Monday, April 29, 2019

Vital Viewing (I Think I Can, I Think I Can, I Thought I Could, I Thought I Could Edition)

 Before there were airplanes, before there were automobiles, before there were bicycles, there were trains. Exactly why trains were invented before bicycles is something I've never quite understood. I mean, OK, a caveman invents a wheel, domesticates the horse, brings both together in the horse and buggy (or horse and chariot, horse and stagecoach, etc.), several millennium passes, James Watt in the late 1700s invents or perfects the steam engine, someone else in the early 1800 figures out that if you lay out tracks you can use that steam engine to move people or things great distances, for the rest of the 19th century trains remain the most advanced form of transportation, until someone comes along and invents the internal-combustion engine and thus the automobile, but before that can happen, right near what in my youth was referred to as "the turn of the century", someone said, "Um...shouldn't we invent bicycles before we invent automobiles? I mean, we look stupid enough already inventing a train before a bicycle, let's not compound the stupidity."

But I'm not here to talk about bicycles but trains, which, while no longer the most advanced form of transportation, have hardly gone the way of the horse. I mean, New York City still has the subway, in my hometown of Cleveland we have the "Rapid", somewhere--I'm not always sure where--there's that alternative to the Interstate Highway System called Amtrak, and finally, there are mornings where you still can be late for work sitting in your car waiting as a never-ending graffiti-decorated freight train crosses the tracks carrying things that for some reason can't be transported by an 18-wheeler. And that's just here in the United States. On C-SPAN I used to watch the various Prime Ministers of Great Britain answer questions and generally defend themselves before members of Parliament, and the thing Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair or David Cameron or Theresa May seemed to have to answer for or defend themselves against more than anything else, more than the problems between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, more than whether to support the United States in its invasion of Iraq, more than whether to remain in or leave the European Union, is whether or not the trains were running on time, and if they were did it cost too much to ride one. That this is something you can pester a Prime Minister about 20 or so years after the formerly government-run rail service has been privatized is a testament to the viability of that form of transportation. It's not like anyone's scoring political points over bike paths.

OK, that's the introduction, now let me get to what I'm introducing. Five train-related videos for your enjoyment. All aboard!

Actually, I may be getting ahead of myself here, because before all can get aboard, they first have to arrive at the train station. And if it's a long journey ahead, it can be an emotional experience for a loved one left behind. Such is the case of Cpl. Bill Smollett (Robert Walker) and his sweetheart Jane Hilton (Jennifer Jones), as he prepares to leave for war in the 1944 movie Since You Went Away. That Walker and Jones were married in real life may have added a touch of realism to this scene until you consider...well, I'll get back to that. For now, just watch:  

 So does Cpl. Smollett survive World War II? I don't want to give away the film's ending, so instead I'll give away the real life ending. Jones ran off with and eventually married the movie's producer and screenwriter David O. Selznick. Walker's heart was broken, and he spent time in the Menninger Clinic for a psychiatric disorder, quite possibly the reason Alfred Hitchcock cast him against type--he had heretofore played proto-Richie Cunningham boy-next-door roles--as a psychopathic murderer in Strangers on a (this is just a coincidence, folks) Train, before possibly drinking himself to death in 1951, the very year that film hit the theaters. And you thought the war was bad!

I realize that first video and accompanying commentary was heavy going, so, to get you in a more upbeat mood, I'm going to offer you some...

 ...comfort food:

 Pretty catchy tune, huh? Hmm? Commercial jingles are not your type of music? Perhaps you'd prefer something with a...

...little soul?

Watch and listen:

But what if you can't afford a ticket on the Love Train? Well...

...I suppose you can always take a streetcar instead.

Let's get back on track. Tracks. The kind with rails.

Obviously, a train can be a very dangerous thing if it's coming right towards you, but as long as you're not a cow, a late 19th-early 20th century damsel in distress, or a hungry coyote (Carnivorous Vulgaris) with a taste for roadrunners (Accelleratii Incredibus), there are all kinds of...

...precautions taken so nothing messy happens, both here in the United States and everywhere else, except possibly Thailand, which has a railway that runs right through...well, you have to see this for yourself: 

Did you see those people snapping pictures? I wonder if they got the conductor to say cheese.

 Even though their picture's obviously being taken, none of these airline passangers are going to turn around and say cheese because they're busy watching one of those in-flight movies. That got me wondering. Don't people on a long train trip deserve a little entertainment? It doesn't necessarily have to be a feature film. It could be something a little musical, like, say...

 ...a big band. So let's watch Duke Ellington (born on this day in 1899) and his Orchestra as they Take the 'A' Train (on tracks laid down by Billy Strayhorn):

A train with its own rhythm section. It's the only way to travel. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Don't Tell Him What He Can't Do

Damon Lindelof. Who is he, exactly? At the time he appeared on the cover of the above magazine, he was best-known as the creator and co-producer of the science-fiction and/or fantasy TV series Lost, and co-screenwriter of the 2009 Star Trek feature film reboot and its 2013 followup Star Trek Into Darkness. Six years later, he very much remains a Hollywood player (and maybe an artist as well.) 

Note the pencil tucked behind his ear. Is it just a prop, a way of emphasizing that he's a "power writer", or were all those Lost episodes actually written in longhand? Another unresolved mystery.


Saturday, April 20, 2019

Quips and Quotations (Marquee Monikers Edition)

Diane Keaton is no relation to the other famous Keaton. Although they should have switched names. She acts like a Buster, and he was male but very graceful--and always "Diane" for a laugh. Get it? Bad pun.

--Joan Hackett

Monday, April 15, 2019

Vital Viewing (Living Dolls Edition)

 Ah, yes, who doesn't love a good puppet show?

What's that you say? You'd rather watch a superhero movie? One with lots of special-effects? Now look here, you young whippersnapper, before digital animation, before stop-motion photography, puppets were special-effects, the original special-effects. And just to prove my point, I'll give you a sampling:

 We'll start with the husband-and-wife team Punch and Judy. They first got their start in the middle of the 17th century, and by 1950 were still playing to full houses--or maybe just full daycare centers. Watch:

Nothing like a little domestic violence to keep the young ones occupied.

 Next up is Bullwinkle J. Moose. But wait, isn't he a cartoon character? So he is, but early in his career he occasionally made appearances in puppet form, such as when he guest-starred on Fractured Flickers, a 1963 comedy show hosted by character actor Hans Conried (born on this day in 1917, incidentally) in which silent films from the 1920s and earlier were lip-synched  by the same actors who worked on Bullwinkle's cartoon show (as both were produced by Jay Ward):

 OH, MY GOD! Foul play! Does Rocky the Flying Squirrel have an alibi?

Next up is Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. As a kid in the late 1960s and early '70s, I watched them host the CBS Children's Film Festival that came on right after Saturday morning cartoons. You only saw the trio (and heard puppeteer Burr Tillstrom) for a little bit at the beginning and the end as most of the hour was devoted to a foreign film (no, nothing by Fellini or Ingmar Bergman--these were made for kids.) KFO's real heyday, which I unfortunately missed out on as I hear even Orson Welles was a fan, was about fifteen years earlier, in the 1950s:

In case you haven't figured it out for yourself, Kukla was supposed to be a clown, Ollie a dragon, and Fran Allison a flesh-and-blood human being. Obviously, they came from three very different walks of life. A high-concept show indeed!

Now puppets come in many forms, but the two most common seem to be hand puppet, like Kukla and Ollie, and marionettes, like that freckled-face boy on the left in the above picture. If you don't recognize him, it's Howdy Doody, who, along with his human sidekick Buffalo Bob, starred on a popular children's program in the 1950s. Again, this was before my time, but, fortunately, I was around when Howdy and Bob made an appearance on a 1970s show about the 1950s:

If you're curious as to the identity of Clarabell the Clown, well, in the above clip it was Bob Brunner, who also wrote that particular episode of Happy Days. As for who played him in the 1950s, it was several actors throughout the decade, the most well-known of whom was Bob Keeshan, who later went on to even greater success playing another children's show favorite, Captain Kangaroo. And as to whether Life magazine really would have paid a large sum of money for a picture of Clarabell without makeup, only Henry R. Luce knows for sure, and he ain't talking.

 People don't generally think of ventriloquist acts as puppet shows, but that's pretty much what they are. The only difference is that you see the puppeteer. What's the secret of a successful ventriloquist? That they can throw their voice or talk without moving their lips? Nah. Edgar Bergen was a star on radio, where those abilities hardly mattered. No, a ventriloquist can move his lips all he wants as long as can successfully deflect attention to the doll, dummy, or puppet. And to do that, one needs to make the doll, dummy, or puppet a memorable character, as Wayland Flowers did a generation or so ago when he brought unto this world Madame, a glamorous, aging nymphomaniac, basically a drag queen in the form of a puppet:

 Wayland Flowers died of an AIDS-related illness at the far too young age of 49 in 1988 (when that horrific disease was just beginning to take its toll on the arts. Some day when I'm in the mood to depress everybody, I'll list all the well-known names that were lost.) There were rumors early on that Madame was buried with Flowers, but it turns out he left her and other puppets to his manager, and from time to time Madame is allowed to perform in public with comedians who can successfully mimic her (actually Flowers') voice. My initial response to that was: accept no substitutes. But it may be just what Flowers wanted. His character has outlived him. How's that for memorable?

Finally, we come to perhaps the most successful puppeteer of all time, Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets (Marionette + puppets). There's no shortage of Muppet videos online, thanks to both the continuing popularity of Sesame Street, and fond memories of The Muppet Show, the latter group of characters (now owned by Disney) having appeared in a movie a few years ago, another TV show, and generally still considered a viable commercial property. However, the clip I want to show is from neither Sesame Street nor The Muppet Show (though the star of the clip appeared on both) but a 1971 Dick Cavett Show: 

Well, what did you expect? Cavett had a late night talk show. Of course the humor is going to be a bit more edgy than what you'd see on Sesame Street.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Clearly Clemens

 67-year old Mark Twain in front of his boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri, and just to show you how commonplace photography had finally become by 1902 when this picture was taken...'s a photo (probably a snapshot from an early Kodak) of the photographer getting ready to take the photo!

 Whichever way you look at it, Twain attracted a crowd that day. By then he was one of the most famous people on the planet.

 The house is still in existence, though 109 years after Twain's death, it can be a little difficult discerning...

 ...truth from fiction.

Motion pictures were anything but commonplace in the first decade of the 20th century, but a year before he died, when he was 74, Twain managed to appear in one anyway:

 As for what Twain sounded like, I'm afraid I can't help you there. He was a silent film star only.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Quips and Quotations (Scheme of Things Edition )

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

--Stephen Crane