Sunday, January 29, 2012

S. Z. "Cuddles" Sakall (actor)

IMDb Entry

S. Z. Sakall S. Z. Sakall only had to appear on screen, and everyone in the audience would smile, even before he said a thing.  He appeared in almost 50 US films, always playing the same character and always charming the audience.

He was born Gerő Jenő in Hungary and became a successful sketch writer there under the pen name of Szőke Szakáll.*  He moved to the stage in the 1910s, then appeared in Austria and Germany, moving back home when Hitler came to power, and finally moving to the US when World War II began.  His friendship with Joe Pasternak got him work, where he changed his stage name to S. Z. Sakall.

He quickly got work in some of the best films of the early 40s, appearing in Ball of Fire, The Devil and Miss Jones, and Yankee Doodle Dandy (as a prospective Broadway "angel" that is conned into investing in George M. Cohan's first show).  In 1942, he made his best-known appearance as the head waiter Carl in Casablanca. In the late 40s, "Cuddles" was added to his billing by the studio (Sakall didn't like it) and it seemed to fit him perfectly.  When a studio wanted a Germanic comic grandfather figure, Sakall got the call.

His great advantage was his appearance.  He had a chubby face and rotund form and his characters were so charming that it turned him into the loving grandparent most people would want to have.  His accent gave him further personality.  From all accounts, the image of niceness he portrayed was the way he acted in real life.

Sakall continued to work until his death in 1955, playing put-upon Germanic grandfathers to the delight of movie audiences.

*Hungarian for "blonde beard."

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Rick Brant Series (books)

Whispering Box Mystery(1947-1968)
By John Blaine
Rick Brant Web Page

There were many series of "boys books" (as YA novels were called back then) as people tried to find the next Hardy Boys or Tom Swift.  I was a fan of both, first starting with Tom Swift, Jr. and moving on to Frank and Joe Hardy.  I read extensively in them, but my favorite book of this genre was in neither series.  It was a book I inherited from my cousin, who outgrew it: The Whispering Box Mystery, featuring Rick Brant.

The Rick Brant series leaned toward a hard science version of Tom Swift, Jr., with elements of the Hardy Boys.  Rick Brant was the son of scientist Hartson Brant, who ran his own personal research facility on Spindrift Island, just off the New Jersey coast.  Brant went off on various adventures, sometimes on the island and other times in exotic places around the world.*  He had the usual entourage of friends and family that was typical of the genre.

The Whispering Box Mystery was truly top-notch.  The concept was that a device was created that used ultrasound to paralyze.  Brant and friends have to stop a gang of crooks who use it to steal government secrets.  The concept of the whispering box really captured my imagination.

The author, as was standard for this type of book, was a house name, though all the books were written by Harold L. Goodwin.**  Goodwin was a scientist himself and eventually became a high-ranking official for NASA.  He wanted to keep the stories as scientifically accurate as possible.  While there were some elements that pushed the envelope on what was known,*** the stories tried to avoid the more fantastic elements of SF**** and tried to accurately describe the work in the lab.

There were 23 books in the series over twenty years.  A 24th was never published until it came out in a limited edition about 20 years ago.  And by the time I discovered The Whispering Box Mystery, the series was beginning to wind down, and was being pushed off the shelves by the more popular Hardy Boys/Tom Swift books.  I wish I could have found more.

*There are certain similarities between the series and the TV show Jonny Quest.  While Hanna-Barbara is well-known for ripping off concepts for their cartoons from other sources, the similarities are not conclusive enough to prove they used it as an inspiration.

**In the first three, he shared writing chores with Peter J. Harkins.

***Like the Whispering Box.

****Compared to Tom Swift, Jr., who was using antigravity and meeting aliens.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Time Machine series (books)

Novel version   By Donald Keith
Wikipedia Page, with links to the original stories.

I was the world's worst Cub Scout. In four years, I never earned a single badge.* Every year, we'd get the activity books.  There would be ten tasks to do to get your badge, and I'd be lucky if I got five of them.  And forget the little arrowheads.  I did finish second in the Pinewood Derby, but that's because my father built the car.

About the only thing I got out of it was my subscription to Boys' Life. And my favorite part of my subscription to Boys' Life were the Time Machine series.

The concept was hardly new even back in 1959, when it started. A Boy Scout troop, led by Bob Tucker,**  along with Ellsworth "Brains" Baines, discovered a time machine while out hiking.  Brains figured out how to run it in about five minutes, and off they went forward and backward in time.  Later other people joined the crew, like Kai, a boy from the future, and Dion from ancient Sparta.

The stories were simple.  No time paradoxes here -- just a visit to a time in the past or future where an adventure could happen.  Occasionally, they'd make minor changes to the course of history.

The series was conceived as something of an educational exercise, where the trips to the past would be history lessons.***  And they were excellent adventures; I still remember the excitement when they ended up at the Johnstown Flood. 

The author was a pseudonym for a father-and-son team, Donald and Keith Monroe, though Keith wrote solo after 1974. All and all, 23 stories were published, including three serials.  Two of the serials were turned into fix-up novels:  Mutiny on the Time Machine and Time Machine to the Rescue. 

The stories have faded into the recycling bin, but, for those interested, Google Books has many back issues of Boys' Life, including those that featured the stories.  The wikipedia page gives links to them.****

*Except the Bobcat, which you got basically for just showing up.

**A name that leads to some interesting speculation. You see, back then, Wilson "Bob" Tucker was a big name in SF fandom, creator of one of the first fanzines, Le Zombie. He also published some SF and mystery novels and stories. One of his habits was to take the names of real people (usually other fans) and put them into his stories; he did it so much that fans called the practice "Tuckerization."  So, was Bob Tucker tuckerized in the book?  Hard to say.  But Donald Keith has published SF in Galaxy before appearing in Boy's Life, and it's certainly possible he knew of fandom and Bob Tucker.

***Just like the original Doctor Who, but four years earlier.  Since it was also quickly established the Time Machine could also travel in space, it looks like it was a precursor to the TARDIS.  I doubt the creators of Doctor Who knew anything about the stories -- Boys' Life probably never made it to the UK -- but it's a fun coincidence.

****But only to the first episode of the serials.  You'll need to root around to find the rest.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Virginia O'Brien (actress)

IMDB Entry

As the song goes, "You Gotta Have a Gimmick." Virginia O'Brien had a gimmick, and it started her on a successful run of movies.

It all started with stage fright. O'Brien grew up on Los Angeles* and developed a desire to act and sing. In 1940, she was cast in a stage musical, Meet the People, when disaster struck.  When she went on stage to sing her number, she was overcome with fright and froze completely. But the show had to go on, and she sung the number, unable to keep from staring at the audience with a "deer in the headlights" expression.  She left the stage thinking her acting career had ended before it started.

But audiences are strange.  When you're on stage, you know when a disaster is happening, but when watching it, you might just think it's part of the show.**  The audience thought it was part of the show, and the deadpan expression O'Brien held during the number was hilarious.

It got her a screen test and a contract with MGM.

She appeared in 14 movies in the 1940s usually as a novelty act.  Here is her appearance in The Big Store.

O'Brien appeared in such classic MGM musicals as DuBarry was a Lady (with Red Skelton, Gene Kelly and Lucille Ball and a Cole Porter score), Panama Hattie (Skelton and Cole Porter again), The Harvey Girls (with Judy Garland, and a score by Harry Warren), and Till the Clouds Go Rolling By (an all-star cast singing the songs of Jerome Kern***).

In 1947, though, as the studio system died, O'Brien's contract with MGM was not renewed.  It was possible that they figured her gimmick was growing tired (though she started singing normally in her later films).  She worked in nightclubs and on TV as a welcome guest star.

Her last film was in 1976.

*Her uncle was thirties musical director Lloyd Bacon.

**Years ago, in college, I was in a production of South Pacific.  As we were hitting the final notes of "Nothing Like a Dame," the circuit breaker for the entire theater blew, plunging it all into darkness.  We were all upset by the problem, but the audience never realized it wasn't planned.

***Not always well.  The idea of having Frank Sinatra -- then only 31 -- singing "Old May River" seems like a bad joke.  I don't think Sinatra liked it much, either, knowing that not only was he much too young (and too white) to be singing it, but that he had the wrong type of voice for the role.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Sandbaggers (TV)

Written by
Ian Mackintosh
Starring Roy Marsden, Ray Lonnen, Jerome Willis, Bob Sherman, Alan McNaughtan, Elizabeth Bennett, Richard Vernon
IMDB Entry

You can have your 24, your men and women from U.N.C.L.E., your impossible mission force, Control, Avengers, your secret agent men, your burn notices, hell, even your James Bond.  The best spy show ever to appear on TV was The Sandbaggers.

The Sandbaggers had no fancy spy technology. There were no evil supervillains.  No climbing up the side of buildings.  Only one explosion in the entire series (in the first episode).  The fate of the world was never in the balance, and the missions were often botched.  The main character didn't drink, and if there were treacherous female spies, you could bet that they wouldn't want to sleep with you.  You had to worry about budgets, finding replacement spies, and government approval.  Most of the scenes took place in small offices as people argued how to handle a situation. 

Yet all this was far more exciting than any other attempts to portray the spy business on TV.

It was a creation of Ian Mackintosh, a lifelong naval officer who developed a talent for writing. There is some evidence that he was actually involved in spying, and he set out to write a realistic look at how things are actually done in the real world. 

The show focuses on Neil Burnside (Roy Marsden), Director of Operations of the UK Special Intelligence Service, and especially their Special Operations Section, known as "Sandbaggers.*"  Burnside is shorthanded; there are never more than three Sandbaggers, and often less due to them being killed while on a mission.  And though there are plenty of sensitive secret missions, Burnside is forced to spend most of his time dealing with political issues from his own government, in the form of the director of SIS, C (Richard Vernon); the deputy director, Matthew Peele (Jerome Willis), who mistrusts Burnside deeply; and the Permanent Undersecretary of State (and Burnside's ex-father-in-law), Sir Geoffrey Willingham (Alan McNaughtan). 

This may sound dull, but it's far from it.  Burnside tries to run his department free of interference, and to keep his agents from going on missions where the risks outweigh the rewards, but it often isn't possible.  Things screw up, and sometimes Sandbaggers die.  The threat isn't the end of the world as in most spy shows, but rather a threat to the British government and to Burnside's job.

Burnside sometimes has to do things he doesn't want, and that is what makes the show so fascinating.  In most spy films, you know the good guys will win at the end.  In The Sandbaggers, you don't. Often they win.  Sometimes they don't -- with disastrous consequences.  And you can never be sure.  Here, Burnside lays out the principles of what makes for a successful spy mission.

Burnside is helped by Sandbagger #1, Willy Caine (Ray Lonnen), who has a great distaste for adventure and guns.  He also relies on Jeff Ross (Bob Sherman), the head of the CIA in London, who he shares information with and who can bring in help when needed.  The office is run by Diane Lawyer (Elizabeth Bennett), who has a dry sense of humor about the goings on.

What makes the show great are four elements:

  • Mystery.  Burnside is often trying to make life-or-death decisions with a lack of information.  What they have is ambiguous and there is rarely any time to know the details of the situation.  Is the Bulgarian official changing sides, or is it a trap?  No one can be sure until the mission begins.
  • Realism.**  Everything sounds like how spies really do behave.  Missions are carefully planned, strategies are discussed (often heatedly), there are miscommunications, bad luck hits (for example, people getting into auto accidents), Burnside is unable to get what he needs.  It all ramps up the drama. 
  • Tension.  Every show keeps twisting the screws on Burnside.  Whenever there is an opportunity for further tension, it's added. 
  • Uncertainty.  The show confounds standard TV storytelling.  You never know what to expect.  Characters can be killed off and you can never be sure if it will happen this episode or not. Missions fail, sometimes spectacularly.  Even successful missions have collateral damage.  Everyone, including your friends, have an agenda and you can never be sure what it is.
  • The Cold War. The show was run at the height of the Cold War, with the concerns of the era written into it. Since the scripts usually dealt with events in real countries, it gave a greater sense of urgency that everything involved was important.  The game being played at that time in history was intense, with high stakes, setting the basic tension level pretty high.***

The result is great TV.  I would even say that the season one finale, "Special Relationship," is the most tense single episode of any show ever on TV.

Roy Marsden as Neil BurnsideBut the biggest part of the show is Burnside.  He's smart, obsessed with his work, passionate about protecting his department, and willing to do anything -- no matter how much of a dirty trick -- to get the mission completed.  It gets him in trouble all the time, and Roy Marsden is absolutely unforgettable in the role.  Always wearing three-piece suits like armor, he portrays a man who is completely dedicated, and is ruthless in getting what he wants, even when that blows

The show ran for three seasons in the UK.  It would have run more, but, in the middle of season three, Mackintosh disappeared.  In what sounds like a Sandbagger episode, his small plane vanished over the ocean.  He had left behind four scripts, including the finale, and others added more to finish the season, but the producers felt that, without him, there was no point in continuing.  The show was canceled. 

The episodes showed up on in the US on scattered PBS stations in the 80s, but it never received the popularity and acclaim it deserved.  Those who saw it knew it was something special, but too many people never had the chance.

It's out on DVD.  Get it and prepare for greatness.

*The origin of the term "sandbagger" was never explained, but it fits as well as John Le Carre's term "mole" (which he made up for his novels and was taken by the secret services)

**Mackintosh clearly knew much about how the spy service works in the UK.  In fact, every episode had to be given security clearance and one was never filmed because it infringed on the Official Secrets Act.

**Though nowadays you can't help noticing that things would have been much better with cell phones.