Monday, December 30, 2013

Fade Out

I said in a recent post that November was not a good month for cartoonists. Well, the same can be said about December and film actors.

Peter O'Toole 1932-2013
"...the most remarkable class [The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts] ever had, though we weren't reckoned for much at the time. We were all considered dotty."
Among the British actor's classmates at the academy were Albert Finney and Alan Bates.
O'Toole was trained as a classical actor--meaning lots and lots of Shakespeare--and spent the first decade of his career on the stage. When asked once what the generations of actors that came after him lacked, he replied, "theatre, theatre, theatre". True though that may be, all those theaters were in England. Not much good that does a Clevelander on a limited budget like me. Fortunately, O'Toole segued into movies, movies, movies, many of which I've seen on TV, TV, TV. Ya git culture any way ya can.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) made O'Toole (as well as Omar Sharif) an international star, but I have to admit, I've never really cottoned to that flick. David Lean was a great filmmaker, but I prefer his work from the 1940s, like Brief Encounter or Great Expectations, two fine movies that clock in  at 86 and 113 minutes, respectively. Lawrence is almost four hours! It's not that I can't enjoy a long movie. I like Gone with the Wind, The Ten Commandments, and The Godfather, but those films had a lot of things going on to hold my attention. That may seem the case with Lawrence if you watch the above trailer, but all those exciting action scenes are interspersed with prolonged, swooping shots of sand. Sand, sand, and more sand. Too much goddamn sand, even if it does swirl to some great background music. After a while, I started hoping Frankie and Annette would show up and lead me to water. Still, this is just a minority opinion. Most people who have seen this film think it's great. And, as I said before, it did, quite deservedly, make Peter O'Toole a star, and if it hadn't done that, we might not have all the great performances that followed.


So, tell me, when was the last time Henry II came up in conversation? As British monarchs go, he's not nearly as famous as that other Henry. You know, the portly one with all the wives. Well, Peter O'Toole must have seen something of interest in that earlier Henry. He played him twice. First alongside Richard Burton as rebellious cleric Thomas Becket in Becket (1964), and then alongside Katherine Hepburn as rebellious wife Eleanore of Aquitaine in A Lion in Winter (1968.) O'Toole actually plays the character a little differently in both movies. You can even say Henry shows some moral growth from film to film. In the first one, he puts his best friend to death, whereas in the second he merely locks his dearly beloved up in prison.

Time for some comedy. In 1965, O'Toole played a sex addict before the term was coined in What's New, Pussycat? (1965), screenplay by Woody Allen, who also co-starred. The beautiful Romy Schneider portrayed one of his many love interests, much to the chagrin of Allen, who squeezes his banana in frustration (er...that didn't come out right.)


Time for some black comedy. In The Ruling Class (1972), O'Toole is hilarious as Jack Gurney, an English lord who fancies himself Jesus Christ ("When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself.") He's eventually disabused of this notion and goes back to calling himself Jack. Except it's the same Jack that wandered the dark alleys of London in 1888. Turning the other cheek is the last thing on his mind.

O'Toole played a maniacal film director in The Stunt Man (1980)


Fair is fair. After making fun of film directors in The Stunt Man, O'Toole then made fun of film actors, especially those that drink too much, in the 1982 comedy My Favorite Year.

 O'Toole (looking a bit like Stan Laurel) as an English tutor out to give a young prince a Western education in The Last Emperor (1987). China went communist anyway.

Let's bring this to a close with the 1991 comedy King Ralph. Peter O'Toole is private secretary to John Goodman's uncouth, American-born British monarch. Not really all that great a movie, but O'Toole and Goodman acting alongside each other? Book me a seat to the coronation.

Joan Fontaine 1917-2013

When Peter O'Toole and Joan Fontaine died within a day of each other, there was a lot of comments on the Internet about the loss of two stalwarts from the Golden Age of Movies or whatever.  However,  they actually belonged to two different generations of actors. Fontaine was a good 15 years older than O'Toole (but a good ten years younger than Katherine Hepburn, who, as I said before, once played queen to O'Toole's king, so I guess there is some overlap here.)

Though she wasn't yet a star, Fontaine did appear in two 1939 movies that are now considered classics. The top picture is from the catty comedy-drama The Women, based on the Claire Booth Luce play of the same name. That's Joan on the farthest right. Third from left is Rosalind Russell, and to the immediate right of her are Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer, all of whom got better billing, and considerably more screen time than Fontaine. She fared better in Gunga Din where she was the only female present. Really, though, that was kind of a thankless role, too. Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen spend that entire movie trying to break up her engagement to Douglas Fairbanks Jr (the dude in the helmet above), taking time out only to fend off an army of murderous Thugee tribesmen.

Fontaine finally got her chance playing the main, though not the title, character in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940) Curiously, the above trailer calls it the most glamorous movie ever made. Glamorous? That's how you describe an Astaire/Rogers musical, not something by Alfred Hitchcock! It's actually a very moody, very tense examination of self-doubt, family secrets, and class differences. Fontaine is a working girl who falls in love with an uptight aristocrat played by Laurence Olivier at his anal best. He's also a widower, and his new wife finds that she has big shoes, as well as an ancestral dress, to fill. The servants, especially a dour, spooky housekeeper well played by Judith Anderson, prefer the original, deceased lady of the house, the Rebecca of the title, whom we never get to see. We can only imagine her, and Fontaine (not only isn't she the title character, but her  first name is never even revealed!) imagines and fears the worst, that the first wife was the best. It doesn't help that the spooky housekeeper drops hints that she might want to commit suicide. Let Fred and Ginger dance around that! Fontaine won an Oscar for her sensitive portrayal of the second Lady DeWinter. After she gets caught in a rainstorm prior to meeting the household staff, whom she desperately wants to make a good first impression, you'll just want to put your arms around her, and then maybe blow dry her off.

Suspicion (1941), directed again by Hitchcock. This time Fontaine's the one with money, but she's also a plain Jane who thinks no man could love her until debonair Cary Grant enters her life. She opens her heart to him, and also takes off her glasses, thus revealing herself to be a ravishing beauty (even a director of such originality as Hitchcock couldn't avoid that cliche.) After she marries him, he's revealed to be a penniless, lying gambler, whom she suspects of wanting to murder her. Whether Grant wants to or not, you'll just have to wait until the end of the movie to find out. Until that happens, you'll want to take her in your arms, and then maybe tear up her life insurance policy.

 The Constant Nymph (1943) Another story of thwarted love, though the danger this time comes not from a mysterious stranger, but Fontaine's own heart. Literally. The 26-year old actress is quite convincing as a none-too-healthy teenager who falls in love with her piano teacher, played with effortless, it totally clueless, charm by Charles Boyer. He never realizes until it's too late that his pupil wants more than Beethoven from him. Another sensitive performance by Fontaine. You'll want to take her in your arms, and then maybe give her a nitroglycerin tablet.


Sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland. In case you're wondering, it's Joan that changed her last name. The reason I'm showing so many pictures of the two is that I want to demonstrate that they were quite willing to smile prettily together for the camera when asked. The prettiness came easy enough, but apparently not the togetherness. They reportedly have not spoken to each other for the last 25 years, and obviously will never speak again, not in this world anyway. What cause the rift? Some say (actually, Joan) that Olivia was jealous that she didn't win an Oscar first. They also may have taken turns stealing boyfriends from each other. And when their mother died, Joan didn't know about it. An innocent mistake on Olivia's part, I'm sure. She probably just didn't have her sister's phone number.
I like both sisters, and wish it had ended on something resembling, however faintly, a positive note. I googled "Olivia de Havilland goes to Joan Fontaine's funeral". Nothing came up. I'm not sure there even wasor will be, a funeral. However, I did get this: Havilland said in a statement that she's shocked and saddened by her sister's death.
It's hard to think of shock and sadness as a positive note, but what the hell, I'll take it.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

In the Nick of Time

The 4th-century Bishop of Myra, in Lycia, in Asia Minor, would like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas!


People are always trying to figure this guy out.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Graphic Grandeur (In Memoriam Edition)

The November that just passed was not a good one for cartoonists. We've lost two, both of whom worked primarily for DC Comics during the Silver Age (1956-1970), so expect to see a lot of superheroes in this post. Now, I know some of you may not like reading about superheroes. I'm cool with that. You can just look at superheroes instead. After all, it's a visual medium we're talking about here. Anyway, each artist drew in what's called a "house style", as opposed to the kind of signature style you'd expect from a Jack Kirby or Todd McFarlane, and thus they were perhaps more craftsmen than artistes. Very good craftsmen, as you shall see.

Nick Cardy 1920-2013

Nick Cardy actually started out as a Golden Age (1938-1950) artist, working at Eisner & Iger, a kind of free-lance studio that  provided art and stories for various comic book publishers in the early days of the medium. They're best known for the The Spirit Section, a comic book-like supplement that ran in Sunday newspapers. This supplement concerned itself chiefly with a character called The Spirit, hence the title, but had backup features as well, including one about a crime fighting socialite named Lady Luck. Cardy didn't create the character, but certainly improved it. The thing that stands out most in Cardy's work was his knack for drawing beautiful, sexy women, and he's now seen as a rival of sorts to John Romita Sr., who drew his own memorable females for Marvel Comics in the 1960s. If you're wondering who "Ford Davis" is, that's the house pseudonym, used no matter who was drawing or writing the strip (boy, they had a house-everything back in those days!)

Cardy was drafted during World War Two, where he earned two Purple Hearts for injuries suffered as a tank driver in Europe while with the Third Armoured Division. Before all that, though, and while still serving stateside, he won a competition to draw a logo for the 66th Infantry Division. No word on whether Huey Newton or Bobby Seale also served in this division.

After returning home from the war, Cardy worked in advertising for a while, and then got a job drawing the daily black-and-white Tarzan comic strip for a couple of years in the 1950s, while Burne Hogarth continued with the Sundays. Hogarth was already something of a legend at that point, so for Cardy to have his work appear in conjunction with the more established artist was quite an honor. As far as I know, nobody ever complained about a drop in quality from Monday through Saturday.

Around the same time, Cardy started his long tenure at DC Comics. His first book was Gangbusters, based on a popular radio show. Notice how the program's characters were described as "coast to coast favorites." That everyone in the country could listen to the same show at the same time was still considered quite amazing.

 Tomahawk was a frontier spy during the Revolutionary War, Dan Hunter his juvenile sidekick. Don't worry, Dan. I can't find any record of this marriage lasting beyond this particular issue.

The waterlogged superhero Aquaman was Cardy's best known character.

"Ramona Fradon had been drawing the character but was moving on for some reason. I remember being in [editor] Murray's [Boltinoff] office with Ramona during the transition. ... Anyway, they must have liked my work because when the character got his own series, they made me the artist".

Cardy drew the first 39 issues (1962-1963) and all the covers until 1971.

 I hope Aquaman knows a thing or two about bankruptcy court.

Yessiree, look at Aquastud sow his wild oats (or seaweed.) And to think there's some online speculation he's gay! (Of course, these covers ARE pre-Stonewall.)

Enough of Aquaman already. Wonder Girl (Diana Prince's kid sister) gets a makeover, much to the amazement of Robin and friends.

"Not now, darling. I'm trying to kill someone."

I've already compared Cardy to John Romita Jr. Like his Marvel counterpart, he was in great demand as a romance artist.

If not for the downcast expression, she could pass for Romita's Mary Jane Watson (Spider-Man's girlfriend.)

Is it any wonder "love" means zero in tennis?

Al Plastino 1921-2013

I said before that Nick Cardy drew in DC's house style, but an argument can be made that his work became more individualistic and recognizable (a well as a bit psychedelic) as time went on. Al Plastino, however, was a true chameleon who could disappear in another artist's style to a startling degree. Just you wait and see.

An early stint with a now-forgotten superhero. Actually, there's two 1940s comic book characters with this name, both androids. So whoever came up with the second version probably hoped everyone would forget the first one, which happened to be Plastino's.

Once settled in at DC, Plastino worked with the most famous superhero of them all. Never as the primary artist, though, but as backup to Wayne Boring and, later, Curt Swan, both of whose styles he successfully mimicked.

Primary artist or not, Plastino did get to create supervillian Brainiac, who shrunk and stole the Kryptonian city of Kandor and all its citizens before the planet exploded, actually saving a lot of lives when you think about it, though he never got credit for that.

Back in the day, a superhero was no match for a crooner.

Teen idol.

Superboy travels to the future and gets blackballed. Apparently, superpowers are a dime a dozen in the 30th century. Plastino co-created the Legion with legendary comic book writer Otto Binder. Ironically, Binder got his start writing for Captain Marvel, whom DC sued out of existence. So Binder simply brought his whimsical approach over to the legal victors. 

Another Binder/Plastino creation. I wonder what the citizens of Metropolis thought when they first saw her fly over their fair city?

"Look! Up in the sky! It's a's a's Superma--hmm, he looks like he lost some weight, and is that a skirt he's wearing?"

Remember what I said at the beginning of this post about Jack Kirby having a signature style? In the early 1970s, DC managed to lure him over from Marvel, hoping he'd perk things up some, but when they took one look at penciller Kirby's version of Superman... 

...they had inker Plastino redraw his head in a non-signature style as possible.

Probably the most noteworthy bit of art ever to come from Plastino's pen. Originally done in cooperation with the Kennedy White House, it was withheld, redrawn some, and then released after JFK's death. In this story, the President instructs Superman to get those missiles out of, no, actually, the  Man of Steel takes part in a physical fitness campaign. Not his physical fitness, of course--who needs exercise when your powers are fueled by a yellow sun?--but the nation's. This story has been the subject of a recent controversy, one having nothing to do with single bullets or grassy knolls. For years it was assumed the original art had been donated to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston. Instead, it turned up a couple of months ago at some auction house in, of all places, Dallas. Right before he died, Plastino was taking legal action to get it back, claiming "creators rights". I would normally applaud such an action, and I rather not have this art sold to the highest  bidder, but it should be noted that Plastino himself once almost got in the way of another creator's rights, and wait until you see who! 

The above, as you might expect, was drawn by Charles M. Schulz. What you might NOT expect is the Al Plastino-drawn Peanuts strips below, which were never published, and remained unseen until the Internet came along. What accounts for their existence? Stories vary. One is that in the early 1980s, after Schulz had suffered a heart attack, his syndicate United Features (now United Media) asked Plastino to draw up a bunch of strips, just in case the recovery wasn't speedy enough. Another, more diabolical explanation is that these strips are from about five years earlier, when an uncharacteristically obstinate and demanding Schulz was renegotiating his contract with the strip's legal owners, United Features, who were now actually considering replacing the cartoonist. The two sides eventually came to an agreement, and seeing as Schulz died a millionaire many times over, I'd say the terms were probably in his favor.

I've gone outside my allotted space because I want you to get a good look at this. See what I mean by true chameleon? Plastino's got Schulz's line work and lettering down pat. Charlie Brown and Lucy look pretty good, too. What gives the charade away (other than Plastino's own signature) is Snoopy. His head is much too big. That might be an apt description of his personality, but it's not the way Schulz drew it. Actually, Snoopy on a whole is a little outsized. He's supposed to be a beagle, not a St. Bernard!

I don't know if Plastino or someone else wrote these strips, but they lack Schulz's nuanced approach. I guess the middle one is the funniest (or least unfunny) of the three, but it's more something you'd expect more from Ernie Bushmiller than Charles Schulz.

And speaking of Ernie Bushmiller...

Plastino worked on Nancy, too, and this time got the heads just right.