Friday, December 17, 2010

"Okay, Rudolph... Full Power!"


Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol debuted two years' before, but Rankin-Bass's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is the earliest Christmas special I remember. "The most famous reindeer of all's" story premiered on December 6, 1964 as an entry in General Electric's Fantasy Hour, a series of color specials that aired on Sunday afternoon. Someone has posted the original opening and commercials (featuring Santa's elves) from that first appearance to YouTube:


The closing includes a couple of nice shots of the voice cast. Jerry Beck, at his invaluable blog Cartoon Brew, has identified them. The first photo shows, from left to right, Janice Orenstein (Clarice), Paul Kliegman (Donner and the reindeer coach) and Paul Soles (Hermey). From left to right in the second photo: Soles, Billie Mae Richards (Rudolph), Carl Banas (Head Elf and Spotted Elephant) and Alfie Scopp (Charlie-in-the-Box).

I'd forgotten that this wasn't a prime-time entry, but its popularity ensured that it would become one for Christmas Future. It received a lot of press back in 1964, and more than one reviewer opined that we would see Rudolph annually... as indeed we have.


To all my readers: May you have a Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous 2011. And to quote from the Christmas special I didn't see first, May God Bless Us, Every One.

Friday, October 22, 2010

TV Needs Cartoons!

FEBRUARY 14, 2013: Updated version with additons/corrections:

Here's a relic from TV's Golden Age that survived well into the cable/satellite era:


In this digitally restored hi-def world, title cards from defunct TV film distribution firms are all but extinct. Ironically, the fact that they lived this long just demonstrates the apathy that subsequent owners held toward their animated property. Cartoons were so trivial, it mattered not they were heralded with company names that not only weren't yours but also long-since shuttered. In the case of Associated Artists Productions (a.a.p.), it was bought by United Artists Television in 1958 (and actually became u.a.p. in trade ads). UA held the pre-'48 Warner Brothers and all theatrical Popeye cartoons, which had been a.a.p.'s most profitable prize, right through its 1981 merger with M.G.M., until Ted Turner acquired most of the library five years later. Even after Warners got their cartoons back in the '90's, the antiquated openings weren't excised until the studio's home video division started work on the Looney Tunes Golden Collections.

Associated Artists had acquired the cartoons on March 1, 1956, so the company was an ongoing concern for only two years after the titles were created. Yet the name lived on, year-after-year, decade-after-decade.

In truth, a.a.p.'s cartoon product was the summit of a long, hard climb for animation on TV. Theatrical 'toons of some nature were racing across home screens almost from the start. And they were, for a time, one of television's most desirable commodoties. In April 1953, The Billboard proclaimed: "Stations in general appear to be buying cartoons today at a faster clip than ever before. According to best estimates, there are about 650 cartoons in TV distribution altogether. It would seem that the market could comfortably support as many as 1,000 cartoons, if not more. But at the moment, there is not another foot of cartoon in the offing." In an in-depth article two months' later, Billboard would revise the figure upward to "about 800," but with a qualifyer: 90% of the total dated to the silent era.

When Official Films licensed the original Felix the Cat library in early 1953, it was big news: there were reportedly around 200 titles in the Cat's canon. The problem was, since the films were nearly all silent, not every title was in fit condition for release. Official was only able to scrape together 35 Felix cartoons, supplementing the package with 50 other titles from its existing library. Nevertheless, sales were brisk; Official booked $15,000 from six stations during its first week of marketing.

So which cartoons entertained the first television generation, and who provided them... and why?

To begin with, it's helpful to remember that, in the silent days through the first talkie decade, no major Hollywood production company had its own cartoon division. Animation was handled by contractors, most of whom hired established artists, then aligned with a studio. Felix the Cat was owned by producer Pat Sullivan, who released through Margaret Winkler (1923-25), then Educational Pictures (1926-28) and finally Copley Pictures (1928-30). Walt Disney, after leaving producer Charles Mintz, was aligned with Pat Powers (1928-30), then Columbia (1930-32), United Artists (1932-36) and R.K.O. Radio (1936-56). Mintz was aligned with Universal (1927-29), then Columbia (1929-40). Walter Lantz provided Universal with cartoons after Mintz was released. When Ubbe Iwerks left Disney in 1930 to try independent production, he went with Powers, who subcontracted some of Iwerks' product to M.G.M. and released the rest through his own Celebrity Productions. In 1930, Leon Schlesinger contracted with two other renegade Disneyites, Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, then sold their cartoons in turn to Warner Brothers. Harman and Ising would leave Schlesinger in 1933 to release through M.G.M., who in turn dumped Iwerks, who ended up taking on contracted work for Mintz and Schlesinger before giving up and going back to Disney. Paramount Pictures aligned itself with Max (Out of the Inkwell) Fleischer around 1927, then took control of his studio fifteen years later. Amadee J. Van Beuren had been in the cartoon business since the early 1920's, handling the business aspects of Fables Studio, which was run by Paul Terry until 1929.  This studio's work was distributed by Pathe, which in 1928 merged with F.B.O. Pictures, RCA Photophone and the Keith-Orpheum theater circuit to become R.K.O. Radio.  When R.K.O. signed Disney, Van Beuren closed up shop. As an independent producer, Terry released his "Terrytoons" through Educational Pictures; when Educational bit the dust in '37, he went directly to their distributor, 20th Century-Fox.

Now, if you thought that was confusing, let's discuss what happened to the cartoons!
Two batches - the substantial Van Beuren backlog, which included Terry's work for the company, and the less-sizable Iwerks canon - had passed through various hands after those companies folded in the 1930's. Commonwealth Film and Television Inc. got the Iwerks films, as well as the final 13 of Van Beuren's Rainbow Parade series, and essentially all surviving silent Aesop's Fables. The remaining Van Beuren titles (earlier Rainbow Parades, Cubby Bear, The Little King and [the human] Tom & Jerry), all sound, went to Walter O. Gutlohn, Inc., a non-theatrical distributor who evidently sub-leased them to Unity Television Corporation, as well as Official Films for their home movie division (although this didn't stop the latter company from also offering them to TV).  Official changed Tom & Jerry to Dick & Larry, and Rainbow Parades to Merry Tunes. Sterling Television got ahold of the most ancient silent 'toons - the Mutt & Jeffs and Bobby Bumps' and Out of the Inkwells that had been sold to theaters on a state rights basis back in the late teens/early twenties, and signed a distribution deal with the granddaddy of cartoon production, John R. Bray (first employer of Fleischer, Terry and Lantz, among others), who'd discontinued theatrical animation by 1927!

The earliest batch of post-1940 cartoons to reach the air were the Superman shorts produced by Fleischer and Paramount's Famous Studios between 1941-43. Superman's parent company, National Comics, had acquired the shorts contractually, then sold them to Flamingo Films in May 1951, when the latter company licensed the distribution rights for a forthcoming Adventures of Superman TV series. When the live action series got a nationwide sponsor, Kellogg's cereals, Flamingo had to pull the cartoons from TV until a suitable sponsorship arrangement could be made (see article), lest the character become exclusive to two competing products.

For roughly seven years - from 1948 through '54 - that was the state of the cartoon on TV. There were a couple of primitive made-for-TV animated shows, namely Crusader Rabbit and Jim & Judy in Teleland, but no one was in any hurry to invest in TV cartoon production on a grand scale, not when puppet shows like Howdy Doody and Rootie Kazootie were doing just fine. Although one New York area station was making a strong case to the contrary.

Robert Paskow was the film programmer for WATV, Channel 13 in Newark, NJ. WATV usually ran seventh of the seven NYC-area VHF stations in ratings, a poor signal being the least of its problems. But one Channel 13 show was outpulling everyone else, even NBC's Howdy Doody: Junior Frolics, a cartoon program. Paskow began buying up all the cartoons he could get his hands on months before WATV made its May 1948 debut. By '53, he held about 650 titles; no other station in the U.S. had more. Paskow was such a good customer, he received permission from the distributors to edit their negatives, removing racial gags and adult imagery, which helps explain why so many silent cartoons that survive today are incomplete.

Film industry titans, poised for a theatrical exhibitor backlash, watched closely in the fall of 1954, when Disney dipped his toes into TV with a weekly series on the ABC network, Disneyland. Of course, Uncle Walt turned to his cartoon library from time-to-time in order to fill that hour. Disney suffered naught from his TV excursion, and studio execs quickly discovered that widescreen had lessened the demand for pictures filmed in the standard aperture ratio; in short, theater owners couldn't care less if TV bought up the old films. That December, there came a break in the animation dry spell. In separate deals, Columbia and Universal parted with some of their black & white material. Hygo Television bought Charles Mintz's Krazy Kat and Scrappy cartoons from Columbia, which totaled 156 titles, and Motion Pictures for Television got 179 Walter Lantz cartoons, mainly Oswald the Rabbit, but also Pooch the Pup, Willie the Mouse and Meeny, Miney & Moe. Paskow snapped up the Hygo package for Junior Frolics before the ink on the press release had dried.

Two months later, Guild Films acquired 191 Looney Tunes from Warners. These were the black & white Schlesinger titles from 1930-43, mainly featuring Porky Pig, Bosko, Buddy and a handful of Daffy Duck. Warners' asking price was $1.2 million dollars (half up-front, half due in two years) plus 40% thereafter. Guild, which netted over a million in sales after the first year, didn't suffer on their end. More importantly, the deal marked Warner's entry into television.

Finally, in December 1955, the dam burst. U.M.& M. - which was a combine of two movie advertising sales forces (United Film Service and Motion Picture Advertiser Service) and one TV film distributor (Minot TV) - bought Paramount's pre-'48 backlog of short subjects, which included 614 Fleischer and Famous cartoons; all except Popeye the Sailor, which was withdrawn pending further negotiations with King Features Syndicate, who owned the character (the same battle as was fought over home video rights, except that dispute took a quarter-century to resolve). Within a single year, the cartoon marketplace had doubled... but the best was yet to come.

Associated Artists Productions got Warner's pre-'48 color cartoon library as of March 1, 1956, along with what was then considered the prize: the pre-'48 WB features. The company also got the live action shorts, but never saw a need to distribute them, so profitable were the first two packages. Moneys earned by a.a.p. in the first half of the year enabled them to sew up the Popeye rights during the second. Bugs Bunny was cool, but the Sailor Man took TV by storm. Suddenly the highest-rated local kid's shows were those that included Popeye. In effect, a.a.p. had doomed everybody else's cartoon libraries, for only they had the stars. Nobody cared much about U.M.& M.'s Screen Songs, Color Classics or Noveltoons, and their only true "celebrity" - Betty Boop - was 99.9% black-and-white (and the best of her work was too risque for most kiddie shows). The monochrome issue eventually caught up with all the other distributors, although Popeye's star power carried his b&w output well into the '80s.

By the late 1950's, the writing was on the wall. As major studio features killed the haphazard movie packages of TV's first decade, so too did big cartoon stars doom the animated shorts of ancient days. M.G.M. put their backlog into syndication. CBS bought Terrytoons outright. Kellogg's picked up Woody Woodpecker and other Lantz stars for nationwide saturation over ABC in '57, and two years' hence, Mattel got the post-1949 Famous cartoons that had been sold to the Harvey comic book company, also placed on ABC. The final bell tolled in 1958, when M.G.M.'s former producer-director tandem of Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna contracted with Columbia's TV unit, Screen Gems (which had introduced its own cartoon backlog the year before, with relatively few takers) for a made-for-TV cartoon show, Huckleberry Hound. That led to a plethora of spin-offs and successors, including made-for-prime time cartoon sitcoms: revolutionary then, commonplace today.

But with this bounty came complacency, then neglect. Cartoons were moneymakers, sure, but hardly worth the kind of tender care that classic feature films were getting. Stories circulate about 16mm prints gathering dust in station closets because the 200 or so titles that were making the on-air rounds were good enough; no need to overtax the film guy. And the only signficance that the "a.a.p." intro held was the likelihood of seeing the zany Bugs and Daffy, not the suave rabbit or greedy, scheming duck of Saturday mornings.


As for all those other cartoons - the ones animation historians like Leonard Maltin, Jerry Beck and Michael Barrier grew up with - most of them vanished into the mist of memory, waiting only for budget-line home video to bring them back to the marketplace, mainly in worn, choppy, faded prints that had once held the rapt attention of Junior Frolics viewers... and many, many others.
UPDATE: Many thanks to those of you who shared this site on Facebook and elsewhere... never have I had an essay read by so many in so short a time. Also, I was remiss in not adding the following: To those cartoon enthusiasts that want to see what those old films looked like when they were entertaining theater audiences back in the day, these two resources are essential: Inkwell Images and Thunderbean Animation. Both have done outstanding work in restoring long-neglected titles and come highly recommended.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Here a Nyuk, There a Nyuk, Everywhere a Nyuk-Nyuk!

I've only written two books, but apparently that's celebrity enough for the privilege of mingling (mangling?) with the upper-echelon of high society. To wit: I met these three fine gentlemen at last weekend's Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention in Hunt Valley, Maryland:



I'm thinking of having them rennovate my home... I'm sure they know what they're doing.

Coming this season on BETTER LIVING THROUGH TELEVISION: Uncle Miltie, Groucho, a lengthy look at early TV's use of very old movies, and other stuff that will hopefully strike your fancy as much as mine.

Many thanks for the (literally) thousands of you that have discovered this site while searching for Dean & Jerry, Arthur & Julius, Chaplin, Superman, Adam Cartwright, Joe Friday and that cute kid from the aspirin commercial (who was astonished when I told him I get hits on that 2006 post EVERY DAY).

'Til we meet again "In the Sweet Pie & Pie."

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Infamy of Redefining "Infamous" - An Editorial

This posting has little to do with television, only slightly more to do with radio and everything to do with vocabulary.

For the past two days, I've been arguing with a baseball journalist about the meaning of "infamous." Apparently its definition has changed over the years. Once upon a time, "infamous" referred to something or somebody that smacked of infamy... and "infamy" was something of an evil, vile or criminal reputation.

We've all probably heard or read President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's address to Congress on December 8, 1941, when he declared a state of war between the United States and the Empire of Japan due to the latter's sneak attack on our naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The address began with these immortal words: "Yesterday, December seventh, nineteen forty-one: a date which will live in infamy." It was covered by all the radio networks as well as newsreels.

Most of us have heard this at least once in our lives; one can barely escape it when the History Channel decides to focus yet again on World War II. And, by the then-standard definition, what Roosevelt was saying was that the events of December 7th would take their place among the most evil and treacherous deeds known to history.

The events of December 7th were infamous. So were the events of September 11, 2001. Going backward in time, so were the sinking of the Lusitania, the mistreatment of Union soldiers at Andersonville, and the Spanish Inquisition (Monty Python notwithstanding).

A cheesy and inappropriate swimming pool situated in a major league ballpark is not "infamous," at least not by the original meaning of the word. But, as I said earlier, apparently the definition has changed. Today, "infamous" can be defined as something or someone that is famous for negative reasons. Dictionary.com ("an Ask.com service") uses this more modern definition, as does Wiktionary. Merriam-Webster’s is closer to the original meaning, although it, too, can be construed in the new way.

Language can evolve over time, no question. And I suspect "infamous" has evolved due to the exposure of President Roosevelt's address: without knowing its true meaning, people have heard the phrase "date which will live in infamy" and assume FDR is saying that December 7th will be remembered - or "infamous" - forever. There's a reason "fame" is embedded in "infamy" and "infamous," but it's due entirely to the unspeakably evil nature of the deed or person that it is describing. By lowering that standard to merely something that was a bad idea - in which case New Coke could be "infamous" - the power of the phrase "date which will live in infamy" has been diluted. Roosevelt's address has been defanged for modern audiences.

I confess that I'm guilty of misusing the word that way; in My Name's Friday, I referred to Jack Webb's 1958 LP "You're My Girl" - in which he recites the lyrics of several romantic ballads in that wonderful Sgt. Friday style - as "infamous." There was nothing inherently evil about Webb's album, although I'd wager a few die-hard Sinatra fans would debate the point. "Notorious" would have been a better choice.

I know better now, which is why I climb onto the soapbox and argue with fellow authors, sportswriters, and anybody else about this unfortunate - but not infamous - use of the word.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Another Super-Myth Busted!

Here's a news flash: George Reeves made dozens of personal appearances during his years as TV's Superman. HOLLYWOODLAND (2006) would have you believe that he hated doing them and in fact feared for his life... unwilling to perform in costume because some over-zealous child might be packing his dad's pistol. In fact the film actually depicts this mythical event, misleading viewers into thinking it did happen.

To be sure, Reeves appeared one-on-one in hospitals and schools dressed as Clark Kent, but this was for a strategic reason. As he told a reporter in 1957, "On these visits, I don't wear the suit with the muscles because the kids want me to do all sorts of things, like jumping out of windows. But I can't fly.... We have to be careful not to destroy any illusions."

At county fairs, parades or department stores - where crowds could be controlled - Reeves willingly suited up. By 1955, when he began making these visits, Adventures of Superman was in production only for about seven weeks out of each year, and the extra money was welcome and relatively easy. Usually he spoke about safety and did a few judo falls, then handed out 5x7 pre-autographed photos, similar to the one seen at top.

In 1957, he tried something a little more ambitious: a full-fledged tour with a band of musicians, Noel (Lois Lane) Neill and national judo champion Gene LeBell, who portrayed "Mr. Kryptonite" (you can see his costume at the Super Museum in Metropolis, Illinois). As Clark Kent, Reeves sang and played stand-up bass with his combo; Neill sang as well until she was kidnapped by the super-villain, leading to a thrill-packed rescue by the Man of Steel. The show was a little too ambitious for its day... Reeves lost a lot of money when crowds failed to turn up during the tour's theater and civic auditorium dates.

A snippet of silent color footage from Reeves' appearance at the Indiana County Fair in Indiana, Pennsylvania, on Friday, August 24, 1956, can be seen on YouTube. The four-minute home movie mainly consists of excerpts from Wild Bill Cody's Western Show, but about 38 seconds in, you can see Clark Kent posing with Cody's 5-year-old daughter Mary Alice, followed by Superman handing out photos to a line of kids in front of the "Kiddie Kapers" stage upon which he'd just performed. The heavy-set man with his back to the camera, moving the kids along, is Reeves' manager, Art Weissman. Hopefully there's more filmed footage from Reeves' many Superman appearances to eventually be rediscovered and uploaded.

"Wild Bill Cody" was actually actor and circus performer Fred Penniman, who put together the Western Show with his wife, Mamie Alice. The pair can be seen in the film doing their knife-throwing and whip-cracking acts. In a tragic irony, Mrs. Penniman died when, during an appearance in Pittsburgh, a 9-year-old boy picked up one of two rifles used in the act, and asked his mother if he could play with it. The mother assumed they were stage props, but in fact the guns were real and had been loaded by Mrs. Penniman just moments before. The young boy pulled the trigger and a bullet struck and killed the 40-year-old actress, wife and mother.

This happened on June 7, 1959. Nine days later, George Reeves would also be fatally struck down by a gunshot.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Charlie Chaplin: Lost and Found

Few things are more satisfying than watching an early Charlie Chaplin comedy... except for discovering one that's been lost for about 95 years.

The blogosphere is abuzz with the news that Slapsticon - a four-day silent comedy festival held annually in what is practically my back yard, Rosslyn, VA - will be screening a previously unknown and undocumented comedy in which Chaplin appeared during his first few weeks at Keystone in early 1914. According to the press release, "The print of A THIEF CATCHER was discovered earlier this year by Film Historian / Preservationist Paul E. Gierucki, current head of restorations for CineMuseum LLC, and one of the 'Godfathers' of a group of Comedy Film Historians known as the 'Silent Comedy Mafia' who help to organize the yearly Slapsticon festivals." A frame grab from the film can be viewed here; it's clear that Chaplin had already adopted his "little tramp" mustache and makeup.

Via some websites that host old newspaper pages, I've come across a few vintage images for this film. The one at the top of this post is actually for a reissue release in May 1915, from the Syracuse (NY) Journal. Here are some other ads for the 1915 reissue:



If the newspapers of the day can be considered a barometer, Chaplin's name was singled out from among his fellow Keystone players starting in May 1914, after he'd been in films about four months. His work in a two-reeler called Caught in a Cabaret - released on April 27 and which, until this discovery, was thought to be Chaplin's 12th picture - made audiences take notice; from that point on, Chaplin's films were usually promoted as such by the studio. By 1915, Charlie Chaplin was a known - and much anticipated - film favorite. The issue of the Portsmouth Ohio newspaper that yielded the blurb above listed four other Chaplin Keystones in various theatres during that same week. Even though Chaplin was by then working for the Essanay Company and turning out a new release every 3-4 weeks, patrons couldn't get enough and Keystone kept the pipeline filled with reissues. In 1919, a company called W.H. Productions reissued the Keystones and created new titles for most of them. This flooding of the marketplace is why nearly every Chaplin film survives, while the legacies of other Keystone stars (such as Charlie's brother, Syd) are incomplete.

A Thief Catcher was Chaplin's second, or third, or possibly fourth film. Its release was listed in this ad from the February 14, 1914 New York Clipper, a show business periodical:
This would make A Thief Catcher Chaplin's fourth Keystone to be released; his third, Mabel's Strange Predicament, was issued on February 9 and the next one, Between Showers, came out on the 28th. Chaplin's first film, in which he hadn't yet created his famous mustache, was shot during the week of January 5; his second release, Kid's Auto Race, was filmed in Venice, California on Saturday, January 10. Mabel's Strange Predicament was also started during that first full week of January, then presumably finished from Monday, January 12 through the morning of the 14th. That Wednesday afternoon, rain moved into the Los Angeles area and didn't depart until the 27th. It was a monumental, record-shattering series of storms, and suburbs such as Edendale, where the Keystone Studios were located, were particularly hard-hit. In fact, Between Showers makes use of a massive puddle, a remnant of the rainfall.

Somewhere in there, as the press release affirms, A Thief Catcher was shot... possibly even before Kid's Auto Race.

In keeping with the earliest days of Chaplin's career, newspaper ads from 1914 simply list the film as a "Keystone Comedy" with no players mentioned - even though Keystone's then-reigning star, Ford Sterling, was heading up the cast.
And so, if you've ever wanted to acquaint yourself with the world's finest film historians, you won't get a better opportunity than at the Rosslyn Spectrum Theater on the evening of July 17, for many of them will be surely be attending this monumental screening.

And finally, if any of the "Silent Comedy Mafia" happen to be reading this... could this be the next "lost Chaplin" discovery?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Video On Demand a'la 1965

I marvel at technology, and sometimes cower from it. Does anybody really believe that instant gratification 24/7 is good for the human psyche? If I want to see a favorite show, movie or cartoon, like as not I need only pop in a DVD and -voila! - it's there. If I don't have it, odds are it's on YouTube. Last month, I converted and downloaded 14 Hootenanny episodes (8 complete & 6 partials) onto my Ipod. From the moment VHS entered my life in 1983, finding at least one Hoot was one of my two Holy Grails; now I almost take them for granted, seeing as how they're in my shirt pocket! (The second Grail was The Johnny Cash Show, and thanks to a friend I have all 58 of those.) Nearly all the great Warner Brothers cartoons are out, along with the best of Max Fleischer's Popeyes, all the Three Stooges shorts with Curly, the Little Rascals, Adventures of Superman, the Chaplin Mutuals... pretty much everything that made the best video memories of my childhood. Even, heaven help me, Diver Dan.

And yet... as Mr. Spock so aptly put it, "Having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true." And so most of what I own sits on a shelf gathering dust, and I find that I watch these shows about as often as I did when they were making the rounds of the local station schedules. And, truth be told, I don't enjoy any of them as much as I did the rinky-tinky little toy that I cherished from Day One: Kenner's Easy Show Projector.


















This is me at 6 years old, opening and caressing that little blue darling on Christmas Day 1965. My cousins had Kenner's earlier Give-A-Show Projector, which was basically a slide show. The images were in color, but they didn't move, so who cared? Where were the sight gags? The action sequences? The Easy Show ran real movies projected on a wall! Yes, they were in black-and-white, but so was our TV set. Sure, if you wanted brightness, you were limited to a postage-stamp sized image. But then, I'm not getting much bigger on my Ipod now!

Three things made the Easy Show cool:

1) It was film. There's something about handling film, holding it up to light and seeing all those separate images that pass through a shutter and merge with your brain to make magic. I was always careful not to let it get tangled, although as time passed and Kenner used cheaper stock, that became more difficult. And threading the projector was a point of pride. My friends used to struggle, but I - the least coordinated kid on the block when it came to sports - handled it like a pro.

2) It was versatile. Being a hand-cranked projector, I could run the film as fast, or as slow, as I wanted. One of my favorites - I must've bought one annually for as long as it was available - was the Superman episode "Beware the Wrecker." I'd crank the takeoff s-l-o-w-l-y. . . then run it backward and do it again, over and over, until it snapped. (Which is why I bought one annually.)

3) It was affordable. Each new film cost about .79 cents, so whenever I got a dollar each from my grandfather and uncle, it was off to the store for a new cartridge or two.

So, yes: video on demand has been part of my life since age 6. In theory, I didn't ever have to wait until 3:30 pm when Bugs Bunny and Friends came on if I wanted to enjoy Bugs Bunny and friends. But the limitations of the Easy Show - small, silent, flickering b&w images - ensured that I would still be parked in front of the set at 3:30 pm. No need for that today thanks to DVD technology, which explains in part why Looney Tunes, Superman, etc., aren't on commercial TV anymore. No longer there for our heirs to discover on their own after school... we have to introduce the kids to our childhood favorites; always risky, and usually unsatisfying for all parties.

Have we gained or lost something in the last 45 years?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Martin vs. Lewis, T.K.O. (June-July 1956)

November 13, 1955: The day after Jerry Lewis unexpectedly played a benefit performance as a solo – one specially requested of the team by Paramount’s chief, Y. Frank Freeman (the man who’d rescued the pair from the ire of the IRS), and despite Dean Martin’s verbal assurances that he’d be there – Martin & Lewis made their final starring appearance on the Colgate Variety Hour. Again the pair trotted out a specialized tune meant to reassure viewers, this one based on “Two Lost Souls” from Damn Yankees:

Dean: It’s Jerry and Dean, and no one in between,
Jerry: Like let’s say Gallagher and let’s say Shean.
Dean: Of course we complain; we fuss and strain,
Jerry: But after the fussin’ there’s always us’n.

Dean: Ah, we’re two lost souls, each wedded to each,
Jerry: We go hand in hand, in all kinds of weather.
Dean: On the bottom or top,
Jerry: A hit or a flop,
Both: It’s both together.

But not for much longer. Eighteen months after Lewis had proclaimed “never in a million years” would the team split up, the only goal they shared was in desiring the swiftest, surest way to do just that.

The obstacles, however, were formidable. First, they owed producer Hal Wallis four more pictures, and after the Three-Ring Circus debacle, Wallis had a stipulation included in their contract: Martin and Lewis could only appear in films as a team, no matter who produced them. Second, the pair would net $4 million in 1955 (grosses were in the neighborhood of $20 million), and that kind of money was awfully hard to walk away from. Third, and most especially, neither man was 100% confident of his ability to go it alone.

Certainly Dean, if he’d put any stock into what critics had to say about his talents as an actor (“a competent straight man”) or singer (“he shouldn’t oughtta listen to any more Bing Crosby records”), would never have risked working outside the profitable confines of Martin & Lewis. But he’d just scored his second big smash, “Memories are Made of This,” which would sit comfortably at number one on the Hit Parade at the start of 1956. More importantly, he was being openly courted by two studios for solo roles: Warner Brothers offered him The Pajama Game with Doris Day, while MGM wanted him for an original story, Ten Thousand Bedrooms. With all this looming, the thought of cavorting alongside the human monkey was becoming unbearable.

For his part, Jerry shrewdly recognized how important their personal relationship was to their success. Without that undercurrent of love and admiration supporting their antics, it was only a matter of time until, as he put it, “we’d get knocked through the ropes like Joe Louis.” Believing the relationship could be salvaged, Jerry conceived the idea of doing a contemporary take on the Damon and Pythias story: two men whose friendship is tested when one lays his life on the line for the other. To drive the point home, Dean would play Mike Damon, sympathetic policeman and Jerry would be Sidney Pythias, juvenile delinquent. This would be their next York picture, after finishing their current assignment for Wallis, Hollywood or Bust.

Unfortunately, Lewis assigned the writing of “Damon and Pythias” to his pal Don McGuire, the man who wrote Three-Ring Circus. McGuire’s opinion of Martin didn’t bode well for the project: “Dean was a terrible actor. He could barely talk. Jerry was the guy who made him a hit, made him funny.” Still, McGuire strove to create a story that gave both men “a close relationship;” meanwhile, Lewis campaigned with Freeman for the opportunity to direct the film.

If Jerry harbored any hope that the script would touch Dean’s heart and possibly rekindle their friendship, it was dashed almost as soon as Martin got hold of his copy. The next day, he let his partner know that he would in no way play a uniformed cop, claiming it was “low class.” Realizing that Martin didn’t read the script beyond his costume requirement, Lewis blew his stack: “Then we’ll have to get somebody else.” “Start looking, boy,” Martin retorted and stormed off.

Not too long after this, the pair reported to work on Hollywood or Bust, only speaking to each other when cameras rolled. For the first few weeks, Lewis sabotaged the production, intentionally blowing lines and breaking character; partly to retaliate against Martin, but mostly with the intent to force Hal Wallis to renegotiate – or release them from – his restrictive contract. The gambit failed; director Frank Tashlin, no doubt with Wallis’ blessing, simply threw Lewis off the picture, forcing the comic’s hand.

Chastened, Lewis returned to Hollywood or Bust and, in his words, “tried for the miracle.” “You know, it’s a hell of a thing,” he suddenly said to Martin during a break. “All I can think of is that what we do is not very important. Any two guys could have done it. But even the best of them wouldn’t have had what made us as big as we are.”

“Yeah? What’s that?”

“Well, I think it’s the love that we had – that we still have – for each other.”

Martin thought long and hard about what he had to say, then said it. “You can talk about love all you want. To me, you’re nothin’ but a (bleep)in’ dollar sign.”

And that was it. Both men knew: it was over. Jerry went straight to Y. Frank Freeman for permission to make “Damon and Pythias” (which would eventually be titled The Delicate Delinquent) with another costar. The news broke on June 18.

Still, Dean and Jerry faced a month of confirmed personal appearances, which they met through sheer force of will. There were some rough patches, one of them being a Today Show appearance on June 26 (“Dean and I [could] hardly bear to look at each other,” remembered Lewis fifty years later; the kinescope bears him out). Serendipitously, their nightclub engagements were due to conclude on July 24 – exactly one day shy of ten years since their official teaming at Atlantic City’s 500 Club.

Those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of Dean and Jerry Incorporated – Hal Wallis, NBC – were forcibly persuaded to renegotiate contracts. At the insistence of Freeman, Wallis permitted them one solo film each. Not until 1957 did he agree to let them meet the balance of their contract individually, thus getting six pictures for the price of three. NBC considered suing to keep the pair together, then discovered to their chagrin that their five-year deal was contractually with York Productions, with no stipulation that the company deliver Martin and Lewis as a team. The following year, Dean negotiated his own NBC deal and sold his share of York to Jerry, who in turn sold the company and their piece of the York films to Paramount.

Over the years, each man would take credit for initiating the split, which was in essence the truth: Dean’s refusal to do The Delicate Delinquent would spark Jerry’s behind-the-scenes machinations to get them released from Wallis’ iron grip. Each man reached his individual goals: Dean became “a real actor” in such fine films as The Young Lions, Some Came Running and Rio Bravo, while Jerry made so much money for Paramount that owner Barney Balaban famously said, “If he wants to burn down the studio, I’ll hand him the match.”

But it was live television that made Martin & Lewis superstars, so it was entirely fitting that their estrangement came to an end on live TV; in September 1976 during Lewis’ annual telethon for Muscular Dystrophy. The reunion, like the split, made headlines, and raised hopes that Dean and Jerry would again entertain together. It was not to be; Martin and Lewis would publicly reunite only once more, briefly on a Las Vegas stage in 1989 for Dean’s 72nd birthday. By then, life’s ebb and flow had washed away the pain and bitterness for both men, to where Dean could publicly assure Jerry, “I love you and I mean it.” Martin retired in 1991 and died four years later; Lewis continues to do what he loves: make others laugh, cry and cheer.
More than a half-century after their parting, how to sum up the appeal of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis? Perhaps we should let them do it. Jerry: “Two guys who had more fun than the audience.” Dean: “With Jerry and me, it was mostly just doin’ what we felt. Those were great times.” Indeed they were.