Film Noir Review: “Undertow”

“Undertow” (1949)

Starring Scott Brady, John Russell, Dorothy Hart, Peggy Dow, Bruce Bennett and Roc Hudson. Directed by William Castle. From Universal-International.

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A typically fantastic poster, indicative of the era and the genre.

Tony Reagan (Brady) is a former gangster and ex-con who is vacationing in Reno. He runs into an old Chicago crony, Danny Morgan (Russell), who is still connected with the underworld. The two buddies share a drink and they find that they are both engaged to be married. On the flight home to old Chi, Tony sits next to pretty school teacher Ann McKnight (Dow). Tony and Ann had previously exchanged pleasantries at a Reno craps table. When Reagan arrives home, he is immediately rousted by the police in the form of old nemesis Det. Charles Reckling (Bennett). Tony is informed that he is suspected of causing potential trouble with his old boss, mob kingpin, Big Jim, his fiancee’s uncle. Tony goes to talk it over with Big Jim and is slugged, shot in the arm and left in his car. Upon waking, he hears a radio report of Big Jim’s murder and learns that he is the number one suspect. Tony looks up Ann and she, believing him innocent, harbours him. Tony tries to exonerate himself which leads him to his fiancée, Sally (Hart) and his old pal, Danny. Can Tony clear his name? Or will he be caught in the undertow?

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Ann believes Tony but he doesn’t want her to get hurt. They make a good looking couple.

In a way, “Undertow” is perfect. Is it a fantastic film on a level with “Citizen Kane”? No, that’s not what I mean. It’s perfect in that it is a prime example of “film noir”. Without getting into a long dissertation on this post-war genre, I’ll just quickly run it down for the uninitiated. Film noir can be considered a documentary look at the seamier side of life in America in the years immediately following World War 2. The men coming home from the war were faced with suddenly trying to go back to their former lives. This proved difficult for many considering the horrors they had lived through on the battlefield. Many men struggled to assimilate and this gave rise to a somewhat desperate condition. Unable to play the game, many men turned to the streets; if not to crime, exactly, then to a shadowy world that was in part born out of their inability to function after the terrors of war. “Happy endings” – or happiness, itself – were no longer a foregone conclusion. Reality in this time now included desperation, poor choices and living on the fringes of society in an ambiguous land.

Hollywood began to reflect this change in society with the production of these gritty crime dramas – the term “film noir” was coined in France many years later. A handful of actors began to make their name in this new style of film. Some were stars already like Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum but a lot of the actors employed in these films were lesser lights and a lot of them began to forge new identities and new careers in film noir. Scott Brady was among them. Brady started life as Gerald Tierney in Brooklyn, New York, the son of a police officer. Notably, Brady’s brother was actor Lawrence Tierney, who himself made a name in hard-boiled films noir such as “Born to Kill” and “The Hoodlum”. Tierney was a raging alcoholic who found himself regularly in trouble with the law, often for assaults on civilians and lawmen alike. He made a memorable turn years later in Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”.

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Tony, realizing it’s a frame-up, has to take it on the lam.

Brady served in the US Navy during World War 2 and after his discharge he followed his brother and headed for Hollywood. Once there, he was immediately cast in films noir such as “He Walked By Night” – his first film, co-starring Richard Basehart and Jack Webb, who took his experiences on this film and created “Dragnet” – “Canon City” and “The Counterfeiters”, co-starring Lon Chaney, Jr., Hugh Beaumont and Joi Lansing. “Undertow” was his fifth film. He was a good-looking, fine and earnest actor who would never exactly make the big time. He would go on to star in his own show on television, the western “Shotgun Slade” which ran for two seasons starting in 1959. He died a year after appearing in his final film, 1984’s “Gremlins”.

John Russell was a handsome, strapping actor whose 6 foot, 3 inch frame almost made him ineligible to serve in the United States Marine Corps. He was eventually made a second lieutenant and served on Guadalcanal before contracting malaria. Unfortunately, Russell never even achieved the level of success in films that Scott Brady did. He appeared in many westerns, including “Rio Bravo”, before following Brady to television. Russell starred in the series “Lawman” beginning in 1958, a show on which he was joined by noir actress Peggie Castle. “Lawman” ran for four seasons – 2 more than Brady’s series. Russell is perhaps most notable for his appearances in Clint Eastwood westerns “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and – memorably – 1985’s “Pale Rider”, a film in which he cut a striking, villainous figure. He died in 1991, aged 70.

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Big-shouldered John Russell in Reno for “Undertow” and in Alberta for Clint’s “Pale Rider”.

“Undertow” was Peggy Dow’s first film. Later, she appeared in “Harvey” and “Bright Victory” but left the business to get married after only two years in Hollywood. In 1951, aged 23, she married an oilman from Tulsa, Oklahoma named Walter Helmerich III – theirs is a story I suggest you look up. Helmerich & Payne is an oil drilling company that was co-founded by Walter’s father and is currently the second largest onshore driller in the world. Walter was made president in 1960 (he got this news when his father, founder Walter II, came into his office and said “you’re president. Good luck”) and served as such until handing the reins over to one of his five sons with Peggy, Hans, in 1989. With her marriage, Peggy became Liz Taylor in “Giant” – a beautiful wife of an oilman, she became a prominent lady in Tulsa society and a philanthropist of the first order. The Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award has been given out since 1985 to authors who have made major contributions to the field of literature. Past winners include: John Le Carré, Ray Bradbury, E.L. Doctorow, John Grisham and Canadian Margaret Atwood. She developed a women’s health center that provides services including labour and delivery, childbirth education and neonatal intensive care. Perhaps most satisfyingly for us, Peggy V. Helmerich is still with us at 90 years of age.

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Peggy Dow. Quite a lady.

Bruce Bennett won the silver medal in shot put at the 1928 Olympic Games. In 1931, producers chose him to portray Tarzan in the vine-swinger’s first feature film but Bennett broke his shoulder making a football movie. Johnny Weissmuller – also an Olympian – got the call instead. Bennett would go on to a prolific albeit low-key career appearing in films such as “The More the Merrier”, “Mildred Pierce”, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “Love Me Tender”. He was still active late in life, skydiving at the age of 96. He made it to 100 and died in Santa Monica.

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Olympic medalist Bruce Bennett as Det. Reckling. Suspicious at first, he soon finds himself in Tony’s corner.

Pretty Dorothy Hart portrays Tony’s fiancée, Sally. Hart made only a handful of films including the noir classic “The Naked City” (1948) and “Tarzan’s Savage Fury” (1952) in which she became the tenth actress to portray Jane. She retired after only 12 films and seven years to work for the United Nations.

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Dorothy Hart as Sally. Soon to leave Hollywood for some real work at the UN.

“Undertow” marks the second film and first credited appearance of Rock (“Roc” here) Hudson. Rock had appeared the previous year in “Fighter Squadron” with Edmond O’Brien and Robert Stack. Delivering his one line in that film took 38 takes. Rock soon began to be groomed by Universal and would go on to make “Bright Victory” in 1951 with Peggy Dow before being used as a leading man starting with “Scarlet Angel” (1952) opposite Yvonne de Carlo and “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?”, a comedy that featured a brief appearance by James Dean. Rock Hudson, of course, would go on to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

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“Roc” Hudson (with Bennett) in his one scene in “Undertow”.

The director of “Undertow” was William Castle. Castle was given his start in the entertainment business at 15 when he befriended Bela Lugosi and Bela got him a job with the touring company of the play “Dracula”. Castle’s interesting career is a story unto itself; I suggest that, while you’re looking up Peggy Dow, you also look him up. Castle began directing in the early ’40’s. He did uncredited script work on 1945’s “Dillinger”, starring Scott Brady’s brother, Lawrence Tierney. He also worked as an associate producer and uncredited script doctor on Orson Welles’ noir classic “The Lady From Shanghai” (1947). “Undertow” was his first notable film as director and he went on to direct low-budget action and western films. In 1958, he mortgaged his home to make “Macabre” which began his career in horror. Castle was also a master of publicity and promotion, coming up with endless gimmicks to promote his films. With “Macabre”, he took to the trades to offer life insurance policies to those brave enough to see the film. For the following year’s “House on Haunted Hill”, Castle worked in cahoots with theatre owners to rig up a pulley system in theatres to have a skeleton swing out over the audience. “The Tingler” (1959) was shown in theatres where Castle had secured buzzers to the underside of certain seats. At pivotal moments in the film, the buzzers would emit a screaming wail.

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William Castle. Aside from his horror gimmicks, he exhibited a deft director’s touch with this film noir.

Castle mortgaged his home again in the mid-Sixties to buy the rights to the unpublished novel, “Rosemary’s Baby”. His dream was to produce and direct an A-movie himself. In the end, Roman Polanski helmed the film with Castle producing and Castle enjoyed the success of a quality picture. Health issues made it impossible for him to capitalize on this success, however. He later had small acting roles in “Shampoo” (1975) and “The Day of the Locust” (1975) and passed away in 1977.

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There are some great location shots in “Undertow”. In some, you can see the crowd watching the action.

Right from the opening credits, you can see that “Undertow” has partially been shot on location in Chicago and Reno. This characteristic of film noir is particularly pleasing as it adds to the realism and it allows us to see moving images of some great American cities as they looked post-war. So you see, there is a lot to recommend “Undertow”. It may not be “The Maltese Falcon” but, sometimes, that is exactly what you want from a film noir – simplicity. 70-80 minutes of regular guys and regular gals trying to make it through the shadows. Greatness is non-essential.

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Autumn Movie Review: “St. Elmo’s Fire”

I have what I call “Seasonal Interest Syndrome” – I gravitate to certain forms of media at certain times of year. This includes watching particular movies in the fall. Here’s another review of one of my favourite autumn movies.

“St. Elmo’s Fire” (1985)

Starring Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Mare Winningham, Andie MacDowell, Martin Balsam, Jenny Wright and Matthew Laurence. Directed by Joel Schumacher. From Columbia Pictures.

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Interesting for me to note that this very autumnal movie was released at the beginning of summer.

The film depicts seven friends – all apparently the same age – who have just graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.. The film plots their varied efforts to make their way in life. The two unofficial “leaders” of the group are Alec Newbury (Nelson) and Leslie Hunter (Sheedy). Rob Lowe is perfectly cast as Billy Hicks, the frat boy party animal who is estranged from his wife and baby and is in an on-again, off-again relationship with Wendy (Winningham), the virginal member of the group. Kevin Dolenz (McCarthy) is an aspiring writer and Kirby Keager (Estevez) is going to law school and the two share an apartment. Jules Van Patten is somewhat of a female Billy Hicks – beautiful, popular and wild. Jules works in international banking but soon loses her way.

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Georgetown grad exercises take place during the third week of May. Alec mentions at the start of the film that it’s four months since graduation.

As the film opens, Billy and Wendy have been in a car accident. A drunken Billy is at fault; it is the same old story with him. The rest of the gang shows up at the hospital to find the couple unscathed. Kirby spots Dr. Dale Biberman (MacDowell) and shares an exchange with her, rekindling an old flame. The group heads to their hang-out – St. Elmo’s Bar, where Kirby works as a waiter – to discuss the accident and decompress. Jules wonders aloud why Kevin is so moody lately. Kevin shrugs it off. Billy checks in with his wife, Felicia (Wright), and the call doesn’t go well; also the same old story. Wendy reveals to the girls that Billy lost the job that Alec got for him which angers Alec. He reprimands Billy, saying that his irresponsibility is hard on all of them. Later in their apartment, Alec again puts pressure on Leslie to marry him but his efforts are interrupted by Jules at the door. She is still stressing about her step-mother, who is dying in the hospital and worries about the expense of a funeral. In their apartment, Kevin and Kirby go back and forth about the pros and cons of love when Billy arrives saying he needs a place to crash.

The next day the gang is in Jules’ jeep when Alec announces he has got a plum job working for a senator. Jules has Kevin over and tries to get him to admit that he is gay and in love with Alec. He denies it and leaves in a huff. Kevin is at Alec and Leslie’s apartment for dinner and Alec takes Kevin aside and confesses to sleeping with another woman. Alec claims that Leslie committing to marry him will make him faithful. Wendy has Billy over for supper. Billy’s rebellious nature clashes hilariously with Wendy’s uptight family. Billy causes a stir by sitting on Wendy’s roof where he reveals that he has struggled since graduation. Poignantly, he tells her that school was fun but real life is not and he is having trouble dealing. During their conversation, Wendy reveals she is a virgin which seems to fascinate and shock Billy. Billy makes an advanced play for Wendy which she rebuffs. She says they shouldn’t see each other anymore, gives Billy his rent money and goes upstairs. Billy is remorseful. He leaves the money behind and walks out.

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Kevin at Jules’ apartment – with the all-world mural of Billy Idol. You can spot a picture of Idol on Jules’ desk at work, as well.

At St. Elmo’s, Jules tells Leslie that she is having an affair with her boss and Leslie and Wendy agree that Jules is spiraling. Billy sees his wife with another guy and attacks him. Out on the street, Billy and Felicia start to fight and are pulled apart; only to fall into each others arms. Kirby is now in full pursuit of Dale. He assumes that she respects money so he takes a job with a Korean gangster and invites Dale to a party. When she doesn’t show, Kirby loses it and travels up to the lodge where she has gone skiing. Kirby finds her there with another guy. The snow keeps him there overnight. In the morning, Kirby has a change of heart. He kisses Dale farewell and leaves her with thoughts that maybe she is missing out. Meantime, Billy makes a play for a drunken Jules who kicks him out of her jeep onto his front stoop. Felicia has seen the exchange and is not impressed. Billy goes back to his fraternity and is given a hero’s welcome. When he expresses a desire to perhaps get a job on campus, his friends are thrilled – only because if he does he will be able to provide them with drugs. This depresses Billy. When he meets Felicia and the baby there, she suggests an annulment. Billy says he is going to shape up.

At a party, Alec forces the issue by announcing to all that he and Leslie are engaged. She is angered and takes him aside. Playing a hunch, she questions him about his philandering. Alec blows it by assuming Kevin has spilled the beans. He knocks Kevin down and tells Leslie to move out of their apartment. Kevin takes Leslie home to his place where he reveals that the reason he doesn’t date and people think he’s gay is because he has a deep, hidden love for her. This is timely news for her and they have sex. Alec shows up to apologize and finds them together. Later, Kevin is talking love and moving in together but Leslie shuts him down saying she needs time to herself. This crushes Kevin.

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Significantly, it is Billy – who is as lost as Jules – that talks her off the ledge. He confirms that a lot of this is “self-created drama”.

Alarm bells go off when Leslie finds that collection agencies have repossessed all of Jules’ belongings and she has locked herself in her empty apartment with the windows open, hoping the cold November winds blowing in will kill her. The gang rallies and Billy breaks in and talks Jules off the ledge. Later, Billy realizes he has to move on. He has an intimate night with Wendy and then he is seen off at the bus station; he is bound for New York. Leslie tells Alec and Kevin that she loves them both but needs to be on her own. The gang plan to meet for drinks – but, they decide, not at St. Elmo’s. Somewhere else. Where there are less kids.

“St. Elmo’s’ Fire” takes place between the middle of September and early November and it contains some excellent autumn scenery. This makes it perfect for viewing in the fall. It was shot during the last three months of the year in and around Georgetown. The University itself read the script and decided it was not going to let the filmmakers shoot on the grounds so the University of Maryland stood in for the school scenes. St. Elmo’s Bar was based on a real life watering hole in Georgetown called The Tombs although the exterior shots of the bar were shot on the lot in Hollywood – just steps away from the clock tower in ‘Hill Valley’ as seen in “Back to the Future”. This “autumn movie” is also among my “Top 23” favourite films. I list it among the ten films I fell in love with while I was still a teenager. It is a coming-of-age story, a sub-genre for which I have a particular affection. My man, Brian Wilson, once said that growing up is a dramatic story. No matter what a person’s situation, simply going from ‘child’ to ‘adult’ is, in and of itself, a very serious pivot point in life. A coming-of-age story can have an appeal to those who are currently going through this phase of life and it can also inspire nostalgia in those who have long since past that point. The coming-of-age film makes for a great story that many age groups can relate to. It is rife with plot points and possibilities.

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The film features some great shots of Georgetown in autumn.

The film stars members of the “Brat Pack” – a group of young hip actors who frequently appeared in movies together during the 1980’s. Rob Lowe and Demi Moore have gone on to a certain degree of celebrity while the others remain most notable for the films they made together at this time. I have to single out Andrew McCarthy, though. One of my personal favourites, he possessed a quirky sort of casual charm and he’s always been a cherished “sleeper” sort of actor for me, showing up in great films like “Less Than Zero”, “Weekend at Bernie’s” and “Mulholland Falls”. “St. Elmo’s Fire” is noted as being the film that contained the highest number of “Brat Packers” and it is a great-looking and beloved cast. Lowe, McCarthy and Moore look particularly spectacular and the rest are outfitted and coiffed perfectly for their individual characterizations. Although Demi Moore was struggling with addiction at the time, she and Estevez – son of Martin and brother of Charlie Sheen – dated during the making of the film and Mare Winningham, playing Wendy, the virgin, was already a mother. Jenny Wright is a quirky actress in the Lori Petty mold. She appeared in a hidden favourite of mine, “Valentino Returns” (1989) but later dropped off the face. And Matthew Laurence appears as Jules’ gay neighbour, Ron. Laurence had been in another of my “Top 23” favourite films two years prior to this; “Eddie and the Cruisers”.

The girls in this film are dressed according to their characters. In Leslie and Wendy’s case, they are appropriately dressed as an upwardly-mobile modern woman and a safe, self-conscious virginal-type, respectively. Moore gets to wear fancier clothes as Jules and she looks great in glasses. In my opinion – and, yes, I’m a guy – it’s the boys that look cool in this film, particularly Billy and Kevin. Billy has taken to wearing a blazer over top of his fraternity coat and it’s a great look for him. It may even be representative of his struggles letting go of school and joining the real world. It’s a look I remember once trying to adopt. It did not go over. Later, Billy scores in his coveralls from his job at a gas station, earning extra points for his high-cut canvas Converse – one black and one green. Kevin is the moody writer who generally keeps himself under wraps and this is borne out by his great employing of an overcoat and fedora. A shout-out should go to costume designer Susan Becker who served in the same capacity for other films featuring hip, young people: “The Lost Boys”, “Flatliners” and “True Romance”.

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Rob Lowe, at 20, was the youngest cast member. He looks great in the film.

The film was co-written and directed by Joel Schumacher, who had previously been a costume designer before turning to directing; “St. Elmo’s Fire” was his third effort as director. He would go on to direct such films as “The Lost Boys”, “Batman Forever”, “A Time to Kill” and “Batman and Robin”.

Schumacher’s co-writer on this project was Carl Kurlander. “St. Elmo’s Fire” was the only feature film that Kurlander worked on and the story is autobiographical. This can serve as an inspiration of sorts for those of us who feel that we have but one story in us – the story of our lives – and would love to see that story come to life as a film or television show. It puts me in mind of another of my “Top 23”, “Dirty Dancing”, which was the autobiographical story of Eleanor Bergstein. Her screenplay for that beloved film is also an instance where a screenwriter has one solitary feature film credit. Kurlander went on to work on teen shows on television, notably creating the series “Malibu, CA” which ran for two seasons starting in 1998. This series stands out to me because, if you look it up, it features NOT ONE actor that you recognize. I defy anyone to look up that cast and spot someone you know or have seen in something. Fascinating. Kurlander later left Hollywood to return to Pittsburgh, where he grew up, to teach school and make documentaries, mostly about the possibilities of using “hometowns” like the Steel City as film making alternatives to Tinsel Town.

Canadian David Foster supplies the soundtrack for the film which features his excellent “Love Theme from ‘St. Elmo’s Fire'” which reached #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. John Parr performed “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” which he originally co-wrote with Foster for Rick Hansen, the Canadian athlete who was traveling around the world in his wheelchair raising awareness of spinal cord injuries. This song fared even better on the charts, peaking at #1 for two weeks in September of ’85.

For me, the appeal of the film lies in the way this group of friends is depicted. Here we see the type of alliances most of us wish that we had or had had growing up. The script does a great job of establishing the make-up of each character early on and how they relate to others in the group. I might go so far as to call the script “perfect” in this respect. In the opening ten minutes the characters are basically fully formed and explained to the viewer. Certainly by the end of the second scene – the first time we see the gang together at St. Elmo’s – you know everyone well. Think about it: the film begins; Alec is dressed like a yuppy and is striding purposefully into the hospital, “plain pretty” Leslie by his side. Billy is gorgeous, has been driving drunk and is flirting with a nurse. Kirby talks legalities with the police officer and establishes his infatuation with Dale Biberman. Frumpy Wendy is making excuses for Billy, whom she obviously loves. Jules shows up dressed like a runway model with her date who looks like an ad for Bronson’s Tuxedos. And in the second scene, Kevin is questioned about why he is down on love and is evasive. Bam. How long did that take? Seven minutes, ten seconds. Effective and engaging screenwriting.

At the time of release, critics savaged “St. Elmo’s Fire”. It seems they misunderstood Joel Schumacher’s realistic presentation of twentysomethings. These people are horrible and irredeemable, the critics said. This film went a long way to showing what was really going on with people of this age group. The film is almost like a documentary, the relationships are so authentic, the chemistry within the group so palpable. You can clearly see the history here. There is obviously a lot of intimacy between the group members and past experiences are referred to, directly or indirectly. There is a love and a concern for one another evidenced in Alec getting jobs for Billy, Wendy getting money from her father to give to Billy for his rent, Leslie and Wendy trying to intervene in Jules’ life, Jules trying to help Kevin with his love life. Their lives are still wrapped up in each other as they were in school, Felicia going so far as to say to Billy that he is “married to your friends and the bar”. It is significant to note that when Jules is in deep distress the gang comes together despite a lot of friction due to the Alec-Leslie-Kevin situation. Billy’s role here is particularly interesting. First, you’ll note he has left work – with a company vehicle – to come and help. Of course this new job at a garage would seem better suited to Billy, the people there more like him than the people at the jobs Alec was getting for him. Secondly, it’s significant that it is Billy that gets in to talk to Jules. You’ll remember the scene when Jules dropped Billy off at his house and he “broke her heart”; so Billy ‘owes’ her. Also, he is going through the exact same thing Jules is – “we’re all going through this”, he says. Jules is suffering from ‘self-created drama’; trying to project the image of a hip and together lady of the ’80’s. There was a lot of pressure on young people at this time to be Alec – successful, motivated and focused. Such was not always the case. Billy has summed it up earlier on the roof when he lamented the fact that “school was pretty out-of-hand. In everyday life there’s just no way to be out-of-hand”. He speaks for everybody that has ever gone from childhood to adulthood – all of us. It’s a poignant albeit simple observation.

Someone always leaves. I always say that when Billy gets on the bus at the end of the film. Here is a basic but heavy fact of life; sometimes you have to leave the comfort of friends and home if you’re going to make it in the world. I immediately think of one of the original coming-of-age stories, George Lucas’ 1973 classic “American Graffiti”. At the end of that film, Curt – played by Richard Dreyfuss – also has to leave home to find his way. This is a very concrete way to illustrate the fact that things change. One of the group near the end of “St. Elmo’s Fire” says sadly “I always thought we’d be friends forever”. It’s a sad reality of life that this is almost never the case. Even the group that’s left after Billy has gone – will they always hang out together? What if someone meets someone who is a stranger to the rest of the gang? What if Alec and Leslie  get married and start a family? It gets increasingly hard to hold these relationships together. “St. Elmo’s Fire” serves as a love letter of sorts to a magical time in a person’s life. That brief moment just before you realize that life is serious and you have to get down to business.

At the end of the film, the friends walk out of the frame and that most perfect of all closing credits songs comes up. With it’s wistful sadness, Foster’s theme perfectly reflects the emotional feelings of this momentous time of life.

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.

 

On Heroism and Archie Bunker

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“All in the Family” – the first television show to top the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive years.

I’ve been watching the first season of “All in the Family”. I bought it at a garage sale. It came in a fancy tin box and when I got it home and opened it I discovered that the first season of “Archie Bunker’s Place” was inside, as well! I’ve always respected “All in the Family” and considered it one of the grandest, most influential sitcoms in history. Along with “I Love Lucy” and “M*A*S*H”, it is a syndication staple and can almost always be found somewhere on TV. I’ll always remember New Year’s Eve 1999. Amidst worries of a global shut-down with the arrival of the year 2000, I was in my basement watching an “All in the Family” marathon while my wife and baby son slept on the couch next to me.

For the handful of people that don’t already know, “All in the Family” was based on the British sitcom “‘Til Death Do Us Part” and starred Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker. Carroll was born in Manhattan and grew up in Queens; the same area where his future alter ego, Archie Bunker, would live. A member of the Actor’s Studio, O’Connor had a middling film career appearing in smaller roles in such films as “The Defiant Ones”, “Cleopatra”, “Hawaii” and most notably 1970’s “Kelly’s Heroes”. O’Connor would win four Prime Time Emmys for his portrayal of Archie Bunker. When he later won an Emmy for his work on his later series, the drama “In the Heat of the Night”, he became the first actor to win the lead actor Emmy for both a comedy and a drama. Edie Falco later joined him in that exclusive club. Jean Stapleton played Archie’s slow-witted wife, Edith. Stapleton had previously been a musical actress on Broadway but will forever be known as Edith Bunker, a role for which Stapleton garnered three Emmys. Perky Sally Struthers portrayed the Bunker’s mini-skirted daughter, Gloria, winning two Emmys. Carl Reiner’s son, Rob, played Michael Stivic, Gloria’s wife. Reiner won two Emmys playing “Meathead” and went on to be a noted film director with such films as “When Harry Met Sally…”, “A Few Good Men” and “Misery” to his credit. “All in the Family” was the first sitcom in which all the lead actors won Emmys.

Television legend Norman Lear recruited O’Connor to play the lead in “All in the Family”; the role and the show would become iconic. The show is notable for countless reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it spawned numerous spin-offs: “Maude” debuted in 1972 and ran for six seasons. It featured Bea Arthur as Maude, Edith’s cousin. “Good Times” is considered a spin-off of “Maude”. Esther Rolle’s character on “Good Times”, Florida Evans, had appeared as Maude’s maid. “Good Times” also ran for six seasons. “The Jeffersons” was a major hit in it’s own right and featured Lionel Jefferson and his parents who had been friends and neighbours of the Bunkers. “The Jeffersons” lasted 11 seasons – two more than “All in the Family”. “Checking In” was spun-off from “The Jeffersons”. George and Louise’s maid, Florence, had her own show for a mere four weeks. Sally Struthers had her own show, as well. “Gloria” ran for one season. “Archie Bunker’s Place” was more like a continuation of “All in the Family” with a new premise and new characters. After Edith’s death from a stroke, Archie owned his own restaurant and was raising the 10-year-old daughter of Edith’s step-cousin (?). These further adventures lasted four years. The oddest spin-off of “All in the Family” was “704 Hauser”. This was a case of the house the Bunkers lived in getting it’s own show. For five episodes in the spring of 1994, John Amos starred in a “photo negative” version of “All in the Family”. Amos was the head of a black family living at the Bunker’s former address. The difference here was that Amos and his family were liberals dealing with their conservative son dating a white, Jewish woman (Maura Tierney). Like, really? Anyways, for those keeping score at home, “All in the Family” accounts for over 37 seasons of award-winning sitcom entertainment between 1971 and 1994.

“All in the Family”: the mother of all TV shows. Well, a lot of them, anyways.

I remember years ago a friend of mine stated that he couldn’t watch “All in the Family” because Archie Bunker was a bigot. This was in my mind when I started watching the first season last month. A couple things struck me almost immediately.

Archie Bunker is the focal point of this show. He is the head of the family and played by the star of the program. The fact that the main character is seemingly so unappealing is pretty rare in television. Archie comes out with racial slurs that cover all races and denominations. I’m reminded of a line from “Dirty Harry”, a film that was released the same year that “All in the Family” debuted. A colleague of Harry’s says that Harry does not play favourites – he hates everyone equally. The same can be said for Archie Bunker. On the surface it’s odd to think that a bigot is put forward as the star of a television series but there’s more going on here. The character is representative of a certain generation, a generation that is slowly being superseded by another, newer generation. This change and the inherent nostalgia are well presented by the wistful lyrics of the opening theme song of the show, sung by Archie and Edith at the piano. This was a generation that had always been shown and indeed had always seen the world as dominated by white males. A person of another sex or colour was often looked at differently by men of this generation. While not making excuses for hatred – and I am by no means an expert in this kind of thing – these men often did not know any different. It is what they had always seen, it was how they were raised. However, a great number of this generation were untouched by prejudice so perhaps this ‘excuse’ is flimsy at best.

But I bring that up to try to illustrate that, with Archie, his bigotry does not seem to come from a place of hatred. Indeed, through the run of the show, Archie is somehow given a ‘pass’ and still seen as likable. Perhaps his surroundings and some deft writing contributed to his not being eviscerated. Take Mike, for example. Archie’s daughter, Gloria, is married to Michael Stivic, who is Polish and who is living in Archie’s house with his wife while he goes to college. Mike is very liberal and the character was essential to the show being accepted. NOT ONE of Archie’s slurs is let go by Mike.

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“Meathead” became iconic but Mike served to balance out Archie’s rhetoric.

Archie will drop one of his inappropriate comments and the studio audience will laugh. This laughter, actually, could stand some discussion but let’s just say that the audience is laughing incredulously; they cannot believe what they have just heard. Mike will immediately challenge Archie’s generalizations, often bringing in various statistics and facts to counter what Archie has said. He’ll often throw in a joke at Archie’s expense and this will draw a laugh that needs not be explained. Perhaps we could say that the audience laughs at the ridiculousness of Archie’s comments and they laugh with Mike as he makes things right by cutting down Archie and his stereotypes.

Gloria also combats her father’s ideology but perhaps in a more emotional way – she loves her father and knows that he is a good man. This is just something in his personality that needs to be corrected. Edith – Archie’s wife constantly being referred to as a “dingbat” needs it’s own post, maybe – seems oblivious to the vicious side of Archie’s stances. And her responses will at first seem idiotic but they will often cut to the heart of what makes Archie’s prejudices so unfounded. She is unmoved and untainted by her constant exposure to these attitudes.

The show was also able to maintain balance by adding black characters to serve as foils for Archie’s outdated thinking. Mike’s good friend, Lionel Jefferson, often has to listen to Archie’s idiocy. Lionel takes it in stride. He heckles Archie so astutely that Archie doesn’t even realize that he’s being heckled. Lionel nonviolently puts one over on Archie all the time, to the delight of the studio audience. Lionel’s father, the legendary George Jefferson, takes a less pacific approach. He is a perfect nemesis for Archie Bunker in that George is fed up with being suppressed by white society. So much so that he hates “honkies”. In what appears to be the first episode in which we meet George Jefferson, Edith has invited George and his wife, Louise, over for supper. Archie is outraged. He has started a neighbourhood petition to deter black families from moving in; how will having them over for supper look? On top of this, this dinner date means giving up his Mets tickets. The Jefferson’s come over and “George” fights with Archie about there not being any blacks at NASA. The audience revels in Archie getting some of the stuff he constantly slings thrown back at him. The payoff comes when it is revealed that this is not George at all but Louise’s brother-in-law. The real George refuses to sit down and break bread with “whitey”. The audience erupts in laughter. Archie can’t believe that George stayed home instead of coming to supper. “He’s not at home,” Archie is told, “he’s at the Mets game”. How perfect is this? The Jefferson family joins Mike in combating Archie’s bigotry, bringing balance to the show.

The way that Lionel is able to one-up Archie without Archie even realizing he’s being ridiculed hints at Archie not being too swift. And it was savvy on the part of the creators and writers of the show to add Archie’s malapropisms to his character. By mangling the English language, there is the minutest sense that perhaps Archie is not as intelligent as he might be. If he is dumb enough to get words wrong, he is dumb enough to get people wrong: Archie often sees his son-in-law’s way of thinking as smacking of communism: “What new subversion are you fermenting here?”.  And ‘bums’ who don’t work are “welfare incipients”. And Archie loves his cigars, especially when they are given to him as a gift: “Whoever sent these cigars wants to remain unanimous. These cigars are the nectarines of the gods”.

In this day and age, some of the slurs Archie comes out with can feel like physical blows. You find yourself laughing but not so much because you think that what he said is funny. You are also shaking your head at the audacity of the comment and the incredible close-mindedness it represents. “Man, were people really like that?!”, you find yourself saying. Yes, they were. Some will argue that we haven’t come that far from there after all. I tend to disagree. Maybe it helps to have someone be so blunt and verbalize these epithets so that we can be aware of that from which we progress and this can also remind us that we need to be ever vigilant and continue to progress even further. So, who will stand up and be that person? That person – ourselves, really – that we despise and strive to be different from?

Archie Bunker was not presented as a hero, which is rare on television. But Carroll O’Connor? Now, there’s a hero. He was willing to play the buffoon. But more than just a clown, he was willing to portray the dark side of man’s thinking and attitudes. He was willing to present to millions of families every Saturday night the archaic and harmful thinking of a generation. He was willing to be the pathetic “before” picture in a plan for America losing the weight of bigotry. For the greater good, Carroll O’Connor was willing to risk being hated and vilified in order to show the nation what needed to be fixed. That, in my opinion, is heroic. It is a testament to all of the talent involved in making “All in the Family” that Archie and the show emerged as one of the most socially and culturally impactful programs in history.

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Carroll O’Connor and Archie Bunker. Hero and icon.

In somewhat of a postscript to all this, after nine seasons of the original show, “Archie Bunker’s Place” is interesting in that Archie is to some extent remorseful about his attitudes. The show was created, written and ran predominantly by Jews. Archie’s new partner in the restaurant business, Murray Klein – played by Martin Balsam – is also Jewish. At first, Archie cannot fathom being in a partnership with a Jew, which he almost apologetically explains to Murray. Then Murray speaks to Archie’s 10-year-old ward, Stephanie. When Murray learns that Stephanie is Jewish and Archie had to join the local temple so that she could go to Sunday school, he realizes that maybe Archie is not such a bad guy after all. All this is, of course, the ultimate mea culpa for the bigot from Queens. The Archie Bunker of the early days – the beginning of the story arc and that which made the show popular – is no more. The moral here is obvious: if Archie Bunker can change, we all can change.

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”.

 

Wool Hat: The Ballad of Mike Nesmith

So many great artists are buried by celebrity. I wrote recently about ‘paying the bills’; the idea that an artist can sometimes get stuck doing what he is popular for as opposed to what he likes to do or can do well. (https://wordsbywellsy.wordpress.com/2017/11/04/paying-the-bills/) Virtuoso guitarist Glen Campbell gets ‘stuck’ being a country singer. Michael Nesmith found himself in a similar situation at the start of 1967. An earnest songwriter and guitarist, Michael found himself on television playing a quiet country boy hanging out with three goofballs. He also found his name on a record that he said was the worst album in history.

Robert Michael Nesmith was born in Houston, Texas. When he was only four years old, his parents divorced. Bette Nesmith took Michael – an only child – to live near family in Dallas. Bette worked many clerical jobs to support her and her son before ending up at Texas Bank and Trust, eventually reaching the elevated position of executive secretary. Like many secretaries, she was constantly frustrated by the inability to properly correct mistakes made while typing on the typewriters of the day. Bette got an idea. She took some water-based paint with her to work one day and started using it to ‘paint over’ her mistakes. Some bosses gave her static about it but her co-workers used it and loved it and Bette carried on this way for five years. Eventually, she decided to market and sell her correction fluid as “Mistake Out” in 1956. She began a ‘factory’ of sorts in her kitchen and changed the name of her product to “Liquid Paper”. She was boss of her own revolutionary company until 1979 when she sold it to Gillette – for $47.5 million. Mike’s life was off to an interesting start.

Mike was an indifferent student and did not graduate high school before joining the Air Force. Once he got out, he began to focus on writing songs and performing in clubs. He moved to Los Angeles in 1965 and entered in to a publishing deal for the songs he was writing. One day, an associate brought in an ad asking for young men to audition for a television show centered around a fictitious rock band; “The Monkees”.

Wool Hat
Mike as ‘Mike’. And his green wool hat.

Now, I don’t know Michael Nesmith personally but, having been a fan of the Monkees for more than 30 years, I think I can make a few assumptions about his feelings about being involved in this fledgling television show. Maybe the same could be said for how Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Peter Tork – the other Monkees – felt as well. Mike was a songwriter. He was a singer and guitarist who had been operating in the music business for a while. I will assume that his desire was to be allowed to make records; get a record deal, take his songs into a studio with a band, record them and put out records. But anyone can understand that as you begin to feel your way at the dawn of your career, you will take any opportunity that comes your way.

Mike found himself playing a wool-hat wearing, quirky country boy – a variation on himself – on a weekly television show. The intention of the producers all along had been to put out records under the name “The Monkees”. The original ad for the auditions did stipulate that successful candidates would have musical abilities; songwriting, singing, instrument playing, etc. so obviously the four boys who would make up the group would be utilized somehow when it came to making the records. The Monkees get a bad rap and are referred to as the ‘Pre-fab Four’. They are not considered a real band because they didn’t play their own instruments. But here’s the thing – it was common practice in the music industry at the time for producers to ‘create’ bands and then utilize session musicians to make the records. If you’ve ever heard of the Wrecking Crew than you know that this crack group of L.A. session musicians played on the bulk of the hit records released in the mid-1960’s. Fully functioning bands like the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Grass Roots, the Association, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap and Paul Revere and the Raiders used these seasoned studio players to create music in the studio. Producers of the time wanted perfect recordings in the shortest amount of time possible – this meant bringing in the pros. It was not uncommon and it was not just the Monkees that employed session musicians. But because it was supposedly so obvious – I mean, it was a TV show, not a ‘real’ band – the Monkees had a stink on them from the get-go.

All this would have rankled a musician like Mike Nesmith. He was in the business to make records – NOT act on TV, playing air guitar to music performed by others. You can see from the outset, from the very first album, that Mike was doing his best to focus on his music as opposed to engaging in the hit-making combine that comprised songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart and producer Don Kirshner. This is borne out by taking a look at the first album, “The Monkees”, released in October of 1966.

Monkees
Their first album went to #1 and stayed there for 13 weeks.

Micky Dolenz does NOT get enough love. He had perhaps the perfect voice and vocal delivery for the pop/rock of the day and was called upon to sing lead on the majority of the group’s hit singles. Such was the case with the first 45RPM, the #1 hit “Last Train to Clarksville”, released shortly before the first album. Mike is represented on the first LP by two songs. “Papa Gene’s Blues” perfectly exhibits Mike’s country/rock leanings. “Twangy”, you might say, or “jangly”. “Sweet Young Thing” is more of a rocker with the added touch of fiddle. Mike had been promised by the powers-that-be that he could have a modicum of control over his songs in the studio. What’s interesting is that, although Mike could be considered a neophyte, he was producing sessions featuring the Wrecking Crew, the best studio musicians in the country. Also interesting; his two songs are VERY “Mike” and stand out from the rest of the tracks. In fact, Mike does not participate in any other song on the album. However, on his own compositions, that he produced, he utilizes Micky (vocals) and Peter Tork (guitars). Micky sings harmony with Mike on “Papa Gene” which started a pairing I love. Michael often would call on Micky either to sing lead on a song he had written or to sing some wonderful-sounding harmony with him. This tells me that, from the outset, Michael wanted to make his own music and to use the others in the group whenever possible.

The Monkees’ second album – “More of the Monkees” – was released January 9, 1967. It came as a complete surprise to the boys in the band. Svengali Don Kirshner had rushed the album out to capitalize on the Monkees’ massive success. The album being compiled and released without the band’s knowledge coupled with Kirshner’s liner notes, in which he praises his songwriters and producers before he mentions the Monkees themselves, confirmed Mike’s assertion that the boys were not in control of their own fate and sent a disturbing message to the other three guys. At a meeting in which the boys vented their spleen to the powers-that-be, Mike became so enraged that he punched a hole in a wall, exclaiming to the record company’s lawyer in attendance “that could’ve been your face!”. In the aftermath, Michael’s lobbying was successful and the boys were given artistic control of their next album. Don Kirshner was eventual fired. (He would go on to ‘create’ The Archies)

Mike was quoted in a magazine interview saying that “More of the Monkees” was “probably the worst album in the history of the world”. It’s apparent, though, that it was the state of affairs that made him feel this way about it. The album is better than their debut and fared even better on the charts. “More of the Monkees” displaced “The Monkees” in the #1 slot and the sophomore effort would spend 18 weeks on top. Mike’s contributions are again very “Mike” and very interesting. He sang lead and played steel guitar on “The Kind of Girl I Could Love”. He again produced the Wrecking Crew and the backing vocals feature all four Monkees. “Mary, Mary” is a great song and an example of one that Mike wrote but gave to Micky to sing. Peter plays guitar, joining the Crew in the studio. The song was eventually covered by Run-D.M.C. Again, Mike does not appear in any way on any other track on the album.

Their third album, “Headquarters”, was made by the boys operating as a proper band. Mike plays guitar throughout, bringing his soon-to-be-trademark 12-string electric sound to the fore. He also plays some great organ on “For Pete’s Sake” – co-written by Peter but, again, given to Micky to sing – which was used as the closing credits song during season 2 of the show. Mike wrote and sang the album opener, “You Told Me” and also “Sunny Girlfriend”. “You Just May Be the One” is quintessentially “Mike” and is one of his best songs. It’s another great example of how good Mike and Micky sound singing together, Micky again taking the harmony line. “Headquarters” peaked at #1 but was overtaken the very next week by the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. They would be 1 and 2 in the land for the next 11 weeks. “Headquarters” is often cited as the only one of the Monkees’ albums to be considered “essential”.

I would be remiss to not mention what is maybe – with “Sometime in the Morning” – my absolute favourite Monkees song, “The Girl I Knew Somewhere”. This song, released as the B side of “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” in March of ’67, is notable as being the first track that the Monkees took charge of themselves. They all played instruments and recorded the track alone in the studio with producer Chip Douglas, who also played bass. Michael wrote the song and took the lead on an early version. Another take was recorded with Micky singing lead and this became the master. It is perfect pop. Perfect pop. I tend to short shrift Peter Tork and his contributions to the band but he lays down some stellar harpsichord on this song. It is a gem.

Mike had a success outside the Monkees in the fall of 1967. A 2-year-old song of his, “Different Drum”, became the first hit of Linda Ronstadt’s career. Her group, the Stone Poneys, took Mike’s tune in to the Top 20. They had been rehearsing the song as a slow ballad but their producer, Nick Venet (credited as producer on the Beach Boys’ first two albums), re-envisioned it as baroque pop with prominent harpsichord. He wanted a specific sound and employed seasoned session musicians to play on the record. In the end, Linda was the only Stone Poney to perform on the recording. Sound familiar? It is interesting to note that this is what happened in the early days of the Monkees and supports the claim that it happened all the time to many different groups.

MOnkees2
The lads – in their “Monkee” shirts – between romps. Micky, Davy, Peter and Mike.

Their fourth album, I think, is just as good if not better than “Headquarters”. “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones, Ltd.” was released at the end of 1967 and also reached #1. Mike’s lead vocal is featured prominently on this alum and it contains another gem from him although in this case it’s just a vocal and not a composition. Again, the opener goes to Mike although he did not write the song, “Salesman”. One of the best Monkees songs ever, “The Door Into Summer”, was not written by Michael but features his lead with Micky coming in to sing harmony. The two have never sounded better together. Mike and Micky give out with more of the same on the very next track, “Love is Only Sleeping”, written by the formidable team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Maybe the greatest “Mike” song in the Monkees catalog was not written by him but given to him to sing because of it’s country sound. “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” is 3 minutes and 9 seconds of bliss taken at a rolling gait accentuated by banjo. Michael wrote the intriguing “Daily Nightly” but again turned the vocals over to Micky. Mike’s lyrics are a veiled commentary on the recent Sunset Strip riots and the song is one of the first rock songs to feature the Moog synthesizer. Micky was the third person to ever own one and he plays it on this track. By contrast, the next cut on the album is “Don’t Call on Me”, written and sang by Mike. It is a gentle track that starts off as a tongue-in-cheek lounge lizard number.

“The Birds, the Bees and the Monkees” was released in April of 1968. By this point, an odd thing had happened. After fighting to work together and alone and doing so on their last two successful albums, the boys decided they wanted to work separately from each other. Yes, they had proven the critics wrong and could do things well themselves – it’s just that they didn’t want to do them together anymore. Michael was still pioneering country/rock and also exploring psychedelia. His contributions to this album included the outstanding – if ridiculously titled – “Auntie’s Municipal Court”. A glorious guitar orchestra opens the track before Mike’s oft-chosen vocalist, Micky, comes in singing the lead. As a rarity, it’s Mike singing the harmony here to Micky’s lead. “Tapioca Tundra” was a far-out excursion on which Mike plays almost all the instruments including some typically stellar 12-string. “Writing Wrongs” is more of the same; only less so. “Magnolia Simms” was more experimentation from Mike, this time emulating a 1920’s sound. The album was very successful for the boys as it included the hits “Daydream Believer” and “Valleri” but Peter Tork left during the making of the album and the three remaining were working – as often happens with bands – as three solo artists. Staying together though was somewhat of a necessity. Neither of the three were big enough to make it on their own but they were more than able to ply their individual trades under the umbrella of “The Monkees”. Michael’s songs were beginning to show signs of an eccentricity that would mark his music throughout the rest of his career.

The soundtrack to the Monkees’ movie, “Head”, was released near the end of 1968. The film defies understanding but the soundtrack contains some fine moments (Rolling Stone ranked it the 25th best soundtrack). Mike’s lone contribution was the energetic rocker “Circle Sky” on which he plays some excellent guitar and delivers some of the best grunts in rock history. The “Instant Replay” album is the first output of what could be called the Monkees’ ‘second phase’; the show was now off the air and this was the first record to be made after Peter Tork had left the group. Michael’s songs include “Don’t Wait For Me” which is VERY country and includes prominent steel guitar and was recorded and co-produced in Nashville with Felton Jarvis, who had only recently started working with Elvis Presley. “While I Cry” is absolutely devastating. One of the saddest songs you’ll ever hear, it is another example of Mike’s specific brand of fine guitar playing. The swan song of Mike’s initial period with the Monkees came with the next album, “The Monkees Present”. Released in October of 1969 into a music scene that had long since left the boys behind, it was another patchwork of songs from three individuals. The twelve tracks were divided up evenly, 4 a piece. Mike brought one more great track to the Monkees’ fold with “Listen to the Band”. Here Michael is producing crack session men in Nashville, taking them through a trademark Nesmith country/rock number with steel guitar again prominent. “Listen to the Band” was the last song resembling a hit from the original run of the group, charting at #63. Shortly after the release of this record, Mike announced he was leaving the group to start his own outfit called The First National Band.

Michael had released records before joining the Monkees under the name Michael Blessing. Also, in 1968, he released the hard-to-explain orchestral album “The Wichita Train Whistle Sings”. The instrumental album was made over two sessions in Hollywood with the Wrecking Crew and featured versions of lesser-known Monkees songs. With the First National Band, however, Mike Nesmith was stepping out for the first time as a solo artist with the cache of having been a Monkee and with all the attendant expectations.

FNB
Red Rhodes, John London, John Ware and Mike: The First National Band. Photo courtesy of their Facebook page.

Finally out from under the umbrella of the Monkees – Michael paid out the remainder of his contract – Mike was now free to completely ply his trade as he saw fit. His trade was “country/rock”, a genre that he did not invent but you can certainly count him among it’s pioneers. Mike had built up a back log of songs during his time with the Monkees so much so that his new band was able to release three albums in an 18-month period. Mike teamed with steel guitar player Orville “Red” Rhodes who’s playing defined the sound of the First National Band. The group’s first album, “Magnetic South”, yielded the Top 40 hit “Joanne”, a surprise for the fledgling band. However, country/rock was not commercially viable and Mike was concerned not one bit with writing a “hit song” so after the First (and Second) National Band had petered out, Michael carried on, following his muse and releasing albums that virtually no one heard. Mike struggled to keep his career solvent and had difficulties with the IRS until a sad event helped him out. His mother, Bette, passed away in 1980 and Mike inherited half of her $50 million estate. This freed him up to pursue his next venture.

“The Monkees” television show had been directly inspired by the Beatles’ first film, 1964’s “A Hard Day’s Night”. The idea of “The Monkees” was to have the manufactured band live together and get into adventures. But also there was records to be sold and the TV show could pump the music into living rooms every week. And while the record would play – as in “A Hard Day’s Night” – the Monkees would get up to a lot of zany antics: somersaulting through a park, running along the beach, chasing the bad guys around the house, etc. This all sounds like what would eventually become “music videos” and, indeed, Richard Lester, who directed the Beatles’ first two films, is considered a sort of ‘godfather’ of the music video. And rightfully so. But also the producers of “The Monkees” television show should also get recognition as pioneers as they presented these “clips” week in and week out for two years.

No doubt this experience was in Mike’s mind when he decided to make a “clip” to accompany his song “Rio” from his 1977 album “From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing”. He began to explore the idea of “music videos” and of releasing his subsequent albums as “video albums”. Problem was that there was nowhere to show these “videos”, except for maybe on a late night talk show that Mike happened to be a guest on. Subsequently, Mike would find a home for his “music videos”. In 1981, he released an hour-long program called “Elephant Parts” which was made available on VHS and LaserDisc and was one of the first new programs made available for home viewing. “Elephant Parts” was a collection of comedy skits, commercial parodies and five full-length music videos for recent recordings of Mike’s. At the Grammys the following year Michael won the first ever award given out for a “music video” and the success of this innovation inspired Mike to take his music video idea further.

Many other artists began to make music videos and Michael came up with the idea for “PopClips”, a show that featured videos by some popular and emerging artists. Early videos shown on “PopClips” were for songs by George Harrison, the Rolling Stones and the Police – but also Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons, Pearl Harbor and the Explosions and Tycoon. “PopClips” ran on Nickelodeon – owned by Time-Warner – for one season. Michael then sold the show to Time Warner, who subsequently redeveloped the show into the “MTV” network.

Through the rest of the ’80’s and the 1990’s, Mike continued to release albums. He also started a production company responsible for music videos by other artists and feature films. He also continued to avoid returning to the Monkees. Mike did not join the boys for the Monkees’ 20th anniversary reunion but the four Monkees did get together in 1996 to release “Justus”, an album that harkened back to “Headquarters” in that it was completely written and performed by the four of them alone. (The lead-off track was a re-recording of “Circle Sky”) Starting in 2012 and continuing after the untimely death of Davy Jones, Nesmith toured with Micky and Peter although he did not join the two other remaining Monkees for the band’s 50th anniversary tour in 2016. Also that year the band released “Good Times!”, a critically acclaimed album that featured one composition from Mike and three vocals.

In early 2018, Mike performed a handful of concerts with a revamped First National Band that included two of his sons and later in the year he hit the road with Micky for a series of shows billed as “The Monkees Present the Mike Nesmith & Micky Dolenz Show”. It seems that now, 52 years after the band’s formation, the death of Davy Jones and the apparent ‘retirement’ of Peter Tork, the Monkees has finally ceased to exist as an entity. Contrary to the perception that Mike Nesmith has ill feelings towards the Monkees and the ‘box’ the band put him in, Mike’s statement in 2012 about the experience wraps things up nicely: “I never really left. It is a part of my youth that is always active in my thoughts and part of my overall work as an artist. It stays in a special place.”

Mike Nesmith’s legacy is an interesting one. In some respects, he never truly has emerged from under the umbrella of the Monkees. But, really, that’s OK. Some artists, as I’ve said, get trapped by celebrity; typecast, or whatever you want to call it. Maybe in the end these artists never get to spread their wings as they may have liked but the one role they played or the one group they were in are cherished by many people. Many people love and adore the Monkees; the show and the group’s music truly ‘mean something’ to many people. That is no small thing.

I think to understand Mike as a solo artist, it helps to look at his perception of his time plying his trade as one of the original country rockers with his First National Band. I have read that Michael “was agonized” when he heard the first album from the Eagles, a band that was recording music in the same vein as the First National Band. He has said that he was “heartbroken”: how are the Eagles moving so many units when my albums are invisible? I understand his pain but I have to say that the Eagles’ first few albums contain a wonderfully accessible sound. “Tequila Sunrise” and “Take It Easy” are infinitely easy to like. The First National Band was much more “country” than the Eagles and the FNB lacked the ability to deliver the gorgeous harmonies that Glenn Frey, Don Henley, et al. could deliver.

In my opinion, Mike’s music in general always seemed to lack that one final ingredient. That elusive something that makes the masses embrace an artist or an album or a song. And his persona was never easy to grasp. His intelligence and dry humour made him a challenge to “get”. If you were browsing the record shops back in the day and came upon an album called “Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash” or “From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing” or “Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma” you may have looked askance – it was especially hard to understand that the craziness of the titles was not reconciled to the music; the music on the records was not as crazy or avant-garde as the titles suggested. His was an eccentric talent, he was on his own path and the music he made and the persona he projected simply could not be easily processed by the average young person listening to his radio in his pick-up truck. That’s not to say that Mike was and is not possessed of innate talent and ability as a songwriter and musician. Mike Nesmith belongs in that rare group of artists that are greatly respected by the industry and those who “know” but that are misunderstood by the general, record-buying public: Lee Hazlewood, Warren Zevon, Tom Waits and others. These are artists that ‘travel to the beat of a different drum’.

Michael was the true artist of the Monkees. He had the talent to write and record music himself. He didn’t need to join the group but he took the opportunity for the advancement it could provide. He battled for his artistic individuality while with the Monkees and then, when he left, he had a hand in pioneering country/rock. Later, his vision lead him to not create the music video but to become an early proponent of the concept of presenting videos in a regularly recurring format; indeed, the iconic “MTV Network” was based on an idea of his. And before any of this happened, his mother invented a product that virtually everyone in the developed world has used either in school or business. And yet it seems he will always be remembered as “Monkee Mike”, “Wool Hat”. And that’s OK.

Nez
Papa Nez. Monkee Mike. Wool Hat. All of those things. And more.

The Best of Mike Nesmith: The Monkees and Beyond

Honourable Mention: “Different Drum” – the Stone Poneys — lovely song with a sweet vocal from a young Linda Ronstadt.

5. “Joanne” – the First National Band — surprise hit for the fledgling country/rockers. Nice vocal from Nez.

4. “You Just May Be the One” – the Monkees — nice strumming. One of the highlights of the Nesmith/Dolenz vocal tandem.

3. “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” – the Monkees — not written by Mike but a very “Mike” sound. An exciting, banjo-laden trip south of the border.

2. “The Door Into Summer” – the Monkees — another one not written by Mike but a joyful jaunt. Micky shines again in his role as Mike’s vocal shadow.

1.  “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” – the Monkees — like I said: perfect pop. Mike was savvy enough to give the lead to Micky. They again sound great together. An absolutely delightful song.