Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Magic Land of Allakazam (TV)

Mark Wilson, Nani Darnell, Bev Bergeron
Mark Wilson's Webpage

Allakazam I've always loved magic. If a magician is performing, I want to watch. I know enough about the art to occasionally figure out a trick, but even that doesn't make it less enjoyable.  It's the showmanship and the surprise that really grabs me.

And it started with The Magic World of Allakazam."


The show was broadcast on Saturday morning when I was a kid. It was conceived by and starred Mark Wilson, who, though in his 30s at the time, had been performing magic professionally for 15 years. 

There was some belief that magic wouldn't work on TV, especially on videotape, since everyone would think things were edited. Wilson had a simple solution:  make as few cuts as possible to make it appear as though you were watching it live.  He also insisted on a live audience to further show that things were not fixed in the production.  With these precepts in mind, he created The Magic World of Allakazam. 

Wilson's illusions were not groundbreaking.  They were versions of traditional magic tricks*, done in a simple and straightforward style. Wilson would dress up the magic with scenarios revolving around Allakazam. His wife Nani Darnell was his assistant, and Bev Bergeron played Rebo the clown**, who added some straight slapstick to the mix.

The show was and an instant hit and a staple of Saturday morning TV for several years, first on CBS and later on ABC before going into syndication.  It showed that magic could work as televised entertainment.

Wilson went on to create several other, less well known shows, most notably, a series of Magic Circus specials.  He continus to be a popularizer of magic and has written several books on the subject.  It looks like he's branched out to DVDs, including videos of Allakazam.

I think that most television TV magicians own Wilson a debt.


*Insert Arrested Development reference.

**A character name later used on Babylon 5.  Creator J. Michael Straczynski would have been about the right age to be watching The Magic World of AllakazamI when it was on.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Fabulous World of Jules Verne

image(Vynález zkázy*)(1958)

Directed by Karel Zeman
Written by Frantisek Hrubín and Karel Zeman; dialog by Milan Vácha; based on the writing of Jules Verne
Starring  Lubor Tokos, Arnost Navrátil, Miroslav Holub, Frantisek Slégr, Václav Kyzlink,
IMDB Entry

For me, movies are about plot and character.  But, occasionally, there is a movie that stands out in terms of style and visual imagination. Days of Heaven, with its beautiful cinematography, stands out, as does Medium Cool, with its cinema verite mixture of story and actual events.  And though I don't care much for the film, it's clear that the visuals in The Matrix were groundbreaking.

But few films have ever topped The Fabulous World of Jules Verne.

The film was created by Czech director Karel Zeman.  Zeman had a fascinating idea:  make a movie from the works of Jules Verne, but in the style of the illustrations of the time. The result is an amazing combination of live action and animation, with sets that are often drawings, filled with details and crosshatching.  It's all done in a crisp black and white cinematography that makes it seem like line drawings come to life.



The story is high adventure about a mad scientist who lives in a volcano and who is developing a super bomb. It's just the type of film that would stick in the mind of young boy, and, though I haven't seen it for 50 years until I started writing up this blog entry, some of the images in the film are as memorable to me as though I had seen them yesterday.

The film's style, of course, is what would not be labeled steampunk. Steampunk owes a lot to Verne and H.G. Welles, and, of course, the illustrations of the time. While I have no way of knowing, I do note that the authors who first developed the steampunk movement were all about my age.  I wonder if this movie somehow influenced them.

Zeman was already a major talent in Czech cinema, and, after the success of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, he made several other Verne adaptations.  Alas, they seem to have been a casualty of the Cold War and didn't make it to the US in wide release**.  He does seem to be worthy of rediscovery.  A visual imagination like his should not be forgotten.


*Literal translation:  A Deadly Weapon
**Perhaps Fabulous World didn't do well enough to warrant it.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Diva poster (1981)
Directed by
  Jean-Jacques Beineix
Written by Jean-Jacques Beineix and Jean Van Hamme
Based on the novel by Delacorta

Frédéric Andréi, Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, Richard Bohringer
IMDB Entry
Official Website

Diva has it all -- comedy, romance, thrills, great chase scenes, wonderful characters and much more. If it had been filmed in Hollywood, it would have been remembered for the classic it is.  But it was filmed in France, in French, and is known to a far-too-small number of people.

It was the feature debut of director/writer Jean-Jacques Beineix. Beineix had come up through the ranks:  he was an assistant director for ten years* before getting his chance to direct -- and hitting a home run.

The story is simple and direct.  Jules (Frédéric Andréi) is a Parisian messenger, who travels the city on his scooter delivering packages.  He's also an opera fan, especially of the American opera singer Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). Well, more than a fan -- he falls in love with his voice and does the one thing the singer has forbidden:  recorded her in concert.

But he is spotted by two Hong Kong tape pirates, who think they can make a mint with a live recording.  He also draws the attention of a prostitution ring -- with members in high places -- when the tape is mistaken and switched for one that will blow their crimes wide open.

And the chase begins.  The movie contains some of the best chase scenes in film, especially when Jules rides his scooter through the escalators of the Paris Metro.

Andréi is charming as Jules, but also memorable is Fernandez in a difficult part.**

The movie got good reviews when it opened, but, of course, did so-so business in the US (subtitled films usually do).  It was a big hit in France and Europe, though.  Beineix has been working in the French film industry since then, but without any big splashes that crossed the ocean.  Andréi has had some roles in French films and has moved into directing, while Fernandez returned to opera, where she's had a solid career on stage.

The film was revived in 2007 to find new audiences, but I fear those were probably too small for people to see just how wonderful this film was.


*Including time working on The Day the Clown Cried, Jerry Lewis's epic unreleased disaster.

**Including casting.  The story required a world-class opera singer who was fluent in both English and French.