Friday, 23 February 2018

When Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte Changed Television History

The sad fact is that throughout the Fifties and a good part of the Sixties, African Americans were largely absent from American television. There were a few exceptions. In the early part of the Fifties both Amos 'n' Andy and Beulah featured what many considered offensive stereotypes at the time. African Americans would appear as performers on variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show. There were also three short-lived variety shows hosted by black performers (The Hazel Scott Show, The Billy Daniels Show, and The Nat King Cole Show). That having been said with the exception of Louise Beavers and later Amanda Randolph as Danny's housekeeper Louise on Make Room for Daddy (also known as The Danny Thomas Show), African Americans were largely missing from American sitcoms and dramas in the Fifties. The excuse often given by the networks and sponsors was that they did not want to offend viewers in the South, although one has to suspect that institutionalised racism at both the networks and among the various sponsors played a large role as well.

Fortunately things began to improve as the Fifties became the Sixties. African Americans appeared as both guest stars and extras on such shows as Naked City, Bonanza, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and other shows. In 1965 I Spy made history as the first American television drama with an African American lead (Bill Cosby playing Alexander Scott). The following season several shows debuted that featured African Americans in regular roles, including Hogan's Heroes, Mission: Impossible, and Star Trek. Unfortunately, this did not mean that racism had entirely disappeared in the television industry or among its sponsors.

This brings us to Chrysler Corporation, whose brand Plymouth was set to sponsor a special hosted by Nancy Sinatra, then riding high from the success of her single "These Boots Are Made for Walking". According to television director Steve Binder, Nancy Sinatra pulled out of the special after getting a bigger deal from Royal Crown Cola. That special would eventually air as Movin' with Nancy on NBC on December 11 1967. In the meantime, Plymouth was left without a host for their special. Plymouth then hired Petula Clark, the famous British singer who had a string of hits in the Sixties, including "Downtown", "I Know a Place," and "My Love", among others. Greg Garrison, who directed The Dean Martin Show, was initially assigned to direct, but the director and the star did not mesh very well. It was then that Steve Binder, who had directed such specials as Here's Edie (with Edie Adams) and Lucy in London (with Lucille Ball) as well as various TV series, was brought in to direct the special.

Steve Binder was a huge fan of Harry Belafonte and so he booked him as a guest on Petula Clark's television special. Even the agent for Plymouth was pleased with Mr. Belafonte being on the special. Unfortunately, Mr. Binder then got a call from the Plymouth agent, saying that Doyle Lott, the advertising manager for Plymouth, did not want Harry Belafonte on the show. According to the agent, Doyle Lott had said that Mr. Belafonte had neither his own TV show any longer nor had he had any hits recently. That having been said, the agent also confided to Steve Binder that he thought in truth that Doyle Lott was racist and he didn't want a black man on the special.

Ultimately Steve Binder had to fly to Detroit and meet with the head of the Plymouth division of Chrysler Corporation. Fortunately the representative from Plymouth had a cooler head and, that as long as Petula Clark and Mr. Binder were happy, then Plymouth would not interfere with the special. For the time, at least, everything seemed fine with Doyle Lott as well.

Unfortunately, Doyle Lott's objection to Harry Belafonte being a guest on the special would not be the end of everything. Towards the end of the special Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte sang a duet of "On the Path of Glory", a song that she had written. Several takes were made of the performance and, during the final one, Miss Clark innocently took Mr. Belafonte by the arm. Petula Clark innocently taking Harry Belafonte by the arm immediately proved to be a source of controversy. Doyle Lott insisted that another take be used because of the "interracial touching".  According to Harry Belafonte at the time, Doyle Lott actually threatened to cancel the special because of the contact between the two stars, and the advertising agency Young & Rubicam demanded changes be made to the special even after taping had been completed.

Quite naturally, Steve Binder, as well as Petula Clark and her husband, Claude Wolff (who was executive producer on the special), disagreed with Doyle Lott and Young & Rubicam. To their credit, NBC phoned Steve Binder and let them know that they would back him. To make sure the special was not changed, however, Steve Binder, Petula Clark, and Claude Wolff insured that every other take of "On the Path of Glory" was destroyed, leaving only the one in which Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte touch.

Despite the reaction of both Doyle Lott and Young & Rubicam, Plymouth behaved as if they had no real objections to the special. Glenn E. White, Plymouth's general manager at Chrysler, issued a statement saying that any incident during taping "...resulted solely from the reaction of a single individual and by no means reflects the Plymouth division's attitude or policy on such matters." He added that Plymouth was very happy with the special. It was not long afterwards that Chrysler relieved Doyle Lott of his duties. Here it must be pointed out that the whole controversy made headlines in early 1968.

Petula aired on April 8 1968. Notably, there was no viewer outrage over "interracial touching". The special received positive notices from critics and also did well in the ratings. It finished 14th for the week in the Nielsens. Of course, the special also proved historic in that it was the first time in the history of American television that a white woman touched a black man on American television.

Although today Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte's duet of "On the Path of Glory" might not seem remarkable, it was a truly groundbreaking moment at the time. Over all the Seventies would be a better decade for African Americans on television, with dramas such as Get Christie Love! and Shaft featuring black leads, as well as several sitcoms that aired during the decade. While American television still had a long way to go, it had made considerable progress since the days of Amos 'n' Andy and Beulah.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Million Dollar Productions

From 1937 to 1940 there was a motion picture production company that produced, in their own words, "Class -A- talking pictures with themes taken from modern Negro life." Million Dollar Productions did not last long, but in its short existence it made history. It not only made movies with all African American casts, but it utilised performers who would later become household names.

The origins of Million Dollar Productions go back to actor, dancer, and choreographer Ralph Cooper. Ralph Cooper was the creator and original master of ceremonies of the Apollo Theatre's Amateur Night. A very handsome man, he was compared to Clark Gable and referred to as "Dark Gable". In 1936 Mr. Cooper left Harlem for Hollywood to choreograph dance numbers in the Shirley Temple movie Poor Little Rich Girl. 20th Century Fox was impressed with Ralph Cooper. The studio signed a five year contract with him and enrolled him in their training school for actors. Unfortunately for Mr. Cooper, Fox only offered him the stereotypical parts offered to most African American actors of the time. In the end, Ralph Cooper and Fox parted ways. That having been said, his time at Fox was not wasted. While at the studio he learned many of the technical skills necessary to make movies, including directing, screenwriting, set design, lighting, and so on.

Ralph Cooper tried interesting the Hollywood studios in making films with all-black casts to no avail. Having received no response from the studios, he then formed Randol-Cooper Productions with fellow actor and producer George Randol. Randol-Cooper Productions produced Dark Manhattan (1937), a gangster movie with an all-black cast. Dark Manhattan was positively revolutionary. Not only was it the first black gangster movie, but it was one of the earliest African American films to be set in the modern day in an urban setting. When the film was shown at the Apollo Theatre, it broke all attendance records for the venue.

Dark Manhattan would be the only film that Randol-Cooper Producitons would make, but Ralph Cooper was hardly out of the business of producing movies. It was in May 1937 that Ralph Cooper formed Million Dollar Productions with producers Harry M. Popkin and Leo C. Popkin.  Ralph Cooper filled multiple roles at Million Dollar Productions. He was a producer, but he also starred in many of the studio's films. He wrote the screenplays for many of the films as well. Harry M. Popkin served as executive producer. Leo C. Popkin also played multiple roles at Million Dollar Productions. He was the head of the distribution department, but he also served as an associate producer on many of the films and directed many of them as well.

Million Dollar Productions' first film was a gangster film in the mould of Dark Manhattan. Bargain with Bullets (1937--also known as Gangsters on the Loose) starred Ralph Cooper as a gangster wanted by the police for murder, while at the same time finding himself conflicted over two women, his childhood friend Grace (played by Theresa Harris) and his girlfriend Kay Latour (played by Frances Turham). In addition to being Million Dollar Productions' first film, Bargain with Bullets was also notable for giving Theresa Harris her only leading role. Sadly, Bargain with Bullets is thought to be a lost film.

Bargain with Bullets was followed by Life Goes On (1938). Life Goes On starred Louise Beavers, who sadly spent much of her career playing "mammy" type roles in mainstream Hollywood movies. In Life Goes On she played a widow with two sons, one of who grows up to be a lawyer and another who grows up to be a gangster. Life Goes On was followed by the crime drama Gang Smashers (1938). Gang Smashers stars Nina Mae McKinney as Laura Jackson, an undercover agent for the police who has infiltrated a night club from which the protection racket of Gat Dalton (played by Laurence Criner) is operated. Gang Smashers is likely to be of interest to many today for its cast. Nina Mae McKinney had starred in King Vidor's Hallelujah! (1929) and was the first African American to sign a long term contract with a Hollywood studio (in her case, MGM). Gang Smashers also featured Mantan Moreland in an early role.

Million Dollar Productions' next film may be their most famous today, although many might know it under a different title from which it was originally released. The Duke is Tops (1938) broke with the studio's earlier films in that it was a musical. It starred Ralph Cooper as Duke Davis, a  theatrical producer who puts his own career on hold in order to promote a singer, Ethel Andrews. Ethel Andrews was played by none other than Lena Horne in her feature film debut (she had earlier appeared in the short "Cab Calloway's Jitterbug Party"). In 1943, after Lena Horne had become famous, The Duke is Tops was re-released as The Bronze Venus (which Miss Horne's character had been called in the film) with Miss Horne given top billing.

The Duke is Tops was followed by Reform School (1939), starring Louise Beavers. It differed from many race movies of the era in that it actually dealt with an issue that was relevant at the time. Namely, it addressed the brutal conditions in reforms schools, something which Mother Barton (played by Louise Beavers) seeks to change. While Reform School was a serious drama, One Dark Night (1939) would be Million Dollar Productions' first comedy. It gave Mantan Moreland one of his few leading roles, playing Samson Brown, a shiftless family man who runs away only to strike it rich with a radium deposit. Sadly, today Mantan Moreland is probably best known for the somewhat stereotypical, comic roles he played in mainstream Hollywood films.

Gang War (1940) saw Million Dollar Productions return to gangster movies. Gang War starred Ralph Cooper as Bob "Killer" Mead, who seeks to dominate the jukebox racket in Harlem. It would be following Gang War that Ralph Cooper would leave Million Dollar Productions. Concerned about his screen image, Ralph Cooper did not want to continue starring in gangster movies. As it was, he only made one more movies, Am I Guilty? (1940), produced by Supreme Pictures.


Million Dollar Productions' next film, While Thousands Cheer (1940), is notable in that it stars Kenny Washington, the first African American player to be signed to the NFL. In the film Mr. Washington plays a college football player who runs afoul of racketeers who want to fix the games. Sadly, While Thousands Cheer is thought to be a lost film. Four Shall Die (1940) would be the last film released by Million Dollar Productions. Four Shall Die starred Dorothy Dandridge as Helen Fielding, whose ex-boyfriend Lew Covey (played by Jack Covey) cooks up a plot to get her inheritance money by making it look like her dead father is trying to communicate with her. Unfortunately, when Covey winds up dead, Helen is the prime suspect in his murder.

While Million Dollar Productions only lasted a brief time, it still proved to be one of the most successful companies to produce race films. In all it produced ten films, this compared to the one or two films produced by many companies formed to make race movies. What is more, while the movies made by Million Dollar Productions had far smaller budgets than those made by the big Hollywood studios, their production values were higher than those of many race films or even mainstream films produced by Hollywood's Poverty Row studios. Million Dollar Productions is notable in that some of its films dealt with issues relevant to the day, from abuses in reform schools to black-on-black crime.

Million Dollar Productions was also notable in that it featured performers who would later become famous in mainstream American entertainment. Lena Horne, Mantan Moreland, and Dorothy Dandridge all played early roles in Million Dollar Productions' movies. Million Dollar Productions also utilised already established black stars, including Theresa Harris, Louise Beavers, and Nina Mae McKinney. Much of the attraction for actors with regards to Million Dollar Productions was that the roles in their films were not stereotypes. At a time when Hollywood was content to cast African Americans as servants or stereotypical comedy relief (often both), Million Dollar Productions gave them a chance to play fully developed characters who were often as far from stereotypes as possible.

Sadly, some of the movies made by Million Dollar Productions are believed to be lost. This is not unusual. While an estimated 500 race films were made from 1915 to the 1950s, only fewer than 100 are known to exist today. Produced outside the Hollywood film industry, often very little effort was put forward in conserving them. While some of Million Dollar Productions' movies may no longer exist, they certainly did leave their mark on cinematic history.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

The Hazel Scott Show

It is well known that the legendary Nat King Cole had his own variety show from 1956 to 1957. That having been said, what is not as well known is that Mr. Cole was not the first African American to have his own variety show. That honour would instead go to singer Billy Daniels, who hosted The Billy Daniels Show on ABC in 1952. That having been said, Billy Daniels was not the first black performer to host his own show. That would be Trinidadian born singer Hazel Scott, who hosted The Hazel Scott Show on the DuMont Network from July 3 to September 29 1950.

For those unfamiliar with Hazel Scott, she was an extremely popular singer in the mid-20th Century. Blessed with an incredible singing voice, considerable talent on the piano, and beauty, Miss Scott had displayed musical talent from a young age. She was only eight years old when she was awarded scholarships to study piano at the Juilliard School. By the time she was a teenager she was performing with the Count Basie Orchestra. In 1943 she made her film debut in the film Something to Shout About. She would also appear in the films I Dood It (1943), The Heat's On (1943), Broadway Rhythm (1944), and Rhapsody in Blue (1945). She recorded several successful albums, not only performing standards, but her own original compositions as well. Among her original compositions were "Blues in B Flat", "Brown Bee Boogie", "Dark Eyes", and "Hazel's Boogie Woogie".

The Hazel Scott Show debuted on July 3 1950. Its format was simple. For 15 minutes Hazel Scott would perform various songs at her piano, everything from show tunes to popular standards. The show aired on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 7:45 PM to 8: PM Eastern Time. The show received overwhelmingly positive notices from critics. The show also performed very well in the ratings. Unfortunately, it would not last.

It was in June 1950 that the anti-Communist tract Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television was published by the right-wing journal Counterattack. The book purported to list 151 actors, broadcast journalists, musicians, writers, and so on who allegedly supported Communism. Among those listed was Hazel Scott. As a result Miss Scott voluntarily appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and read a prepared statement. She denied that she had ever been connected to the Communist Party or any of its front organisations, but admitted that she had supported Communist Party member Benjamin J. Davis's run for the New York City council. She noted that Mr. Davis was supported by socialists, who had "...hated Communists longer and more fiercely than any other."

Unfortunately, Hazel Scott's honesty before HUAC would hurt her career. Namely, it was one week after her testimony before the committee that DuMont cancelled The Hazel Scott Show, despite critical acclaim and high ratings. Miss Scott would continue to appear on American television for a time, including appearances on Wonderful Town, Cavalcade of Stars, and Songs for Sale. In the end, however, in the late Fifties she left the United States for Paris, where she would remain until 1967.  Afterwards Hazel Scott would make several more appearances on American television, including guest shots on The Bold Ones: The New Doctors and Julia as well as appearances on The Merv Griffith Show and The Mike Douglas Show.

Hazel Scott was notable for having long been a champion for civil rights. She refused to perform before segregated audiences and turned down stereotypical roles in Hollywood. In 1949 when a waitress at a Pasco, Washington restaurant refused to serve Miss Scott and a friend because "they were Negroes", she successfully sued the owners of the restaurant. It seems quite possible that Hazel Scott's commitment to civil rights might well have been what led to her being listed in Red Channels by its publishers.

Sadly, no episodes of The Hazel Scott Show exist today. What is more, many people are not even aware that the show existed. Despite the fact that it only ran for a few months, The Hazel Scott Show made history as the first show hosted by a black performer. While Hazel Scott will always be remembered as a great pianist and singer, she should also be remembered for her groundbreaking television show as well.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Black Superhero Movies Before Black Panther (2018)

This weekend Black Panther (2018) broke records with an estimated $235 million at the box office. The film is certainly historic. The Black Panther, who first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966), is arguably the black comic book hero with the highest profile about whom a film has ever been made. It is also Marvel's first film to be directed by an African American and to feature a primarily black cast. The film has also gotten overwhelmingly positive reviews. That having been said, it is not the first black superhero movie. It is not even the first big budget movie to star a black superhero. There were several black superhero movies released in the Nineties, and some of those had fairly large budgets. Below are a list of the black superhero movies that preceded Black Panther.

Abar, the First Black Superman (1977):  It is a sign of just how far we have come that the first black superhero movie was a far cry from Black Panther. It was a blaxploitation movie with an exceedingly low budget, a largely inexperienced cast, and a very poor script. Worse yet, it would be released at a time when the blaxploitation cycle was largely over (the cycle lasted from about 1971 to 1975). Indeed, the film's production may have made for a more interesting story than the film's screenplay itself. It was produced by James Smalley, who according to some accounts was a pimp who used much of his own money to finance the movie. It was directed by Frank Packard, an actor who appeared in the film The Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe (1974). The cast was largely made of unknowns. Of the cast and crew, one person with experience in filmmaking was cinematographer Ron Garcia. He had already shot such films as The Harem Bunch (1969), The Toy Box (1971),  Schoolgirls in Chains (1973), and other exploitation movies. He would later work in television on such shows as Crime Story and Twin Peaks (he also shot the 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me). The film's editor, Jack Tucker, also had experience. He had already edited such films as Sacrilege (1971) and Saddle Tramp Women (1972) and would go onto edit the television mini-series Shogun and The Winds of War.

Abar, the First Black Superman originated in 1973 under the title Superblack. Made on a shoestring budget, it was shot without permits in Baldwin Hills and Watts in Los Angeles. The film's principal shooting location was a working brothel. Once completed Superblack would be retitled Abar, named for its protagonist, John Abar (played by Tobar Mayo). James Smalley had run out of money and as a result had to sell the film to Pacific Film Labs owner Burt Steiger. American International Pictures had considered distributing the film, but in the end Abar would remain unreleased until 1977 when Mirror Releasing took up its distribution.  As it was, its distribution was extremely limited. with the movie primarily being shown in drive-ins in the South. It would later be released on VHS as In Your Face, but today is best known as Abar, the First Black Superman.

Today Abar, the First Black Superman is pretty well forgotten except for those who appreciate bad movies for their camp value and a film historians.

The Meteor Man (1993):  In the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, superhero movies were relatively uncommon, regardless of the ethnicity of the lead character. It was then some time after Abar was released in 1977 that another movie with a black superhero was released. When it was, it was a comedy. The Meteor Man was written and directed by Robert Townsend, who had previously received good notices for his 1987 film Hollywood Shuffle. Unfortunately, The Meteor Man was not nearly as well received. The film centred on a school teacher (played by Robert Townsend) who receives superpowers after being struck by a meteorite. He then uses his powers to rid his neighbourhood of a street gang. The Meteor Man was not well received by critics. Worse yet, it did badly at the box office. Made for $30 million, it only made $8 million.

Blankman (1994):  The following year saw another comedy featuring a black superhero. Blankman starred Damon Wayans as a repairman who is frustrated with the political corruption in his community. He then develops various weapons and gadgets in order to become the superhero Blankman.  Damon Wayons  had been the co-creator and a performer on the highly popular sketch comedy series In Living Colour and had starred in the film The Last Boy Scout (1991). Unfortunately, Blankman would prove to be a failure with both critics and audiences. It got generally negative reviews and only made $7 million at the box office.

Spawn (1997): While Abar, The Meteor Man, and Blankman were original creations, Spawn was the first movie based on a black superhero from comic books. Spawn was created by Todd McFarlane and first appeared in Spawn #1 (May 1992), published by Image Comics. The character proved to be an enormous success and by 1997 had already appeared in two video games and an HBO animated series (Todd McFarlane's Spawn). It was probably a surprise to no one that there would be a movie adaptation of the comic book.

In fact, Columbia Pictures expressed an interest in Spawn not that long after his first appearance in 1992. Todd McFarlane was wanting more creative control than Columbia was willing to give him, however, and so a deal with Columbia was not in the offing. He later sold the film rights to New Line Cinema in exchange for merchandising rights and creative input on the movie. Unfortunately, in some ways Spawn was an ill-fated production. It was originally budgeted at $20 million, but the film's special effects eventually drove the budget up to $40 million. While $40 million was a respectable budget for a movie in the Nineties, even then it was not a whole lot for a superhero movie, especially one that required extensive effects the way Spawn did (by way of comparison, Batman & Robin, also released in 1997, had a budget of $125 million). The end result is that the special effects are often hit and miss, with some coming off very good, but others looking rather shoddy. While critics might have been willing to overlook the hit-and-miss special effects, they apparently thought the film had several other deficits as well. Spawn received overwhelmingly negative reviews. Today it boasts only a meagre rating of 18% among critics at Rotten Tomatoes. Its audience score isn't much better at 36%. Despite its poor reception critically, Spawn did make a respectable $87.8 million at the box office.

Steel (1997): It would only be a matter of weeks after the release of Spawn that another movie starring a black comic book superhero was released. Steel was based on the DC Comics character of the same name, who had first appeared in The Adventures of Superman #500 (June 1993) during the "Death of Superman" storyline. The character drew a good deal of inspiration from the folklore hero John Henry. Steel was John Henry Irons, a weapons engineer who is dismayed when he discovers weapons made by his company fell into the wrong hands and were used to kill innocents. He used his knowledge to become a superhero. Steel was soon spun off into his own title.

Initially the movie adaptation of Steel was to be a spin-off of a movie based on "The Death of Superman" storyline. The proposed film based on "The Death of Superman" storyline ultimately languished in development Hell, and eventually the project was dropped entirely. Despite this, the film adaptation of Steel moved forward, with all ties to the Superman mythos severed. Legendary music producer Quincy Jones and television producer David Salzman were both fans of the character, and served as the film's producers. Kenneth Johnson, who had worked on such TV shows as The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, and The Incredible Hulk, served as its screenwriter and director. Basketball star Shaquille O'Neal was cast as Steel.

Unfortunately Steel would not prove to be a success. Made for only $16 million, its budget was low compared to most movies of the era, let alone a superhero movie. It received overwhelmingly bad reviews, with critics attacking everything from the script to the acting. Worse yet, it did badly at the box office. It only made $1.7 million.

The Blade Movies: Blade (1998) would truly mark a turning point for black superhero movies. While both Spawn and Steel were trashed by critics, Blade received mixed to positive reviews. It also did well at the box office. Made for $45 million, it made $131.2 million. What made all of this even more remarkable is that the film was based on a Marvel Comics character who had only appeared on and off in comic books since the Seventies. It is Blade, rather than The Black Panther, who is Marvel's first black superhero to star in his own film.

Blade first appeared in The Tomb of Dracula #10 (July 1973), created by writer Marv Wolfmand artist Gene Colan. Blade was a vampire hunter whose mother had been bitten by a vampire while he was still in the womb. As a result he had various abilities, such as an ability to see supernatural entities, an immunity to vampirism, enhanced strength, and so on. Blade proved popular, so that he appeared in his own solo stories in Vampire Tales and Marvel Preview. Unfortunately, after the Seventies cycle towards horror comic books ended, Blade would rarely be seen until the early Nineties.

Regardless, a film adaptation of Blade was in development as early as 1992. At the time LL Cool J. expressed an interest in playing the role. Eventually the film rights would be sold to New Line Cinema and David S. Goyer was set to write the script. New Line Cinema wanted to cast Wesley Snipes, Denzel Washington, or Laurence Fishburne in the lead role, but David S. Goyer thought Mr. Snipes was the best actor for the role. Eventually he was signed to play Blade.

The success of Blade naturally led to a sequel. Initially New Line Cinema asked Stephen Norrington, who had directed the 1994 horror film Death Machine, to direct Blade II. After he turned them down, they approached Guillermo del Toro, who accepted. Guillermo del Toro had already the critically acclaimed horror movies Cronos (1995) and The Devil's Backbone (2001). The screenplay was once more written by David S. Goyer. Blade II received mixed to positive reviews from critics, although it was extremely well received by audiences. The film made the most money of any films in the Blade trilogy, a total of $155 million.

The success of Blade II naturally led to a third Blade movie. Unfortunately, Blade: Trinity would prove to be a troubled production. During pre-production the movie went through several different directors. Given the success of Blade II, the movie was offered to Guillermo del Toro, but he was tied up with Hellboy (2004). Oliver Hirschbiegel very nearly signed, but ultimately did Downfall (2004) instead. Ultimately David S. Goyer, who wrote the scripts for the Blade movies, wound up as its director. It proved to be a very bad experience for Mr. Goyer, who found himself at odds with star Wesley Snipes. Reportedly Mr. Snipes reached a point where he would communicate with the director and the rest of the cast through an assistant.

As it turned out, Blade: Trinity received largely negative reviews. It also made only $25 million at the American box office, although it did do $128.9 million worldwide. Since that time the rights to the character of Blade have reverted to Marvel, and it has been reported a few times in the past few years that another Blade movie may be in the offing. It was followed by a short-lived TV series on Spike in 2006.

Catwoman (2004): As bad as the reception for Blade: Trinity was, it was not nearly as bad as a movie featuring a black superhero released earlier in 2004. Catwoman starred Halle Berry as the title character in a film often counted among the worst of all time.

Development on Catwoman began in 1993 as an outgrowth of the movie Batman Returns (1992), in which Michelle Pfeiffer played Catwoman. Originally it was planned that Miss Pfeiffer would reprise her role as Selina Kyle (AKA Catwoman) and it would be directed by Tim Burton (who directed both Batman and Batman Returns). Unfortunately development on the film would unfold over a number of years, during which time Tim Burton and Michelle Pfeiffer would drift off to other projects. By 2001 Ashely Judd was attached to the film, but she eventually dropped out. Nicole Kidman was then considered for the part before Halle Berry was ultimately cast in the role.

During that time the concept for the film had changed to such a point that it could not really be said to be based on the Catwoman from Batman comic books at all. In the comic books Catwoman is Selina Kyle, a skilled thief whose preferred weapon is the cat o' nine tails. Like Batman, she has no superpowers, although she is an Olympic level athlete with a wide array of skills. In the movie Catwoman, Catwoman is graphics designer and artist Patience Philips, who develops cat-like abilities after being revived by an a mystical Egyptian Mau cat. Ultimately the two characters only have in common the name and a penchant for cats.

Of course, the fact that the movie departed from the comic book character probably would not have mattered had it been a good movie. As it turned out, it wasn't. The film received universally negative reviews. Roger Ebert even placed it on his list of most hated movies. The film also did poorly at the box office. It was made for $100 million, but only made $82,102,379 at the box office. It very nearly swept the Golden Raspberry Awards, awards given to the worst movies of the year. The movie's reputation has not improved over the years, and it still makes lists of the worst movies of all time.

Here it must be pointed out that Halle Berry was not the first black woman to play a character called Catwoman. In the third and final season of Batman, Eartha Kitt played the role of Catwoman, one that was more faithful to the comic books.

Hancock (2008): While Spawn, Steel, and Blade were based on comic book characters, Hancock was an original character created for the big screen. Its origins go back to 1996 with a spec script titled Tonight, He Comes by Vincent Ngo, about a fallen superhero. Director Tony Scott was soon attached to the script and it would be picked up by Artisan Entertainment. Tonight, He Comes would spend considerable time in development. Tony Scott would leave the project and Michael Mann would then become attached to it. He left to direct Miami Vice (2008). Eventually the project would be acquired by Akiva Goldsman, after which Vince Gilligan and John August rewrote Vincent Ngo's initial script. Jonathan Mostow was then set to direct the film, with Will Smith starring. Jonathan Mostow would leave to be replaced by Gabriele Muccino, who would also leave. Finally, Peter Berg was signed as the film's director. The film's title was changed from Tonight, He Comes to John Hancock and then simply Hancock.

Hancock starred Will Smith as an amnesiac, alcoholic superhuman who adopts the name "John Hancock" after a nurse asks him to sign his "John Hancock". While he attempts to help people with his superpowers, the fact that he is often drunk causes things to often go awry for him. As s result, he is generally disliked by the public at large.

Hancock received average reviews, with many critics considering the film uneven. Hancock did do well at the box office, making a total of $624.4 million. Since then there has been discussion about a sequel, although so far nothing concrete has emerged.

As strange as it may seem, there have been no black superhero movies released since Hancock, despite the release of Iron Man and the advent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008. Black superheroes have regularly appeared in films featuring other superheroes, including Storm in the X-Men movies. The Falcon in various Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, Cyborg in Justice League, and others, but for the past ten years none has headlined his or her own film until now. It seems quite possible that the success of Black Panther could change this. Quite simply, Black Panther has proven audiences will turn out for a movie starring a black superhero. While the past ten years have seen a dearth of black superhero movies, it seems likely that there will be more in the coming years beyond a sequel to Black Panther and DC's planned Cyborg movie.

Friday, 16 February 2018

TCM's Noir Alley in March

Noir Alley has been off this February on Turner Classic Movies, but it will return on March 4. Here is a look at the movies that will be airing on Noir Alley next month.

March 4: Noir Alley returns with one of the best and best known films noirs of all time. The Big Heat (1953) stars Glenn Ford as Sergeant Dave Bannion, a homicide detective with the Kenport Police Department, who investigates the suicide of a fellow officer. This being noir, he naturally finds more than he bargained for! The film was directed by Fritz Lang, whose earlier films had an influence on film noir.

March 11:  There are some who claim Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) was the very first film noir, although I would give that honour to They Drive By Night (1940), which was released several weeks before it. Regardless, Stranger on the Third Floor is an interesting example of early noir and established many of the visual hallmarks of the genre.

March 18: There are some who might consider Crossfire (1947) to be more of a message film than a film noir, although I really don't think there is anything to keep it from being both. The film deals with a topic that is still all too relevant, that of anti-Semitism. It also stars Robert Mitchum in an early role, as well as Robert Young (who would go from a successful film career to success in the TV shows Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby M.D.).

March 25: No Questions Asked (1951) is not necessarily one of the best films noirs out there, but it benefits from a good cast that includes Barry Sullivan, Arlene Dahl, and George Murphy. It features a screenplay by Sidney Sheldon, well before he created the classic TV shows The Patty Duke Show and I Dream of Jeannie (for those who are wondering, he had a highly successful career as a screenwriter before he moved into television).

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Marty Allen R.I.P.

Comedian Marty Allen, who was one half of the comedy team Allen & Rossi with Steve Rossi and later had his own successful solo career, died on February 12 at the age of 95.

Marty Allen was born Morton Alpern in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on March 23 1922. He attended Taylor Allderdice High School there. He attended the University of Southern California as a journalism major, but left when he decided he would make a better comedian than a reporter. He performed at various nightclubs around Pittsburgh before enlisting in the United States Army Air Corps during World War II. He resumed his career following the war.

For a time he teamed up with  Mitch DeWood. The two of them opened for such acts as Eydie Gormé, and Nat King Cole. The team broke up in 1958. It was Nat King Cole who suggested that Marty Allen team up with Steve Rossi. Allen and Rossi would prove extremely successful, with a string of hit comedy albums, as well as several appearances on television. They appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show 44 times alone, including The Beatles' second and third appearances on the show. In the Sixties they also appeared on such shows as I've Got a Secret, Tonight Starring Jack Paar, Talent Scouts, The New Steve Allen Show, The Garry Moore Show, Today, Where the Action Is, House Party, The Hollywood Palace, The Dean Martin Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and The Merv Griffith Show. In addition to talk show and variety shows, Marty Allen also guest starred on the shows The Big Valley and Love, American Style. Allen & Rossi appeared in the cult film The Last of the Secret Agents? (1966).

Marty Allen and Steve Rossi parted amicably in 1968, although they would re-unite several times over the years. In the Seventies Marty Allen continued to appear on several television shows, including such shows as The Virginia Graham Show, The David Frost Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Dean Martin Show, Tattletales, Dinah!, The Hollywood Squares, and The Bob Braun Show. He appeared in acting roles on the shows Honeymoon Suite, Monster Squad, and Flying High. He appeared in the films The Great Waltz (1972), Harrad Summer (1974), Allen and Rossi Meet Dracula and Frankenstein (1974), and A Whale of a Tale (1976).

In the Eighties Marty Allen appeared on the shows The Palace, The Alan Thicke Show, Madame's Place, Hour Magazine, and It's Garry Shandling's Show. He appeared in the films The Naked Face (1984) and Cannonball Run II (1984). He guest starred on Benson.

Marty Allen was an absolutely brilliant comedian, particularly as part of the team of Allen & Rossi. Their best routines were often interviews, in which Marty Allen would play an addled individual (everything from a doctor to an astronaut) being interviewed by Steve Rossi. Their catchphrase, "Hello dere" became very popular in the Sixties. Of course, even without Steve Rossi, Marty Allen was very funny. He had a unique mix of innocence and madness that made for some very interesting comedy. It should be little wonder that he was so much in demand during his career.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Valentine's Day 2018

Here at A Shroud of Thoughts it is a tradition to post classic pinups on certain holidays. Valentine's Day is no different. Here are this year's Valentine pinups!

First up is Lana Turner, who is playing Cupid atop a giant heart!

Next up is Nancy Carroll, who is ready to give her heart to some lucky fellow!

Here's Angie Dickinson, who has probably broken a few hearts in her day!

Peggy Castle has her bow ready!

Leslie Caron wants to be your Valentine!

I sometimes feel guilty that I mostly post pinup pictures of women. For those who prefer men, then, here is one of the great hearthrobs of film and television, Jack Benny (who was born on Valentine's Day)! By the way, he is still only 39!

And last but not least, it wouldn't be Valentine's Day without Ann Miller!

Happy Valentine's Day!