Saturday, April 27, 2013

Under the Radar: Allan Arbus

The actor Allan Arbus died a few days ago at the age of 95. He didn't start out as an actor, but instead was a commercial photographer from the end of World War II until about 1970. Now, if  "Arbus" and "photography" sound like they should go together, it's because he was married to Diane Arbus, famed for her black-and-white pictures of, as the Library of Congress puts it, "deviant and marginal people (dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers) or of people whose normality seems ugly or surreal." But she didn't do any of that until she separated from her husband in 1959.  Until then she was a commercial photographer, too, one who found that profession, and possibly her life in general, rather unfullfilling. I just found out a few minutes ago about a 2006 film called Fur, based on Diane's life in the 1950s. Nicole Kidman played her, and Allan was portrayed by Ty Burell. I haven't seen this film (kinda hard to do in a few minutes time), but I gather from some of the IMDb "User Reviews", Allan is shown as being rather conventional, stable, mild-mannered, whereas Diane apparently was not (just peruse the  disturbing imagery found in some of  her photographs.) The couple finally divorced in 1969, and Diane committed suicide two years later.


I don't know what effect the dissolution of his marriage and his ex-wife's subsequent death had on him, but conventional, stable, mild-mannered Allan Arbus decided around this time to enter that most unconventional, most unstable, most unmannered of professions: acting. While Arbus never became a star, he seems to have worked steadily enough. He first had small parts in such 1970s films as Greaser's Palace and Cinderella Liberty, played director Gregory La Cava in W.C. Fields and Me, but was best known as psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freeman on the TV show MASH.

MASH, based on an earlier hit movie and comic novel, concerned a U.S. Army hospital unit during the Korean War. The doctors and nurses working in such a place in real life would have witnessed more disturbing imagery in ten minutes in OR than could be found in 50 rolls of Diane Arbus film, something that could only be hinted at in a 1970s sitcom. More broadly revealed, however, was the way these health professionals dealt with the stress of that situation, with wisecracks, practical jokes, and hard partying. As only an occasional visitor to the 4077th (12 appearances in 11 seasons), Sidney Freeman marveled at the way the more permanent residents (until their hitches were up) could hold fast to their humanity with good humor in such a hellish environment. But he also realized that while humor may be the best medicine, it can run out, and that's where he came in. The mild-mannered qualities that, if the IMDb User Reviews are to be believed, failed Allen in his marriage, were just right for Dr. Sidney when healing doctors and patients alike once the laughs died down:

!!!WARNING!!! You may find the imagery in the below clip very disturbing:

If it makes you feel any better, I think they got that baby from the props department. At least, I hope they got it from the props department.
A note on the title of this post. Even though there's a character named Radar on MASH, it's not meant as a pun. For a while now I've considered doing a regular feature called "Under the Radar" about talented people in the arts whom, for whatever reason, never achieved fame. While Allan Arbus was no deviant, he was mostly a marginal figure in the pop culture landscape. Some of you might argue that's only fitting. Arbus never had that "star" quality.

He just did quality work.

You can read more about Allan Arbus here.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Iron Mimic

Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, died about two weeks ago. Her politics weren't my politics, nor her country my country, so I just planned on ignoring the whole thing. But then I read something online that referred to her as a "pop culture figure." No, she wasn't! She was a political figure. Just because someone's on TV a lot doesn't qualify them as pop culture. The woman lived at 10 Downing Street, not Graceland!

Still, I wondered, is there some pop culture angle here I'm missing? Meryl Streep played Thatcher a couple of years ago in a movie, but that was long after she left office. How about when she was still serving the British public or whomever? I seemed to remember a Maggie Thatcher imitator popping up on TV and movies in the 1980s. Or it was it imitators, plural?  I did some research and found out it was indeed the same woman, a Scottish actress by the name of Janet Brown.

Born in 1923, Janet Brown appeared in many stage, movie and TV productions, without much notice until Margaret Thatcher was elected head of the Conservative Party in 1975. Brown had no political ax to grind; she simply felt Thatcher was now a celebrity (pop culture figure?) and worthy of impersonation. As you can see in the above picture, Brown didn't look much like Thatcher. Of course, when she was actually doing her impersonation, she wore her hair like Maggie's, but this couldn't hide the fact that she was a more attractive and seemingly younger woman (in fact, she was two years older.)  No, the key to Brown's success was not how she looked but sounded. Thatcher had a highly theatrical, low-pitched, pause-filled speaking style (originally piercing and provincial, she had taken voice lessons from none other than Laurence Olivier.) To compare the two, here's the Prime Minister in 1979 on her first day on the job: 

 All right, now here's Janet Brown from around the same time. I know the various political references will be a bit obscure to most Americans (actually, this was so long ago, they're probably a bit obscure to most Brits under the age of 40), but for my purposes, I'd like you just focus on the mannerisms. Brown has them down...quite pat:

Man, did you see the name of the web site at the end of that clip? Janet Brown may not have had a political ax to grind, but someone else sure did! Remember, folks, there was no Internet in 1979, so that was added on long after. Stiff upper lips notwithstanding, some Brits really know how to hold a grudge (more about that later.)
Janet Brown eventually put out her own comedy album:

In 1981, Brown-as-Thatcher popped up at the end of the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only. Whoever originally put the following clip on YouTube posted the punchline without the setup. So I'll provide you the setup myself. Bond has successfully wrapped up another assignment, and he and his latest girlfriend have decided to celebrate by going for a swim. However, at the exact moment they take the plunge, Bond's two-way radio wristwatch (Ian Fleming by way of Chester Gould) goes off, with only a pet parrot around to answer it:

Even if you don't feel like watching the video, look closely at the still picture above. See that box of Kellogg's Bran Flakes right behind the phony Thatcher's bouffant? Would it be highly irregular of me to suggest that the film's art director thought the real Maggie might benefit from adding such to her diet?

Janet Brown's Maggie Thatcher finally made her American TV debut in 1983 (the accompanying video says 1985, but various sources I've cross-referenced say otherwise.) The occasion was a prime-time special titled Johnny Carson's Practical Jokes, a forerunner to the popular TV Bloopers and Practical Jokes, which in turn was a forerunner to Punk'd, a show that plays Candid Camera-like stunts (another forerunner--whew!--a lot of forerunning around, huh?) on celebrities, in this instance Joan Rivers, who'd been making fun of the Royal Family. The faux Maggie Thatcher took Rivers to task:

That slap at the end was all staged. Johnny Carson and Joan Rivers remained close friends for another, oh, six, seven, eight months, until she got her own, ultimately ill-fated talk show opposite his.

After Thatcher was ousted as Prime Minister in 1990 (by her fellow Conservatives; they do things differently there), Janet Brown's star generally faded, though she continued to be a working actress well into her 80s. When she died two years ago, it made the BBC evening news:

As I don't live in Britain I can't say for sure, but I suspect, talented as she may have been, Janet Brown will soon fade into obscurity. But what about the person who inspired her act?

Here's a clue. For a couple days last week the song "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead" sat at number 2 on the British pop charts. Why is something that originally debuted in a 1939 MGM musical suddenly so popular? It's all part of a coordinated effort among left-leaning Brits to infuriate right-leaning Brits on the eve of the Iron Lady's funeral. The infuriation seems to be working. Though no lyrics were changed and it's sung by Judy Garland, who died in 1969 not knowing or caring about Margaret Thatcher, the BBC has refused to play anything more than a seven second snippet of the song until passions cool.

Unlike Janet Brown, Margaret Thatcher won't be forgotten anytime soon. Though her admirers may wish some people would forget about her.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

In Memoriam: Jonathan Winters 1925-2013

Comedian. Actor. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming. Viva Max. Mork and Mindy.
“I don’t do jokes...The characters are my jokes.”
 Winters was a master of improvisation.
As a wagon master. 

As an airline pilot.
Winters destroys a gas station in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963.) Also with Phil Silvers, Arnold Stang, and Marvin Kaplan.
Though he's not in the above scene. Milton Berle was also in It's a Mad...World (don't feel like writing it all out again.) He and Winters share a ride to the movie's premier:
Winter's most famous character was Maude Frickert. Here she is on The Dean Martin Show:
The Rat Pack-like humor in the above clip makes me think this was written by Dean's staff rather than Winters himself. Here's a more improvisational Maude Frickert. Even though Winters is out of costume, I find it much funnier:
Lastly, to bring it all up to date, Winters on Facebook:

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

In Memoriam: Carmine Infantino 1925-2013

Cartoonist. Longtime DC comics employee, first as an artist, then art director, editorial director, and finally publisher, he was a key figure in what came to be known as the Silver Age--1956 to, roughly, 1970, when superheroes, having falling out of popularity after World War II, came back into vogue--but he did fine work outside of that period, too. 

 "There are few people in this world that have had as much of an impact on the industry as Carmine. He bridged both the Golden and Silver Ages of comics, shepherding in some of the most successful periods in our history and setting the course of our characters that is still seen today. He will be greatly missed, but his legacy will remain forever."

 --DC Comics, Co-Publisher Dan DiDio

“Paul Anka’s wonderful line, ‘I did it my way.’ That sums it up for me pretty much.”

--Carmine Infantino

Infantino with a fan, girl power pop superhero (according to her website) Cookie-Cutter Girl.

Most of the art that follows was pencilled by Infantino and inked by others.

The fishnet stocking-clad crimefighter Black Canary was the first superhero, or rather, superheroine, created by Infantino, in 1947. If you read the comic's caption, you'll see she's described as a "fascinating crook." Just a ruse to fool the bad guys.

The revival of 1940's superhero The Flash is what sparked the Silver Age. The costume redesigned by Infantino (see below), he's the character the artist is most identified with.  



Silver Age Flash meets Golden Age Flash. And readers were introduced to Earth-Two, the DC alternative universe where all the 1940s superheroes all hung out.

Elongated Man was derivative of another superhero, Plastic Man. Then the company that owned DC bought the company that owned Plastic Man, and both superheroes ended up under the same roof, along with Jimmy Olsen, who occasionally moonlighted  as Elastic Lad (Mr. Fantastic might enjoy their company, but he works for someone else.)


Infantino also worked with these two fellows. The Batman comics had gotten kind of silly in the early '50s, very tongue-in-cheek, very campy. Once Infantino and DC editor Julian Schwartz took over, Batman became serious again. That is, until 1966, when the silliness returned, though this time in a  different medium...




I'm sure Adam West and Burt Ward were flattered.
As was Yvonne Craig.


The Atom saves the day! As long you don't mind him crawling up your leg to do so.
In 1976, Infantino left DC and became a freelance artist. Among the places he found work was with rival comic book publisher Marvel:
This version of Spider-Woman (there's been several) only lasted a few years. Marvel head honcho Stan Lee has admitted that the only reason the character was created was to secure a copyright (superpowers being no match for a room full of high-priced lawyers.)
Spider-Woman wasn't Infantino's first foray into Marvel territory. In fact, he once worked for DC and Marvel AT THE EXACT SAME TIME: 

Don't worry. After a brief skirmish, Spidey and the Man of Steel become friends. The Multiverse is big enough for both of them.







Saturday, April 6, 2013

In Memoriam: Roger Ebert 1942-2013

Film Critic. Won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1974, the first ever for film. Co-hosted several movie review shows with fellow critic Gene Siskel in the 1970s, 80s, and '90s. After Siskel died in 1999, Richard Roeper took over co-hosting duties, but there just wasn't the same prickly chemistry between the two..

"Every great film should seem new every time you see it."

"I learned to be a movie critic by reading Mad magazine... Mad's parodies made me aware of the machine inside the skin – of the way a movie might look original on the outside, while inside it was just recycling the same old dumb formulas. I did not read the magazine, I plundered it for clues to the universe. Pauline Kael lost it at the movies; I lost it at Mad magazine."

"When you ask a friend if Hellboy is any good, you're not asking if it's any good compared to Mystic River, you're asking if it's any good compared to The Punisher. And my answer would be, on a scale of one to four, if Superman is four, then Hellboy is three and The Punisher is two. In the same way, if American Beauty gets four stars, then The United States of Leland clocks in at about two."
"My guess is that African Americans will be offended by the movie [B.A.P.S.], and whites will be embarrassed. The movie will bring us all together, I imagine, in paralyzing boredom."

“No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough."

"This movie [Freddie Got Fingered] doesn't scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels."
“We had lots of big fights, ... We were people who came together one day a week to work together and the other six days of the week we were competitors on two daily newspapers and two different television stations. So there was a lot of competition and a lot of disagreement.” On longtime TV co-host and rival film critic Gene Siskel.

“I am required to award stars to movies I review. This time, I refuse to do it. The star rating system is unsuited to this film [The Human Centipede]. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.”

"I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization." Not a bad quality to have in a critic, either--KJ

Rocky--Both thumbs up, though Roger's thumb is up higher than Gene's.

E.T., the Extraterrestrial--Two thumbs up.

The Terminator--Thumbs up from Roger, thumbs down from Gene.

Blue Velvet--Thumbs up from Gene, thumbs down from Roger. If anyone cares, it gets a thumbs up from me, too, though I do find myself agreeing with some of Roger's criticism--KJ

Crimes and Misdemeanors--Two jaded thumbs up.

The Addams Family--Two thumbs down.

Contact--Two thumbs up.

Fargo--Yeah, two thumbs up.


Titanic--Two thumbs up.

And some outtakes:


Whenever I do one of these "In Memoriams", I usually don't go into the whys and hows of the person's demise. I focus on their career, their persona, and what they did in the public arena. In this instance, however, Ebert made the run up to his death very much part of his latter-day persona.

In 2002, Ebert was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer, which was successfully removed  in an operation a short time later. Unfortunately, the next year cancer was found in his salivary gland, which necessitated another operation, followed by radiation therapy. During all of this, Ebert continued his TV show, co-hosted by Richard Roeper since Siskel's death in 1999. Four years later, cancer was discovered in his right jaw, a section of which was then removed. Various other complications ensued, and Ebert lost the ability to speak, as well as eat or drink from anything other than a feeding tube. He quit his show.

Problems from the earlier surgeries led to even more surgeries. Attempts to reconstruct his jaw proved unsuccessful. Ebert eventually decided he had spent enough time under the knife, and refused any further surgeries, ignoring the pleas from doctors that they could get it right this time. He re-emerged in the public eye looking quite different from before:

Ebert wrote in his autobiography Just Life that due to his appearance and his inability to speak, people now tended to talk down to him, as if he was a child. He wasn't, and they shouldn't have. For years Ebert had eschewed computers in favor if an old Underwood typewriter. Now needing a new way to communicate, he decided to take advantage of the no-longer-all-that-new technology. He start a blog, and a twitter account. Some recent tweets:

Fake bishop in a cheap rented costume sneaks into the Conclave, is busted by alert Swiss Guards. Movie idea!

Seattle dive bar is the first to ban Google Glass. I am sooo behind.

 Scientists say "it's clear we have the Higgs Boson!" Whew. I was afraid the little SOB would slip away.

Preparing for the upgrade. My site's archives contain many forgotten memories, if such a thing be possible!

 "On the Road." Or, as Willie Nelson prefers it, "On the road again..." My new review.

G.I.JOE: RETALIATION. Maybe you should just play with your dolls instead. Richard Roeper's review on my site: http://

Only in death did Roger Ebert finally lose his voice.