold more copies than Bing’s “Silent Night”: it is the third-highest selling single of all time. Secondly, Bing once again proved to be a pioneer – this time in that he was the first pop singer to successfully interpret Christmas music, both carols and pop songs. To think that at one time this wasn’t a thing whereas now it is a major facet of the music business.

Other versions followed. Many, actually. Virtually every artist that has ever sang Christmas music on record or in performance has included this most revered song. I always make a point of saying ‘even Dean Martin’. Dino brought joy to the world with his two Christmas albums but did not sing carols on record – except for “Silent Night”. It closes his 1966 seasonal offering “The Dean Martin Christmas Album”. Dino was savvy enough not only to sing it but to sequence it last on his record. It is the perfect closing song for any Christmas program and it seems odd when it appears anywhere else on an album.

There are a couple of notable exceptions to this, though. The third album ever released by Frank Sinatra was “Christmas Songs by Sinatra” for Columbia Records in 1948. “Silent Night” opens this set. You could argue that this also speaks to the song’s status: it deserves to go first. “Elvis’ Christmas Album” was released in 1957 and is the biggest-selling Christmas album of all-time and one of the biggest-selling albums of all-time. King – like Frank – didn’t wait long to record Christmas music; this is his third album also. He arranged his version of “Silent Night” and it appears on this record and is the second song on side 2 (?).

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Two guys that could really sing but didn’t know where to put “Silent Night” on the record!

All the greatest singers of Christmas music have recorded “Silent Night” and, with the exception of the two big hitters mentioned above – knew that it was the perfect note to end on. Perry Como has it close his 1959 record “Season’s Greetings from Perry Como”. It is the last song on Nat Cole’s original 1960 offering “The Magic of Christmas”. It is also the final song on the first Christmas album from Andy Williams, 1963’s “The Andy Williams Christmas Album”.

1963’s “A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector” is commonly referred to as one of the greatest albums ever and the one that made it hip for pop artists of the mid-1960’s to release Christmas music. Phil ends his record with a spoken personal greeting featuring “Silent Night” as a backdrop. In 1966, Simon and Garfunkel made a statement of sorts by ending their album “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” with “Silent Night” played along with a news anchor telling of the unrest in the world. Seven of the ten best selling Christmas albums of all-time feature “Silent Night” with five of them presenting it last; the other two favour it enough to present it first.

“Silent Night” continues to be recorded to this day. In fact, it has been put on record at least 733 times in the past 40 years alone – that is over 18 appearances every Christmas. It’s interesting to note that even with the division in the world today this 200 year old song about the birth of Christ can still resonate with people the world over.

Listing the “best” versions of “Silent Night” is a bit of a fool’s errand. You don’t come across many drastic reinterpretations of the song. Few artists attempt to “bring something new” to the tune or the classic arrangement of it. Just to sing this celestial song is enough. However, I’m a list guy so here goes. Perhaps we can say that this list takes into account not just the purity of the performance but the significance of it in the Christmas music canon.

The version you sing in church on Christmas Eve — I’m being presumptuous here but indulge me. Call it a dreamy nod to the traditions of Christmas Past. Due in part to it’s Origins, Christmas is a sacred time for a lot of people and regardless of your particular inclinations the Christmas Eve service or Mass is simply a part of the season. Invariably, “Silent Night” is sung by many on this night around the world. Maybe ‘living room’ singing has gone by the boards but this practice – as well as the tradition of door-to-door caroling – is also a part of the pageantry of the season. “Silent Night” – being so familiar to many and so easy to sing – has been sung by many of us at one time or another. And it’s a nice thing, to sing this song yourself.

Bing Crosby (1942) — We’ve discussed Bing’s version already but it bears repeating. For myself and for many, there are certain sounds that signal the start of the Christmas season. It may be the energetic intro of Andy Williams’ “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” or the Jordanaires singing “Christmas…Christmas…” before King launches into “Santa Claus is Back in Town”. And for many it is the dulcet tones of John Scott Trotter’s orchestra playing the intro to either Bing’s “White Christmas” or “Silent Night”. Bing’s 1942 recording is not only sublime but it is flat-out historic.

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Earl Grant (1965) — Earl Grant was a jazz and lounge keyboardist in the ’50’s and ’60’s that had a hit with his vocal rendition of “The End”. For an instrumentalist, he had a great voice and sounded a lot like Nat Cole. His 1965 album “Winter Wonderland” features great arrangements of seasonal favourites. He brings wonderful gospel flavour to his “Silent Night” and blends piano and organ with his humming. The humming – something we all can do – makes this recording extremely accessible and it possesses what Bing would call a ‘mellow glow’.

Harry Connick, Jr. (2003) — Speaking of gospel… After Bing’s, Harry’s was the first version I heard of this song that produced an emotional response in me. Harry was raised Catholic and brings a lot of that reverence to his Christmas music. On his second Christmas collection, “Harry for the Holidays”, Connick brings an exciting New Orleans street parade vibe to the songs of the season. His “Silent Night” ends this record; it even appears after a song about New Year’s. He makes great use of an old friend, trumpeter Leroy Holmes. Leroy’s work on this track literally drips with soul, spirit and emotion. Harry’s vocal likewise. His “Hallelujah”‘s may more likely have been heard in the church Leroy grew up going to as opposed to the one Harry attended.

The Temptations (1970) — Falsetto Eddie Kendricks takes the lead on this track from the Tempt’s first Christmas record, “Christmas Card”. There’s actually nothing spectacular about this version. It contains a gentle orchestral setting and a really fine, soulful vocal from Kendricks. There is an overall heartfelt simplicity to this recording that is somehow comforting.

Elvis Presley (1957) — I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of this record. Elvis’ two Christmas albums – 20 Christmas songs – are near and dear to my heart and, when Christmas comes, for me it’s Bing and King head and shoulders above the rest. Elvis Presley did not release a mediocre Christmas song. But “Elvis’ Christmas Album” features eight Christmas songs and four gospel songs. I love gospel music. The idea that Christmas is the only time to record and release, to hear and to listen to gospel music rankles me. At Christmas, I wanna hear Christmas. I can – and do – listen to gospel throughout the whole year. But that’s just me. EP arranged his fine version of “Silent Night” and the Jordanaires shine. King’s recording of this carol did not raise eyebrows but Irving Berlin thought that Presley’s version of “White Christmas” was a travesty and he had his staff call radio stations in New York to request banning the song and the whole album. Not many complied but one DJ was fired for playing “White Christmas” and most Canadian stations refused to play it.

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Dean Martin (1966) — Again I say that it adds to “Silent Night”‘s cred that Dino, who kept it jolly, thought enough of this song that it was the only carol he ever recorded. Dean sings it in his usual laid back style and it’s a fine recording but what I like about it is it’s sincerity. Dean Martin was seldom serious. There is an often heard bit of comedy from Frank and Dean on stage in which Frank admonishes Dean to “be serious!” to which Dean replies that he tried that and he could only get construction work. It’s a joke but it does speak to Dean’s public persona. He played drunk more often than he was drunk but he was always seen with a smile and was ready with a zinger; after all he did make his name in comedy opposite Jerry Lewis. He inherently was an easygoing person who seldom played it straight. So to hear him earnestly singing “Silent Night” is in it’s own way remarkable. It serves as a reminder that there was a time in the entertainment industry when many performers across the spectrum of the business could get serious when it came to Christmas. It seems they all remembered their shared childhoods that contained much the same Christmas traditions. When the holiday season came around most performers contributed something to the Christmas spirit and – at least sometimes – it was heartfelt and reflective. Nice.

Ledward Ka’apana (1996) — I wanted to include “Led”‘s lovely version for the simple reason that the finest Christmas music speaks to your soul. It is warm, emotive, comforting and promotes relaxation. It’s often listened to quietly by the fire or while admiring the Christmas tree’s glow. It is peaceful. A lot of the same could be said for Hawaiian music. Few other musical styles promote escape as much as the ukuleles and steel and slack-key guitars of the 50th State. When you combine the two genres, it is indeed a tranquil experience. Such is the case with Ka’apana’s take on this timeless classic. This appears on an album I can highly recommend, “Ki Ho’Alu Christmas”. It is choice.

Mahalia Jackson (1962) — Did I say I don’t like mixing gospel with Christmas? Mahalia Jackson’s very being exuded gospel. It was the only music she ever sang, saying that “it makes me feel free. It gives me hope. With the blues, when you finish, you still have the blues”. Mahalia was once referred to as “the single most powerful black woman in the United States”. She was heavily involved with the civil rights movement and, during his famous speech at the March on Washington, shouted an encouragement to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to “tell them about the dream”. He proceeded to deviate from his script and utter the ad-libbed words “I have a dream”. She was one of the first 8 people to receive the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and when she sings “Silent Night” on her 1962 album of the same name her spellbinding voice, vocal intonation and breath control are devastating. The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, was a protégé of Mahalia’s and Franklin would take Jackson’s vocal stylings and phrasing into the stratosphere; which would lead to Whitney and Mariah taking 90 seconds and 14 tones to sing a one-syllable word. But Mahalia’s passion is palpable even though it is properly restrained.

Bobby Darin (1960) — I spoke about Dean Martin and others “getting serious” for the holidays. Walden Robert Cossotto was no exception. In fact, Bobby Darin took it even further. Raised Catholic Italian, like Dino, Bobby’s album “The 25th Day of December” bears much more resemblance to Christmas Eve high mass than it does to “Splish Splash”. This record is ambitious and daring and boldly exhibits songs of the Nativity. Bobby sings carols, hymns, spirituals and folk songs and most of them are obscure. Unlike Dean Martin and more like Frank Sinatra, there is nary a “White Christmas”, a Rudolph or a Frosty in Darin’s Christmas canon. For example, Darin sings in the original Latin “Dona Nobis Pacem”, part of the Agnus Dei from the Roman Catholic Latin Mass that is unrelated to Christmas and was introduced in 687! “Bobby’s Swingin’ Christmas Party!” this ain’t. “Silent Night”, however, is worthy of inclusion among these highbrow works. For a guy with a bum ticker, Bobby always had great breath control. He had a great voice, great tone and he does well with this venerable carol, introduced in Austria 200 years ago.

Gottfried Kasparek is a musicology and dramaturgy professor. He recently broke down the composition “Silent Night” and had this to say: “Even members of different religions or atheists cannot escape the magic of the moving composition. This is because the song expresses the power of the Christmas story in simple words and motifs and because the music does not sound triumphant but rather touching”. Check out these sites for more skinny:

https://www.stillenacht.com/en/

http://www.visit-salzburg.net/surroundings/silentnightchapel.htm

http://stillenacht-oberndorf.com/

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Horror Movie Review: “The Maze”

“The Maze” (1953) Starring Richard Carlson, Veronica Hurst, Katherine Emery and Michael Pate. Directed by William Cameron Menzies. From Allied Artists Pictures.

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“The Maze” from 1953. Brought to you in 3 Dimensions.

I stumbled on this film quite by accident. A random search for “classic horror films” of a certain length yielded “The Maze” so I checked it out. I was pleasantly surprised. And I wasn’t.

Gerald MacTeam, a Scotsman, is traveling through Europe with his fiancee, Kitty (Hurst) and her Aunt Edith (Emery) and some friends. He suddenly gets word that his uncle, a baronet, has died and Gerald has inherited his title and Craven Castle, the family estate in the Scottish highlands. Gerald leaves his party of traveling companions to deal with this family business promising Kitty he’ll be in touch soon. Weeks go by before Kitty hears from Gerald and the news is not good. Kitty is abruptly informed by telegram that Gerald cannot possibly marry her. She is to go on with her life and forget about him. Kitty, of course, is concerned by Gerald’s uncharacteristic tone and decides to go to Craven Castle, with Aunt Edith in tow, to investigate.

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Kitty and Aunt Edith decide to go to Craven Castle to see what’s troubling Gerald.

The two women are shocked at what they find at the castle. Gerald seems to have aged ten years and he is obviously tortured by something. Also at the castle they find two sullen servants who are devoted to Gerald and very stern and unwelcoming. Finally they find that the backyard of the castle is one giant hedge maze. Gerald insists the women leave at once but Kitty won’t hear of it. She and her aunt stay the night. They are informed that there are rules of the castle that stipulate they avoid the maze at all costs, refrain from wandering through the castle by day and that they be locked in their rooms overnight. The ladies retire to bed and hear their doors locked. Later, they hear an odd sound in the hallway outside their door. Through the crack underneath, they can see the shadow of something moving along the floor outside their room. This, of course, is unsettling.

Aunt Edith gets loose the next day and stumbles on a room in the back of the castle. Upon entering, she sees something hideous moving in the corner and promptly faints. With Aunt Edith confined to her bed with shock and sickness, the two women must linger at the castle, to the consternation of Gerald. When Kitty sees odd footprints on the carpet outside her door, she reconnoiters. She notices that the stairs leading up to the room where her aunt saw the hideous thing are oddly huge, like platforms, she says. She also finds Gerald reading a book on teratology and decides something must be done. Through a passing farmer, she gets word to her friends – one of whom is a doctor – to come to the castle. Her friends arrive and decide that Gerald has gone mad. Instead, what they find horrifies them beyond even their wildest imaginations.

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Kitty sees something moving in the maze.

William Cameron Menzies was the original “production designer”. He was working in silent film from before Paramount was called Paramount (Famous Players-Lasky) as a special effects artist and a setting designer. He soon developed a reputation as the top man in Hollywood for the design of a production. His work on “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1938) drew the attention of David O. Selznick who hired him to work on “Gone With the Wind”. The term “Production Designer” was coined for Menzies and he directed the “burning Atlanta” segment of that legendary Civil War drama. In fact, Menzies was so integral to the look of “Gone With the Wind” that a memo had been circulated stating that Menzies had the final word on many visual aspects of the film and subsequently “Gone With the Wind” bears the credit “This Production Designed By William Cameron Menzies”. At this point, though, Menzies had already directed 1936’s “Things to Come”, “Chandu the Magician” with Bela Lugosi and he would go on to helm “The Maze” and “Invaders from Mars”, both in 1953.

“The Maze” was part of the “3-D Movie” craze of the 1950’s. In an effort to draw viewers away from their television sets and back to the theatres, filmmakers came up with this process that lent itself well to Menzies’ visual style. Many prints of this film have by this time jettisoned the 3-D process but you can spot certain shots and setups that no doubt exist because of the original 3-D presentation. The film was produced by Allied Artists and, in a “Six Degrees of Elvis” element, Allied was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1966 when it released the Presley picture “Tickle Me”, the financial success of which brought the studio back from the brink. “The Maze” is based on a short novel written by William Sandoz and featuring illustrations by Salvador Dali. In turn, this novel is based on the legend of Glamis Castle in Scotland that reportedly contained a mysterious resident that lived in a hidden part of the castle and that no one ever saw. Interestingly, Sandoz seems to have been involved with a pharmaceutical firm that supplied legal LSD to the medical profession in the 1960’s.

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Handsome, reliable B-movie actor Richard Carlson.

The film stars Richard Carlson, an actor I know best from “Beyond Tomorrow”, a fantasy film centered around Christmas. He also appeared in “Too Many Girls” with Desi Arnaz, “Hold That Ghost” with Abbott and Costello and later in “King Solomon’s Mines” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon”. He also was given the chance to direct a handful of small pictures before wrapping up his career in films by appearing with Elvis Presley in 1969’s “Change of Habit”, which was also EP’s last acting role. Veronica Hurst is an English actress born in Malta. She is one of those actresses that acted in virtually nothing anybody has ever heard of on this side of the Atlantic but she is a delight as the fiancee of the tortured MacTeam. She looks and acts a little like Debbie Reynolds and she is pretty and bright and seems to be totally comfortable and confident in front of the camera. She plays Kitty as headstrong and determined and she actually carries this film and does it well. Miss Hurst is still with us, aged 86.

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Pretty and engaging Malta-born English actress Veronica Hurst as Kitty.

Australian Michael Pate plays Gerald’s butler. Pate was seen earlier in the decade in a couple of Boris Karloff horror vehicles. He was the first man to portray James Bond’s CIA buddy, Felix Leiter, and did so in the television production of “Casino Royale” in 1954. He went on to a middling career in films: “Hondo”, “Sergeant’s Three” and “McLintock!” and then worked extensively in his homeland and with his son, also an actor. Aunt Edith is played by Katherine Emery. I thought I had seen her in something before but I must be mistaken. She has a mere 12 acting credits to her name and “The Maze” is the last of them. She lived to age 76, dying in 1980.

The funny thing about “The Maze” is the maze itself. It serves as little more than a setting for a small aspect of the plot. The film is still remembered today only because of it’s 3-D presentation. It was one of the first 3-D films and it helped introduce the format to the masses. And then there’s the pay-off; the reveal at the end of the story. How do I describe it without spoilers? It is remarkable, actually, but it really matters little. The pacing and the build up to this reveal are handled surprisingly well. “The Maze” received mixed reviews at time of release. Notably, one reviewer praised Carlson’s “excellent” performance. One of my favourite reviews is most apt; “(“The Maze” is) moronic but entertaining”. Bang on.

 

Film Noir Review: “Fourteen Hours”

“Fourteen Hours” (1951)

Starring Paul Douglas, Richard Basehart, Barbara Bel Geddes, Debra Paget, Agnes Moorehead, Jeffrey Hunter, Grace Kelly, Jeff Corey, Harvey Lembeck, Ossie Davis and Gordon Gebert. Directed by Henry Hathaway. From 20th Century-Fox.

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Not a very cool poster, unfortunately. Later posters – printed after Grace Kelly became famous – featured her prominently.

A waiter delivers room service to a man staying on the 15th floor of a hotel. Before he can hand the man his change, the man is gone. The waiter sees the drapes blowing by an open window. He pokes his head out the window and sees that the man is now standing on the ledge. What follows is fourteen hours of tense negotiation between the mentally disturbed ‘man on the ledge’ (Richard Basehart) and an ordinary beat cop (Paul Stewart).

That is basically all that happens in Henry Hathaway’s “Fourteen Hours” but it translates to a tense 92 minutes filled with psychological case studies, brisk pacing, excellent camerawork and a veritable feast of recognizable faces in almost every role.

To start even before the beginning, “Fourteen Hours” is based on a 1938 magazine article in ‘The New Yorker’ that told the sad tale of John William Warde. On a warm Tuesday afternoon in July, Warde was sitting with his sister and a group of friends on the 17th floor of the Gotham Hotel in Manhattan. Something his sister said set the clinically depressed Warde off and he dashed for an open window and went out on the ledge where he stayed for eleven hours. His sister tried to get him to come in to no avail. Policeman Charles V. Glasco suggested to his sergeant that he could pose as a bellboy and try to convince Warde to come in off the ledge. Glasco had nearly succeeded when a photographer burst into the room. This caused Warde to jump, feet first. He struck the glass marquee of the hotel and then landed, dead, on the sidewalk. As he jumped, the 10,000 people who had gathered around the intersection were heard to say in unison “Here he comes!” before there was silence as he landed on the ground.

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Amazingly, there is more than one picture in existence depicting Warde’s suicide.

Fox purchased the article from ‘The New Yorker’ but changed the title from “The Man on the Ledge” after a request from Warde’s mother. Howard Hawks was asked to direct but refused because of the subject matter. Henry Hathaway took charge of the project. At this point, Hathaway had been directing since the early ’30’s and had been responsible for such films as “Kiss of Death” and “Call Northside 777”. He filmed an ending for “Fourteen Hours” depicting the man’s leap to his death but this was quickly reconsidered. While it would have been in keeping with the bleak endings of films noir of the time, audiences of 1951 would have found it extremely hard to take. In additional, there had been a tragedy close to home that made the studio insist on an alternate ending. On the very day that “Fourteen Hours” previewed, the daughter of the president of Fox, Spyros Skouras, jumped from a building to her death. Skouras then wanted the film shelved but settled for the shooting of a new ending.

Hathaway’s deft touch is all over this film. You’ll notice a great shot of a reflection in a window at about the 36 minute mark and there are various excellent shots and camera angles employed. In some of the process shots of Basehart and Stewart talking at the window, Hathaway shows people hanging out of windows in adjacent buildings watching the two. The film depicts all the sensation of a live news event. The spotlights are used well as they climb up the building and illuminate the principals.

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A reporter in an adjacent building provides listeners with the latest on Dunnigan (Stewart) and Cosick (Basehart) – whom we can see in the window’s reflection. There are many great shots and camera angles in “Fourteen Hours”.

“If I had my M2, I could knock him off from here. Easy.” The cabbies that gather around to watch are an interesting element. First of all, all the actors playing the cabbies are uncredited although you can easily spot Harvey Lembeck, Ossie Davis (points for casting a black man) and Henry Slate. Here we see depicted the post-war man. One of the first things we hear the cabbies say – the jarring quote above – references their shared experiences in the war. You could even go so far as to say that the cabbie who brags on his skill as a sniper is lamenting the fact that here and now he is just a hack but back in the service he possessed deadly and useful skills. They certainly are a group of men jaded by their experiences. The cabbies get a bet going, a pool in which they select the time when the ledge-sitter will take his plunge. It’s interesting to watch the cabbies serve as a sort of Greek chorus and to see them begin to feel guilty about betting on a man’s death. As the hours drag on, they eventually lose their taste for the sport and disperse.

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The cabbies break for lunch and debate the morality of betting on a man’s suicide.

The cast of “Fourteen Hours” is remarkable, really. I love a film that has even small roles played by faces you recognize. There are many to watch out for is this movie. Paul Stewart plays Police Officer Charlie Dunnigan. Stewart was a working class actor who was like a poor man’s Broderick Crawford. Paul had previously appeared on Broadway where he originated the role of Harry Brock in “Born Yesterday” – the role Crawford would play on screen – and in the films “A Letter to Three Wives” and “The Big Lift”. He was married five times – which may have contributed to his death at 52 in 1959. At his passing, he had agreed to take the role of Jeff Sheldrake in Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment”. The role ultimately went to Fred MacMurray. If you watch the end of “Fourteen Hours” carefully, you will see that Charlie Dunnigan’s son is played by Gordon Gebert who had a much more substantial role two years earlier in the delightful “Holiday Affair” as Janet Leigh’s son. You’ll also notice at the end, when Basehart’s character is safe in bed, Dunnigan gets ready to go home and the other cops look at him admiringly in the hallway. Nice touch. You get a sense that these two principals shared an experience not unlike Officer John McLane and Sgt. Al Powell did in “Die Hard”.

Richard Basehart garnered critical acclaim and the Best Actor award from the National Board of Review for his portrayal of Robert Cosick. It is indeed uncomfortable to watch Basehart as he trembles and sways on the ledge. He draws you in and makes you sympathize with him. While filming “Fourteen Hours”, Basehart’s wife, costume designer Stephanie Klein, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Sadly, she died following surgery while the film was still in production. Soon after his first wife’s death, however, Basehart married Italian actress Valentina Cortese (who is still alive at 95) with whom he had a son, Jackie Basehart. Jackie enjoyed a career as a sought-after actor in Italian cinema before contracting a rare disease that resulted in difficulty swallowing, obesity and several hospitalizations. Valentina Cortese had the unenviable task of burying her son when he died three years ago, aged 63. Richard Basehart had previously been seen in “He Walked By Night” and his work in “Fourteen Hours” was noticed by Frederico Fellini who gave Basehart his best known film role in 1954’s “La Strada”. He went on to roles in “Moby Dick”, “Chato’s Land” and “Being There”. He may be best known for his work on television in “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” and as the narrator of the 1980’s series “Knight Rider”.

Barbara Bel Geddes has a role as Cosick’s fiancee, Virginia. Bel Geddes is photographed wonderfully in this film and while she may not be a beauty in the Hedy Lamarr tradition, she appears luminous here and plays her part well. The Broadway actress came to Hollywood in 1947 and soon garnered an Academy Award nomination for “I Remember Mama”. She appeared in “Fourteen Hours” and then returned to Broadway where she originated the role of Maggie “the Cat” in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” earning the first of her two Tony Award noms. She did not return to Hollywood until 1958 when she took a memorable turn as Midge in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”, called by some the greatest film ever made. She ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee for a time but bounced back. Later, she became best known for her portrayal of Miss Ellie Ewing on the long-running prime time soap opera, “Dallas”.

Debra Paget and Jeffrey Hunter provide a lovely alternate plot line playing two spectators on the street below. Paget catches Hunter’s eye and he approaches her cold, asking if she’d like a mint. In a nice, old school touch, Deb refuses by saying “I don’t believe we are acquainted”. Hunter persists successfully. These two are cute but the characters are not simply their for sweetness. It is these two we see at the end of the film. It’s been an emotional roller coaster for all involved for fourteen long hours. As the two young people begin to walk away, Deb becomes emotional, expressing the thoughts and feelings of many of the participants. Hunter comforts her as they walk away with a cop on horseback dismissing the crowd with a poignant instruction: “Go home and take care of your own kids!”. The music comes up and the ending is unlike most film noir endings and, indeed, unlike the ending of the real life story this is based on.

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Jeffrey Hunter and Debra Paget are a pleasant distraction from the tense action up on the ledge.

Debra Paget – one of the flat-out prettiest actresses of the era and still with us at age 85 – had appeared in small roles in a few films prior to this one and went on to feature in Elvis Presley’s first film (and playing, technically, his only on-screen wife). She also went on to date Howard Hughes and to appear in small-to-medium-sized roles in films such as “Demetrius and the Gladiators” and “The Ten Commandments” before finishing her relatively short career working in horror films with Roger Corman. Jeffrey Hunter made his film debut in “Fourteen Hours”. He would go on to a sturdy career making such films as “The Searchers” and “King of Kings”. He may be best known for portraying Capt. Christopher Pike, who preceded Capt. James T. Kirk as captain of the USS Enterprise on TV’s “Star Trek”.

Another performer debuted in “Fourteen Hours”. Henry Hathaway had noticed Grace Kelly on television and offered her the small role of Mrs. Louise Ann Fuller, a young wife in conference with her divorce lawyer in a neighbouring building. She is taken by the sorrows of Cosick – sorrows that lead him to the brink of suicide – which lead her to reassess her life and marriage. Kelly comes off fine although she is presented unglamourously. She was noticed on set by Gary Cooper who would recommend her for her next film, “High Noon”, which made her a star.

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Mrs. Fuller (Grace Kelly, in her first film) has been watching Cosick from her divorce lawyer’s office. Hathaway uses great technique throughout the film showing us the action on the ledge from different angles.

As I’ve said, the rest of the cast is notable. Agnes Moorehead and Martin Gabel both received extensive stage training as part of Orson Welles’ “Mercury Theatre”. Moorehead ably portrays Cosick’s harried and guilt-ridden mother. Gabel’s role as one of the two psychiatrists on hand is significant. Gabel’s lines serve to explain the mental issues that Cosick is dealing with. He takes a close look at Cosick’s relationship with his parents. (Robert Keith plays the father) The parents have divorced and there is a lot of ill will. Cosick has been used in the battle between the two. When an hysterical Mrs. Cosick has to be dragged away from talking to Cosick at the window, one of the cops says “No wonder he’s cuckoo!”. This goes a long way to explain the things that can happen to children of divorce and unhappy homes. Gabel’s character, Dr. Strauss, even goes so far as to bring in Oedipus as he explains that “all children – boys – are in love with their mother, romantically”. While most kids get over it, Dr. Strauss explains, Cosick couldn’t and began to hate his father which he knew to be wrong so he started hated himself. This must’ve been pretty heavy stuff for audiences to handle in 1951.

Moorehead, as we know, played the mother of Charles Foster Kane and would go on to countless other screen credits. Gabel would play opposite Frank Sinatra as an unlikely crime boss in 1968’s “Lady in Cement”. Later, he would also feature in Frank’s TV movie, “Contract on Cherry Street” (1977) and then finish his film career opposite Frank again in 1980’s “The First Deadly Sin”.

Howard Da Silva (“The Lost Weekend” and two “The Great Gatsby”‘s) plays Dunnigan’s boss and keep a sharp eye out for many other familiar faces: Frank Faylen (“It’s a Wonderful Life”), Jeff Corey (“Bird on a Wire”), Brad Dexter (“The Magnificent Seven”), Joyce Van Patten (“St. Elmo’s Fire”), John Cassavettes (“The Dirty Dozen”), Brian Keith (TV’s “Family Affair”, son of Robert), Richard Beymer (“West Side Story”), Willard Waterman (radio’s “The Great Gildersleeve”), Janice Rule (“The Ambushers”), Leif Erickson (“Roustabout”) and John Randolph (“National Lampoon’s ‘Christmas Vacation'”).

“Fourteen Hours” is a wonderfully made film with the added bonus of a cast full of faces you’ll recognize. This film is hard to find on DVD but there are a few vendors at Amazon that’ll sell you one but it ain’t cheap.

 

 

Soul Brother Number One: A Brief History of Don Cornelius and “Soul Train”

The other day, I was on YouTube watching a documentary on soul music. It ended and the auto play took me right into another documentary. This one was about the TV show “Soul Train”. Now, it was time for bed when this second doc started but I couldn’t turn it off and ended up staying up all hours and watching the whole thing. It was very educational.

I realized that I didn’t know much about the show and even less about the show’s creator and first host, Don Cornelius. A small time broadcaster who had once worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Cornelius was working at a small television station in Chicago when he realized that there was virtually no programming geared towards black youths. He decided to create a “black ‘American Bandstand'” and came up with “Soul Train”. Interestingly, his bosses at the station were skeptical about this endeavour and – in a seemingly throwaway gesture – GAVE the show to Cornelius; they made him the owner of it as if to wash their hands of what they thought would be a failure.

He conceived of a show that would combine live music with a house party-type atmosphere. The program launched in 1971 and for the first episode, Don brought in Jerry Butler among others and filled the claustrophobic studio with kids and told them to dance. From this humble, makeshift beginning grew a cultural touchstone and a legendary program that lasted 35 years.

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James Brown talking with the always impeccably dressed Cornelius.

The show moved to Los Angeles – as all shows must – and eventually was picked up by numerous stations all over America making Don Cornelius the first black man to be in charge of his own nationally syndicated television show. He himself became famous as the deep-voiced and superbly dressed host. Over time, guests included every single notable black artist of the era: from Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Isaac Hayes to Earth, Wind and Fire, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Kirk Franklin, Lenny Kravitz, Anthony Hamilton and John Legend. Eventually, white artists began appearing. Some appropriately: Hall & Oates, Michael Bolton, Black Eyed Peas. Some inexplicably: Cheech and Chong, Duran Duran, New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys.

Through the years, imitators arose. One interesting one came from Dick Clark, who’s “American Bandstand” “Soul Train” was a version of. In 1973, Dick Clark Productions came up with “Soul Unlimited” which in turn was a knock-off of “Soul Train”. Cornelius was outraged by what he considered Clark’s attempt to “undermine TV’s only black-owned show”. With the help of old friend Jesse Jackson, Cornelius was able to get ABC to agree to cancel “Soul Unlimited” – which apparently had racial overtones – after only a few episodes. Cornelius and Clark reconciled to the extent that years later they worked together on TV specials that featured R&B and soul music. Interestingly, Don Cornelius and Dick Clark share initials and their company logos are very similar.

One popular aspect of the show drew attention to the group of kids who danced on the program every week. The “Soul Train Line” was a variant of the ’50’s “The Stroll” whereby kids would group on either side of an open space – the “line” – and watch as couples danced their way to the end. The idea here was to stand out with sometimes athletic and sometimes outrageous dance moves and audacious attire. These anonymous dancers began to enjoy a certain fame of their own. Indeed, some parlayed this exposure into careers outside of the show. Those who were featured dancing on “Soul Train” include Rosie Perez, Carmen Electra, Nick Cannon, MC Hammer and Fred Berry who would go on to play “Rerun” on “What’s Happening!!”. Several of these “anonymous kids” are also credited with creating some legendary dance moves that they first performed on the show. “The Robot” and “The Moonwalk” were both created by “Soul Train” dancers and taken to a worldwide audience by Michael Jackson. Cornelius even branched out into artist management when he chose Jody Watley and two other kids among the dancers to become the R&B group Shalamar.

Don Cornelius was a conservative person and the main goal of his show was to showcase black youth in a positive light. So with the advent of hip-hop and rap in the early 1980’s, Don was faced with a conundrum. He was vocal about his concerns that this tough, urban music with it’s sometimes violent and certainly aggressive lyrics was depicting these young people negatively. He did not hide the fact that this was music that he could not contemplate. Don even said to Kurtis Blow – on the air – that he didn’t understand what Kurtis had just performed. Kurtis has said that he was crushed by this. Don also was concerned by the antics of acts like Public Enemy and all of this lead to him stepping down as the host of “Soul Train” in 1993 after 22 years. He was succeeded by Shemar Moore, among others. The departure of Don as host – he continued to run the show – coupled with Don’s unwillingness to embrace the burgeoning hip hop culture lead to the show ceasing production in March of 2006.

Cornelius had undergone a brain operation 1982. The 21-hour procedure was intended to correct a congenital deformity in his cerebral arteries. Don had said that after this operation he was never quite the same. For 15 years afterwards, unbeknownst to most, Don suffered seizures and extreme pain. Finally, in early 2012, Cornelius said to his son “I don’t know how much longer I can take this”. On the morning of February 1st of that year, Don Cornelius took his own life with a gunshot wound to the head. It was a sad end for this legendary figure in black entertainment.

I find it extremely difficult to accurately describe the enormous impact this show had on the music business. But more than that, “Soul Train” spoke to basically two generations of black America. Finally, here was a program that was made by blacks for blacks. Here was a show that African American youths were influenced by and inspired by. They saw the basic and obvious things like music acts they loved and their parents loved, singers who sang music they could relate to. And they saw the kids who danced on the show and in them recognized their own friends and themselves. Those dancers set fashion trends and kids became aware of what was hip to wear from watching “Soul Train”. And they saw the heavier and more profound things like artists who had risen from nothing to be stars. They saw that kids like themselves could dance on TV and have a moment in the spotlight that could spur them on to bigger things. And they saw Don Cornelius. A handsome, well-dressed, well-spoken, erudite, hip, classy, savvy black man who was in complete control of his own national television show. It must have been truly inspiring to see that it could be done.

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Don Cornelius 1936 – 2012

The Big Serious: The Original “Cop Show”

I’ve often said that I love to get to the origin of things. It fascinates me that things that we take for granted today, things that have possibly become cliche, things that have become embedded in popular culture, actually were new at one point. In a lot of cases, someone simply had an idea and had the courage, fortitude and luck to bring it about. This person becomes known as a visionary, a pioneer.

I’ve always been a fan of what’s called “old-time radio”; radio shows from the 1930’s up to the 1950’s that preceded, and then ran alongside of, television. There is one show that stands out from the rest. “Dragnet” debuted in the spring of 1949. The original police procedural was created by actor Jack Webb.

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Jack Webb transitioned from early attempts at comedy to playing stoic Sgt. Joe Friday

Webb grew up in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles and went to school in Echo Park so he knew full well the way of the streets and it comes as no surprise that he would make his name telling the stories of the Los Angeles Police Department. After ‘washing out’ of the Army Air Corps, he returned home to support his mother and grandmother by working in radio and film. His early jobs on radio found him in comedies and a small role in Billy Wilder’s classic “Sunset Boulevard” had him playing smiling Artie Green. He soon left levity behind, though, and began working on shows that exemplified life in post-war Los Angeles, a life reflected in films noir of the time. The shows dealt with crime and punishment, ‘cops’ and criminals.

In 1946, Webb landed the title role in the radio drama “Pat Novak, For Hire”. Set in the seedy waterfront area of San Francisco, this show was typical ‘pulp fiction’ of the time and told stories of hard-boiled Novak who could be hired to help people solve their problems. The dialogue was loaded with wordplay synonymous with detective fiction of the day and owed a lot to the over-the-top descriptions of people and places usually found in the novels of James M. Cain. It portrayed Novak and his world in a gritty style that would come to be cliche and epitomize the genre.

Webb landed a role on the big screen in the film noir “He Walked By Night”, which was based on the real life murder of a California Highway patrolman and was told in a business-like manner, tracking the methods the police used to hunt the killer. Webb had the small role of Lee, a forensics specialist. LAPD sergeant Marty Wynn was the technical advisor on the film. Due to the small size of Webb’s role, he had a lot of free time during the shoot and often found himself talking with Wynn about his work with the police department. When Wynn found out that Webb had portrayed Pat Novak, Wynn teased Webb about the unrealistic nature of the scripts of that radio drama. While Pat Novak wasn’t a police officer, he dealt with them all the time. And they were usually depicted as dimwitted and/or brutal. Wynn informed Webb that the LAPD was not like that. Wynn also pointed out that crimes were not solved with thundering climaxes and glamourous pursuits. Police work, Wynn told Webb, was often dull. Cases took months to solve and often hinged on the smallest break or shred of evidence. Sgt. Wynn wondered aloud if there could be a show that would show policemen in a good light and would depict their work accurately while still providing entertainment that would keep a radio audience coming back every week.

When Sgt. Wynn told Webb he could get him access to actual police files on which to base radio dramas, Jack Webb was inspired. He told Wynn he’d love to create such a show. A show that would depict the authentic, if routine, heroism of policemen. A show employing a semi-documentary style that would show ‘cops’ in their natural element, following procedures and employing all the sometimes dry and sedate methods that were actually used by police forces of the day. Webb began to envision a ‘cop show’ that would avoid all the fictional melodrama that other shows on radio employed liberally.

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“Dragnet” ran on NBC radio from 1949 to 1957

Sgt. Wynn approached LAPD Chief Clemence Horrall about providing Jack Webb access to case files for a proposed radio show. This was at a time in history when the LAPD had suffered a lot of bad press and policemen were thought of as corrupt bruisers who were not much more than loose cannons on the streets of Los Angeles. Horrall loved the idea of a radio drama that would shine a positive light on police officers and the thankless job that they did. If Webb followed through on his plan to handle the stories with verisimilitude, it would do the LAPD no end of good. Chief Horrall gave Webb the green light and was acknowledged at the end of the early episodes of “Dragnet” on radio. The next two chiefs – William Worton and William Parker – were similarly recognized.

There had previously been a show on radio called “Calling All Cars”. This show ran from 1933 to 1939, making it one of the very first police dramas on radio. It used as a template cases pulled from the files of the LAPD and told a straight story detailing the tedium of police work. “Dragnet” took it’s cue from “Calling All Cars”.

“Dragnet” really is unique among radio dramas, though. What audiences liked in the 1940’s and early 1950’s were grand, sweeping stories with a lot of plot twists, a lot of melodrama and a lot of action. “Dragnet” was singular in that it was able to thrill audiences while maintaining it’s authenticity and it’s sometimes bland storytelling. The show debuted in June of 1949 and, after a few episodes spent working out the kinks, the show hit it’s stride and settled into the format that it would follow for the rest of it’s run. Every episode began with a narrator briefly describing the nature of the crime to be solved. The opening also made the point of noting that “the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent” – this became one of the many calling-cards of the show. What also became typical was Jack Webb’s character Sgt. Joe Friday taking over the narration by briefly giving the date, the weather conditions and the department he was reporting to; juvenile division, robbery, homicide, etc. He would make mention of his partner’s name and the boss under which they were working. Friday’s first partner was Ben Romero. Radio veteran Barton Yarborough played Ben and when Yarborough himself died suddenly of a heart attack in 1951, the character of Romero also met the same fate. Ben Alexander played Joe’s long-standing partner Frank Smith and Canadian Raymond Burr portrayed The Chief of Detectives.

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Thrills were guaranteed, Tuesday nights at 9PM. 610 on your dial.

Webb insisted on realism. This sometimes resulted in startling anti-climaxes. In one episode, Joe and Ben have been working night and day to apprehend a suspect. Joe is at the end of his rope when he finally pulls himself away from the police station to go home and make himself a sandwich. While at home, he gets a call from the Chief to come back in; another pair of officers has caught his suspect. Just like that, months of searching have come to an end. The tedium of police work as depicted in the show was also reflected in minor, authentic things that happen in real life that the show included in its scripts. The cops’ interview with a grocer is interrupted by an old lady beseeching the grocer to donate a prize for a raffle. The interruption has nothing to do with the plot. Ben is suffering from a tooth ache in another episode and snaps at Joe. The exchange is just a few seconds and the show goes on. The long process of getting someone on the phone long distance is depicted and we the audience have to wait patiently along with Joe. Actual sounds of operators contacting a party across the country were recorded and used on the show and this method was utilized to present other authentic sound effects.

There was no flamboyance to the show, no elaborate window dressing. Eventually, even the titles of the episodes became sparse and business-like. They began to all be called “The Big…” and then one word; one plot point that was integral to the story: “The Big Safe”, “The Big Streetcar”, “The Big Gun”, etc. The show – in it’s pursuit of realism – wouldn’t sugarcoat any plot point and could often be cold-blooded, even as early as episode 4 (“Quick Trigger Gunman”). This show featured a rare benign and friendly exchange between Friday and Romero and a fellow officer friend of the boys’, Sgt. Lindsay. Friday got corralled into a blind date with Lindsay’s cousin. They chuckled about it. Later, Friday and Romero are called to a murder in a diner. Sgt. Lindsay had been shot dead when he tried to foil a robbery. Friday informs the widow and the scene is subdued and heartbreaking. In the 15th episode, titled “The Sullivan Kidnapping”, a young girl is kidnapped. Friday and Romero find a body in the bushes and it is identified as the young Sullivan girl. The girl’s father is called down to identify the body. As Joe and Ben attempt to question Mr. Sullivan, the father is so distraught that he becomes incoherent. It is agonizing to listen to (tune in at about the 16-minute mark). This is a great example of how harrowing this show could be. Without affectation, it was not presenting the melodrama of star-crossed lovers lamenting their fate. Neither did it employ the supernatural shocks of the suspense shows. “Dragnet” hit home in it’s depiction of crimes that could happen to anybody, bringing their worlds crashing down around them.

The show initially operated without a sponsor until Fatima cigarettes came on board. Like all nicotine advertisements of the day, it’s always a head-shaker to hear the announcer celebrate the fact that Fatima had “more than doubled” it’s number of customers.

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“It’s wise to smoke extra mild Fatima”. Is that right?

Jack Webb had a fondness for radio drama and this led him to continue with the “Dragnet” radio series until 1957, long after television had surpassed radio as the public’s choice for their source of entertainment. Actually, the television show began in 1951, two years after the radio show debuted, meaning that both shows ran simultaneously until ’57. The TV show followed the format of the radio program exactly, starting with Walter Schumann’s iconic theme song and ending with an announcer revealing the fates of the culprits. The original series ended in 1959 but was revived for four years in 1967 until Jack finally pulled the plug to work on the other series being produced by his Mark VII Limited production company. In 1982, Webb began working on another revival of the show. These plans were scrapped, however, when Webb dropped dead of a heart attack near the end of the year. In 1987, a comedy film version of “Dragnet” was released with Dan Ackroyd playing Joe Friday with Tom Hanks as his partner. It was a parody more than anything and bore little resemblance to the original series. Two further TV series were attempted in 1989 and 2003 to little success.

The immense legacy of “Dragnet” is hard to overstate. While “semi-documentary” films were made before the debut of the radio show, “Dragnet” brought the “police procedural” to the masses. It served as alternative entertainment. As opposed to broad comedy or melodramatic romance or bombastic action the police procedural had it’s roots in reality and depicted, without affectation, police persistence as they followed their sometime restrictive methods to solve crimes and apprehend criminals. This drama sub-genre has proved extremely popular over the years. In “Dragnet”‘s wake came a plethora of fine programs that followed it’s lead: “The Untouchables”, “Kojak”, “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue” to name but a few.

The legacy of Jack Webb and “Dragnet” is most brought into focus by the colossal success of three franchises: “Law and Order”, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “NCIS”. These three television entities account for no less than ELEVEN extremely popular series – starting with the original “Law and Order” which debuted in 1990 – that are watched regularly by untold millions of viewers the world over. Each and every one of these 11 shows follow – basically to the letter – the format laid out by Jack Webb in 1949. While delving only sparingly into the private lives of the players, these shows begin with a crime and then officers are shown going step by step through the process of obtaining evidence, solving the crime and apprehending the suspect. And I will argue that this all started with Jack Webb and the radio show “Dragnet”.

 

This is the Story: The Best Recordings of Elvis Presley Part 5

I have a family friend, a lady who was a teenager during Elvis Presley’s ascendancy in the late ’50’s-early ’60’s. She knew I was an Elvis guy and would often talk about how much she loved him. She was one of those people of a certain age who claim Elvis as their own and say things like “I have all his records”. I always have a feeling with people like this that they love Elvis the Superstar, Elvis the Icon. They collect the cheesiest Elvis artifacts and souvenirs. In a way, it’s similar to the way Britons loved American blues and rhythm and blues in the 1960’s perhaps even more than Americans did. The thinking being that – in the UK – they were observing things from a distance and therefore could see the glory in the music that much better. People born in the same era as Elvis – people that grew up with him – definitely see him in a different way and love him for different reasons. Those of us born, say, in the early 1970’s perhaps look at him from a more historical standpoint. Our generation is maybe more apt to dig beneath the surface and to study a performer like Elvis Presley the same way we might research the Vietnam war – digging in and wanting to know the origins and the significance. Those of us who begin to grasp the importance of the King do the research, look into all his recordings from all the eras and collect it all because we want to know it all. Back to my family friend and her generation. When the 45s came out in the ’50’s, they bought them – they bought them all until they themselves got married and had kids and life took over. Therefore, they say “I have all his records” when really they’ve never even heard 80% of what he recorded. And they don’t look at Elvis or GRASP him in the same way. A perfect example is the time when this lady family friend brought me her Elvis cassette. She said I would appreciate it and I could have it. I looked at it and actually it was interesting. It was his “Gold Records Vol. 4” album. Cool, I’m thinking, that’s different. I open it and take the cassette out. Oddly, the songs listed on the tape are “Kentucky Rain” and “Don’t Cry Daddy” and others from that era. This was not the same album the cover showed! I looked at the tape more closely: “As Sung By Ronnie McDowell”, it said. I was dumbfounded. I carried on with my thank you’s but I was floored. It got me thinking: this woman was there when it was happening. She should be a bigger fan than me. Yet one of her prized possessions was an album of songs sung NOT by Elvis but by the world’s premier Elvis sound-alike. But here’s the thing: she was happy. She loved Elvis. He made her feel good. He was a part of her fondest memories of life. I thought she was crazy but she got just as much out of Elvis as I – the ‘Elvis scholar’ – did. And that’s The Thing About the King. People LOVE him. The people that think Ronnie McDowell is Elvis and have never heard “Just Pretend” and wear the airbrushed jackets and t-shirts from the flea market with Elvis riding on the clouds or something, they love him. And the people that research his time spent at Crown Electric or dig into his relationship with his step-brothers or try to figure out if Toby Kwimper is really the predecessor of Forrest Gump, they love him, too. Us scholars may scoff at these older fans but, look at them, they’re happy. They love Elvis, too. The only thing I would say, though, is those people could be so much happier if they really dug in to Elvis World. They love the tip of the iceberg. I think the other 80% would be exciting for them to learn about, too.

And that goes for music fans in general. I don’t know if any iconic superstar suffers more from being not fully understood than Elvis Presley. The image, as the man himself once said, is one thing. The man is another. People that reject the suggestion that Elvis may be more significant than Bruce Springsteen don’t really know the whole story. It’s a shame to think that the coming generation sees Elvis only as the black and white rebel with the curled lip, or the Hollywood victim being neutered by endless ‘playful romp’ films or the bombastic jump-suited ’70’s prince from another planet. They may love “Don’t Be Cruel” and that’s great. But if you want a real treat, look into Elvis Presley. Dig a bit deeper. I guarantee you you’ll be glad you did. His is essentially a sad story but it’s riveting.

Wow. Sorry. I don’t think I intended to get so deep. After all, we’re here to celebrate the 83rd anniversary of the birth of Elvis Presley by trying to figure out what his best songs are. We’ve been through the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s and also looked at the movie music. And don’t forget; he also recorded some stellar Christmas music and some truly stirring gospel, the music he maybe connected with most. I need to thank you all for reading these posts. It’s fun for me to write them but it’s always better when someone reads them. I hope I’ve made some sense – I don’t always! In the end, these posts were read by over 600 people in 23 countries; “Elvis World”, indeed! Once again, thank you. Thank you very much.

Finally, I’ve submitted for your approval The Ten Greatest Recordings of Elvis Presley. Let the debating – and the listening – begin!

10. “What a Wonderful Life” (1961) — Movie song from “Follow That Dream”. The lyrics reflect the freedom depicted in the movies.

9. “Separate Ways” (1972) — The saddest song I ever heard. An absolutely heartbreaking commentary on the break-up of Elvis and Priscilla written by Red West.

8. “I Got Lucky” (1961) — A sublime pop vocal. Like a personal family heirloom to me. A cherished gem.

7. “Rubberneckin'” (1969) — The King struts through this balls-out rocker recorded back home in Memphis.

6. “Santa Claus is Back in Town” (1957) — A stunning, savage vocal on the greatest Christmas rock ‘n’ roll song ever recorded.

5. “Burning Love” (1972) — Polished sound. Ringing guitar. Full-throttle, crowd-pleasing iconic rocker.

4. “Jailhouse Rock” (1957) — One of his two or three best vocal performances ever. Fan favourite and the title track from one of his two or three best movies ever.

3. “Promised Land” (1973) — Maybe the single most energetic song I’ve ever heard. And probably the coolest. An absolute freight train.

2. “A Little Less Conversation” (1968) — Probably my favourite Elvis song. A thrilling late-’60’s rock ‘n’ roll song from maybe his greatest soundtrack. Just a delight to listen to – and sing along to.

1. “Suspicious Minds” (1969) — And here we are. The King’s “masterpiece”. A shining moment from some unbelievable sessions and the second-most significant set of recording dates of his career. Of history, maybe. The most confident, assured and vibrant rock vocals you could ever ask to hear.

I can’t thank you enough for reading. I’ve had a blast sharing my thoughts with you. Happy Birthday, EP! And thanks.

Me and My Man

**the image used in this post I actually own!**