Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Turkey Dinner or Duck Soup?


 I doubt that the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade was as much an American pop culture institution in 1935 as it is today. Remember, there was no television, so that made it strictly a local event. If you wanted to see it live, you had to be living in, or at least visiting, the tri-state area (New Jersey/New York/Connecticut--though some would add the northeastern most part of Pennsylvania, in which case it becomes the quad-state area.) To encourage the natives or tourists to get out of their houses or hotel rooms on what is often a cold November day, full-page advertisements such as the one above were placed in local papers. Perusing this ad--I saw a larger version that I unfortunately can't reproduce here without taking out the sidebar--one difference from the more modern version stands out: the starting time. 2 o'clock? Are they talking PM? For as long as I can remember, going back to the days when Lorne Greene and Betty White were the parade's television emcees, it started sometime in the morning and was over by noon, and at that point the network was turned over to either the NFL or the Big Ten. Of course, no television, no football game, unless you lived near a stadium. Other than when it began or ended, the parade seems not to have changed all that much. There's floats and big balloons and marching bands and celebrities. Santa, of course, at the end, but in 1935 there were other renowned visitors that you won't see on TV this Thanksgiving, so let's see who they were back then.

In the ad's upper-right-hand corner, to the immediate right of the big exclamation point, there's a small photograph of someone named Tony Sarg. Mr. Sarg may have been well-known in his day, but he's long since fallen into obscurity (even I had to look him up, accepting all kinds of so-called "cookies" to do so.) A German immigrant, Sarg wore many hats during his colorful career, including that of animator, magazine cartoonist, illustrator, designer, and, especially, puppeteer, an art form he helped popularize in the United States, eventually becoming known as the Father of North America Puppetry. Perhaps he also should be known as the Father of North American Ballooners. Sarg was already involved with Macy's as the designer of the department store's robotic window displays when, in 1927, he was asked to come up with some ideas for the Thanksgiving parade, which got its start three years earlier. His idea was the now-familiar but back then quite novel giant balloon, which was essentially a huge helium-filled reverse-marionette, the puppeteers maneuvering the blimp from the ground up. Initially, these balloons were stock figures like toy soldiers or various animals, but as the annual parade gained in popularity, owners of copyrighted characters such as the animated cartoon star Felix the Cat took notice, and let Sarg inflate the characters for publicity's stake. More about one such character, now much more well-known than Felix, in a moment (and if you examined the above ad closely, I'm sure you've already guessed who it is.) Sarg died in 1942, and that I never heard of him is my loss. There's actually quite a bit about him online, so I don't regret accepting--HEY, WHY IS MY COMPUTER RINGING AND WHAT'S ALL THESE BOXES POPPING UP ON THE SCREEN?!

Uh, give me a second, will ya?...

OK, I finally got all that under control. Shall we continue?

You'll have to scroll up a bit to get back to it, but to the left of that avian dirigible in that Macy's ad you'll find the photo of our next celebrity, bandleader Paul Whiteman. Him I've heard of, though I can't say I've followed his career all that closely. He was once referred to as The King of Jazz, but that sobriquet has been grumpily disputed, derided, denounced, and disproven by several generations of outraged jazz aficionados. Like Bill Haley a quarter of a century later, Whiteman was a--no pun intended (by me, anyway)--white man who made black music palatable for white audiences by draining it of its blackness. To be fair to Mr. Whiteman, I went to YouTube to sample some of his musical offerings. What I heard sounded closer to a high school marching band than anything that came from Louis Armstrong or Cab Calloway. But then I like all music, even high school marching bands (sometimes more than whatever game is being played), so I can't say I wasn't entertained. We'll just leave the musical critiques at that. John Philip Sousa's  Paul Whiteman's heyday was the 1920s, but he was still a musical force to be reckoned with in the decade that followed. At least on Broadway, where he and his band provided orchestration to several musicals, including Rodgers and Hart's 1935 hit Jumbo. The story of a struggling circus, the show featured actual circus acts, and ended each night with Jimmy Durante lying down on a stage and having his face gently tapped by an elephant's foot! (If you're familiar with the once-famous Durante's once-famous nose, you may wonder if it looked like that before the elephant tapped him. I'll have to look it up, but only if I don't have to accept any more cookies.) As for Whiteman, he was at the parade to promote Jumbo. Jimmy Durante wasn't, and that may be all for the best. Who knows how that elephant would have reacted in front of all those unruly paradegoers?

Now, if you're willing to scroll back up to that ad and look to the right of the big inflatable waterfowl, you'll see a celebrity that I'm not only aware of but am actually a fan of, as well as a fan of the comedy team of which he was a member, Harpo Marx of the Marx Brothers. He and his sibs Groucho, Chico, and Zeppo had spent the first half of the 1930s at Depression-wracked Paramount Pictures, but just now had moved to the ritzier digs of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where money grew on papier-mâché trees. How long Harpo, Groucho, and Chico would be allowed to stay at those ritzier digs (for all its supposed excess cash flow, Metro balked at an extra dressing room for Zeppo) all depended on the sucess of their new movie. At Paramount, the outside world, the world of order and restraint, served merely as a backdrop to the boys' anarchic antics, but MGM exec Irving Thalberg thought there were more comic possibilities in having the brothers confront the world of order and restraint head-on. Film buffs may argue about whether the Paramount approach or the Thalberg approach produced the funnier pictures, but their first MGM outing, A Night at the Opera (only in a Marx Brothers movie could opera convincingly represent the world of order and restraint) became and would remain the boys biggest box office hit, and today is still their best-known film. But in November of 1935, that still remained to be seen, and that's why Harpo was there, to promote the flick. (Incidentally, Thanksgiving fell on the 28th that year, and Harpo's birthday was five days earlier, close enough for him to have candles in that pumpkin pie.)

Speaking of Harpo, here's Harpo speaking: 


 Nothing to do with Thanksgiving, other than my way of giving thanks to a comedy god.

Our final celebrity is the one that dominates that Macy's ad, Donald Duck, looking as he did in 1935. Though for marketing reasons Donald was never able to replace Mickey Mouse as the studio mascot, Walt Disney realized before the moviegoing public did that Mickey's cartoons were destined to reach a creative dead-end, and so subtly, and then not-so-subtly, shifted his company's focus to the duck. As he was so often during his remarkable career, Walt was proved right. Donald was a much funnier character than Mickey, had a much more comedically-adaptive personality than Mickey. Donald appeared in many more cartoon shorts than Mickey, and throughout the 1940s and beyond, was the Disney studio's highest-grossing star. If that wasn't enough, Donald was a major star of comic books as well, in the days before that art form became solely dedicated to superheroes. However, in 1935, all that was still in the future. Donald Duck made his animated debut only a year earlier, and had yet to appear in a cartoon as anything other than a supporting player. So, it was quite an honor for him to appear for the first time in a Macy's parade (Mickey had made his Macy's debut the previous year, as had one of the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf.)  If you look at the picture at the left, you'll see Donald had a long thin neck back in the day, and almost looks like he could be a baby ostrich instead of a duck.


The balloon followed suit. Unfortunately, it was rainy and windy that day, causing that long neck to sway. Donald sure doesn't look happy about it, does he? This was not only the first, but also the last Thanksgiving for that particular balloon.

27 years later, in 1962, a new Donald appeared at the parade. The long neck had long since disappeared from the cartoons and comic books, and so too from the balloon. Donald looks pleased. This version ran until 1971, and then was retired due to wear and tear, though it did make one more appearance in 1984 to celebrate the duck's 50th birthday. Since that time, while there's been much smaller Donalds seen on floats, there's been no balloon. According to Macy's own Thanksgiving parade web site, licensing issues may be what's holding things up. Which reminds me...

I give thanks for that every time I post on this blog. 

And I'm thankful for whoever drops by to look at this stuff. Enjoy the holiday, folks.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Under the Radar: Peter Cook


Well, here in the United States, Cook was mostly under the radar, but I hear tell in the British Isles he was pretty much a household name. His comedic career at times was intertwined with a man who did become a household name here in the United States:

All you Yanks out there, recognize the chap on the right? Foul Play? 10? Micky & Maude? ARTHUR?! That's right, it's Dudley Moore. If you'll recall, the Hollywood star originally hailed from England, and even had the accent to prove it. Cook and Moore had been members of a four-man satirical comedy stage revue titled Beyond the Fringe that premiered in 1960 and had successful runs in both the West End and on Broadway. The other two members were Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller. The four Englishmen acted in the skits that they themselves wrote. The revue's success led to an overall boom in British comedy, culminating in Monty Python's Flying Circus by decade's end. As for Cook and Moore, once the revue ran its course, they decided to continue on as a team. They had their own TV show on the BBC, put out a few comedy albums, appeared in more stage shows, and made a few movies, once of which I'll show a clip from in a bit. All of this did get them some attention on this side of the Atlantic. At least they got the attention of Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, who had them cohost one night during that show's first season. And when American talk show host Dick Cavett did a series of shows from London, he had the two comics on as guests:

This clip is almost 50 years old. Even though William and Kate and Harry and Meghan have yet to arrive, the Queen that Cavett, Cook, and Moore refer to is the one that still sits on the throne today! 

Now I'm going to go back almost 60 years, and show you a very famous (in England) sketch of Cook's and Moore's written by Cook. It made its premier in the aforementioned Beyond the Fringe revue, and the two men revived it from time to time afterwards, even doing it on Saturday Night Live. I found the SNL clip on YouTube, but this isn't it. Here's hoping you don't mind the black-and-white imagery, because I want to show you the sketch as close to its stage debut as I can get it:

Cook and Moore may never have done a Tarzan movie, but in 1967 they came out with this Faustian farce:

12How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! 13For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: 14I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. 15 Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit  

--Isaiah 14:12-15

Confused? Not sure what Isaiah is talking about? Cook (as the Devil) and Moore reenacts the above passage in this scene from Bedazzled

(Now, I'm sure some of you biblical scholar nitpickers out there are going to try and tell me that King James and his ghostwriters got it wrong, that it's a famous mistranslation from the Hebrew original, that Lucifer wasn't the Devil after all, but just some king in antiquity who was full of himself. Well, if you think I'm going to remove the above funny scene from this post for that reason--and, were he here, I'm sure John Milton would back me up on this--YOU deserve to be cut down to the ground!) 

OK, so far we've seen Cook with Moore, but how funny was he without him?

In 1981, Cook was lured to the U.S.--Dudley Moore's newfound success here had to have been on his mind--to appear in a situation comedy titled The Two of Us. Based on an earlier Britcom called Two's Company, the talented Mimi Kennedy plays Nan Gallagher, a local TV talk show host and single mother who needs someone to manage the household while she's at the studio. Despite some misgivings about working for Americans, haughty Englishman Robert Brentwood accepts the job (he probably figured, if it's good enough for Clifton Webb...) I remember finding the show very funny, and this 40-year-old clip (with subtitles, for anyone who happens to speak whatever language it is) doesn't disappoint. Along with Cook and Kennedy there's Dana Hill as Nan's 12-year-old daughter Gabby (in real life, Hill was 17, her growth unfortunately stunted by diabetes.) Watch:


As funny as the show was, and as funny as Cook was in it, The Two of Us only lasted two seasons. Cook hung around Hollywood for a while, doing small parts in movies (most notably, he was the clergyman in The Princess Bride), and then went back to England. Even on his home soil, Cook was unable to recapture his former success, and when he died in 1995 at age 57, the British press was hard on him for being unable to do so. That was then. It's now 26 years later. In the long run, careers aren't judged by how they end but by how well they did in, well, the long run. Peter Cook is increasingly seen as one of the greatest comic minds Britain has ever produced, and that island has produced a lot of great comic minds. Americans should take notice.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Follicle Phobia


A few days ago actor Dean Stockwell died at the age of 85. At this point he's probably best known for playing Al Calavicci, holographic sidekick to Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) in the late 1980s-early '90s time-travel TV series Quantum Leap. Another well-know role of his was Mafia chieftain Tony the Tiger in the 1988 film comedy Married to the Mob (I'm tempted to say he was g-r-r-reat in it, but I'll control myself.) He also was seen to good effect in the '80s movies Paris, Texas, To Live and Die in LA, and Blue Velvet. This was during his "comeback" period. Stockwell had originally been a child actor in the 1940s, seen to good effect back then in such popular and well-regarded films as Anchors Away, The Green Years, Gentleman's Agreement, and Song of the Thin Man. Since I'm a bit pressed on time--hey, it's the middle of the workweek as I write this--I want to focus on, and recommend, one particular film that he made back when he was just a kid, 1948's The Boy with Green Hair, directed by Joseph Losey.

Police pick up a bald-headed little boy, a runaway, and turn him over to a child psychiatrist played by Robert Ryan (then on the cusp of movie stardom.) This becomes the film's framing device as the boy, a war orphan named Peter Fry, tells his story in flashback. After being passed along a series of disinterested relatives, Peter ends up in a small town under the friendly guardianship of a retired actor named Gramp (Pat O'Brien.) There's finally some stability in young Peter's life, though the cares of the world is brought home to him when his school takes up the cause of war orphans, his classmates not realizing there's one in their midst. Peter's also troubled when he overhears adults talk about a new war that's on its way (as we know now, that war turned out to be cold.) One day after taking a bath, Peter is drying himself with a towel, looks up in the mirror, and to his surprise sees his hair is technicolor green! The town doctor has no explanation. The kids all make fun of him. That sounds bad, and it is, but at least they see a lighter side to the situation. Not so the adults, who are plainly freaked out about the whole thing. Peter makes the first of two attempts at running away from home. In a clearing in the woods he comes across some mystical war orphans that he had earlier seen on a poster. The orphans tell him his hair has turned green for a reason, to remind the world that war is especially bad for children. Rather than question the connection, Peter returns home, intent on being a child prophet. Well, anyone who knows the Bible, or has at least seen a Cecil B. DeMille movie, knows that prophets don't have the easiest time of it. The kids again make fun and bully him, while the townspeople bring intense pressure on Gramp to take the kid to a barber, which brings us back to the present day, as the bald-headed boy finishes his story. The child psychiatrist, quite understanding (and a tad amused) tells Peter that if you have something to say, you say it, no matter the consequences. Gramp turns up at the police station to take the boy home, but not before the psychiatrist advises him the youth's message is an important one, no matter what his hair color.

The Boy with Green Hair flopped at the box office, but by the 1960s had developed a cult following, which it still has today. It's not a perfect film. The antiwar message is a bit heavy-handed, and at times seems awkwardly shoehorned into the story being told. However, grown people treating an innocent little boy like the Frankenstein monster can still send shivers down the spine, as much as any movie that does have the Frankenstein monster in it. Though made in the late 1940s, The Boy with Green Hair eerily prophesizes the conformity that would come to characterize the 1950s, and the pushback against anything that threatened the status quo. And as we've seen recently in this Proud Boy era, the pushbacks and backlashes against anything that smacks of difference continues. Whether young Dean Stockwell was cognizant of the film's themes when he made it might seem unlikely, but as an adult he did drop out for a while to pursue the hippie lifestyle, and most that knew him after he dropped back in attests that he nevertheless remained very iconoclastic. So maybe the film did affect him. It's a stellar performance, especially coming from such a young actor.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Graphic Grandeur (Classified Expressionism Edition)


Comic book artist James Dean Jim Steranko was born on this day in 1938. The son of a stage magician, he did that himself for a while, but it's the feats of magic performed on the drawing board that's made him a legend in his field. At least it was his field, as his stint in comic books was mostly in the latter half of the 1960s. Since 1970 or so, he's run his own publishing company and done much work in Hollywood as a production designer, most notably working with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg on Raiders of the Lost Ark, helping them come up with the Indiana Jones "look" (though he didn't design Harrison Ford; that was God's doing.) The still-debonair Steranko hasn't completely abandoned the comics field, returning every now and then for a limited run on some book. And he can often be found at the many comic-cons, i.e., conventions, which is where we find him in this clip: 

Steranko mentioned Nick Fury, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-Enforcement Division--even Stan Lee in his 1975 book Son of Origins of Marvel Comics couldn't tell you what it was a division of), who is his intelligence agency's own best agent, and seems to assign most of the missions to himself! Fury wasn't always a secret agent. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963, he made his debut in Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos as an Army noncom fighting the Nazis during World War II. Two years later, inspired by the success of the James Bond movies and TV shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E, Lee and Kirby turned Fury, now a WWII vet with an eyepatch, into a spy, and assigned his cloak-and-dagger (and often laser beam) missions to the comic book Strange Tales, where he shared space with Doctor Strange. Kirby left the feature at the end of 1966, and that's when Steranko took over, eventually getting a book all to himself to play with. Kirby had already revolutionized comic book art by giving it a touch of the avant-garde. Steranko went further, and farther out. He took his inspiration not so much from Milt Caniff and Alex Raymond but the latest Jimi Hendrix album cover and Grateful Dead concert flyer. These were tie-died spies, op art operatives. It was counterculture counterintelligence, espionage for acidheads. As much Peter Max as Maxwell Smart. Intrigued? I can't tell you anything more until you've given me your password...What's that? You're already logged into your computer? Well, yeah, I guess to do that you would have had to use a pass--OK, just draw down the shades and turn on the lava lamp. Here are some intriguing and arresting examples of Jim Steranko's national security state psychedelia:


When you're a spy, they'll send you anywhere. You don't even have to know Jeff Bezos.

I admit I always get carried away with myself with these comic book posts, but it all looks so purty on a computer screen, don't you think? Speaking of comic books, you'll notice on the above cover in the upper right hand corner, this bit of censorship:

Well, any good secret agent...

...knows how to break a code.