Friday, August 27, 2010

"The Beverly Hills Uplift Society" starring George Burns and Gracie Allen

Beginning in October 1950*, George Burns and Gracie Allen filled the living rooms of America with laughter (even though George would be the first to admit that most of the laughs were Gracie's alone); in all, Burns and Allen appeared in 291 episodes of this classic program, one of the first hits of the television era. In addition to Burns and Allen themselves, the show features the talents of Fred Clark and Bea Benaderet, as well as announcer Harry von Zell.

*Having begun on radio in February 1932.

Sponsored by Carnation Evaporated Milk, this episode was the second of the show's second season, first telecast in October 1951; I love the way the commercial is integrated right into the show, in much the same way product placement has now turned most movies into 90 minute advertisements. The relationship between commerce and entertainment, it seems, has come full circle. Less amusing is the lie that somehow evaporated milk is best for babies; then again, that was the Fifties for you. In those days, breasts were for entertaining men and not nourishing children...

For the life of me, I can't tell what the purpose of the Beverly Hills Uplift Society is, except to keep a lot of society matrons from turning to drink in despair over their own extreme comfort. Still, this episode is a pretty good indicator of the style of humour prevalent in those days, and shows birthday gal Gracie Allen - who died on this day in 1964 - at her dizzy, ditzy best.
share on: facebook

Remembering... Gracie Allen

It's often been said that the only proof necessary of the comic genius of George Burns was in his choice of wife and partner, Gracie Allen; Gracie's genius, of course, was much less subtle, evident in every word she spoke, every face she pulled, and indeed every life she touched.

PhotobucketShe was also fortunate enough to be born in San Francisco, prior to that city's Great Earthquake in April 1906; although forced to live through the ensuing devastation as a child, in the fire that followed the quake her birth certificate was destroyed, a fate every actress in Hollywood undoubtedly would relish, even if it did mean having to live in a tent for a couple of years as a kid. Census information, however, indicates she was likely born in 1895.

Burns and Allen met in 1922, when both were performing in vaudeville. Initially Burns gave her the straight lines, setting him up for the jokes; when she ended up getting more laughs out of the setups than he did from the gags, he cannily switched their roles, and history was made. They married in 1926, and by February 1932 had their own radio show. The same year they began appearing together in movies, and for the next 30 years they were among the most popular and durable acts in show business, seamlessly making the transition to television in 1950.

Gracie even ran for President in 1940, conducting a whistlestop tour of the United States on board a train on behalf of the Surprise Party; typically her speeches consisted of such quips as "Everybody knows a woman is better than a man when it comes to introducing bills into the house," lines that lose all their charm when stripped of Allen's priceless style of delivery.

Gracie Allen died of a heart attack on this day in 1964, following a lengthy history of heart problems; those in the know agree that what really happened is through the years Gracie gave all her heart away, and at the end didn't have enough left over for herself...
share on: facebook

Happy Birthday Brian Peckford

Newfoundland has not traditionally been plagued with the best leadership; prior to Confederation in 1949, a series of Whitehall stooges led the nation down the garden path, all the while bankrupting a place so teeming with natural resources that it should never have ended up a have-not province in the first place. Even the man who brought the province into Canadian confederation Joey Smallwood spent most of his time as Premier building up his own legend; when called upon to conduct the province's business, he often did so to Newfoundland's detriment, such as the hot mess of a deal he negotiated with Quebec over Churchill Falls, the Valdmanis affair, and on and on...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThen in 1979, Brian Peckford became Premier. Not only did Peckford battle with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau over provincial autonomy during the Constitution process, he also tilted at one of his own windbags - er, windMILLS - when he came to blows with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a fellow Tory. Although he'd supported Mulroney's two pet projects, the Meech Lake Accord and NAFTA, Mulroney's grasping after the revenues of the Hibernia off-shore oil finally got Peckford's Irish up.

Since Peckford left office in 1989, Newfoundland has been gifted with three strong, visionary Premiers. Clyde Wells, who dared to stand up and say that if Quebec was a country, so was Newfoundland - especially since Newfoundland (unlike Quebec) had actually been a sovereign nation prior to becoming Canadian.

Brian Tobin came to the job having ordered, as Fisheries minister, a Coast Guard vessel to fire upon a Spanish trawler stealing fish from Newfoundland waters with gill nets. Having seized those nets he then took them to the United Nations to show the world who was really responsible for over-fishing in the North Atlantic. Currently in Newfoundland's corner is Danny Williams, whose position on Hibernia (not to mention Churchill Falls) is so combative, I'm sure the spinning Smallwood's doing in his grave could power Quebec all by itself. All of it, though, is descended from the leadership of Brian Peckford.
share on: facebook

"New World Man" by Rush

On their own it's inevitable Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart would have each had stellar careers in music; as teenagers, in Toronto's Willowdale neighbourhood in 1968, they formed Rush, and so made Canadian music history together instead!

Alex Lifeson is the only remaining member of Rush's original lineup; on the occasion of his birthday, please enjoy the sweetest riffs in my favourite song of theirs, New World Man from the 1982 album Signals. This live performance of the song is from Rush's 1984 tour in support of that year's album Grace Under Pressure. Their most pointedly anti-US song, New World Man is also their only US Top Forty hit; a similar feat would be achieved a little less than a decade later, when Paul Hyde's America is Sexy - from the album Turtle Island - topped the charts there in 1989 despite lyrics critical of American culture*.

Lifeson's career took on a more actorly tone in 2003, when he appeared in an episode of Trailer Park Boys named Closer to the Heart, after of one of Rush's bigger hits; he also appeared in Trailer Park Boys: The Movie.

*After all, it
did have the words 'America' and 'sexy' in the title...

share on: facebook

In Memoriam: Lyndon Baines Johnson

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe 36th President of the United States is not my favourite; from all I've read about him, Lyndon Baines Johnson was a better President in theory than in practice, ideally suited to the rough-and-tumble politicking of the Senate, but incapable of the kind of finesse demanded by the Oval Office.

While the Great Society reforms he planned and the War on Poverty he declared came to pass, perhaps no one but he would have had the nerve to twist as many arms as he must have had to do to make it so, which damaged his reputation almost as much as the bigotry he let himself in for by siding with the disadvantaged over those who had a vested interest in keeping them that way.

Following the assassination of JFK in Dallas in November 1963, Johnson was sworn in to succeed him, and won his own election handily the following year. However, his involvement in Vietnam - precipitated by the possibly spurious Gulf of Tonkin Incident - caused his popularity to plummet; he probably would have lost the 1968 election to Richard M. Nixon had he not opted out of the running in March 1968, so you have some idea not only how unpopular he was personally, but how unpopular his ambitious program of civil rights and social welfare reforms had made him with the Establishment as well.

Born on this day in 1908, Johnson died in January 1973, aged only 64; for years smoking, drinking, and stress had weakened his heart. Today his library and museum (which opened in Austin, Texas, in May 1971 with President Nixon in attendance) is the nation's most-visited, hosting over a quarter million visitors a year. While his birthday has been commemorated by Lyndon Baines Johnson Day in Texas since the year he died, LBJ's memory in general has been given some much-needed rehabilitation in recent years by Robert Caro, whose three-volume memoir of LBJ (a fourth is planned) is entitled The Years of Lyndon Johnson.
share on: facebook


Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Man Ray - born Emmanuel Radnitzky on this day in 1890 - pushed the boundaries of art like few before him. His painterly approach to photography is one of the chief reasons photography is considered to be art today; even those gallery owners who still insist on sneering at photography as a non-art* have to give Man Ray his due.

Moving to Paris as a young man, he fell in with both Surrealists and Dadaists, who were prominent in Paris in the years before World War II; he also fell in love with the most famous Muse of her day, Kiki de Montparnasse.

Yet Man Ray's contribution to photography isn't merely aesthetic, but also technical. He was one of the first to paint using an airbrush, for instance. He shot double and triple exposures, and also exhibited photography in three dimensions. The technique he was probably best known for is solarizing, and he also invented the rayograph, a photo made without a camera.

*Still a surprisingly high number.
share on: facebook

Pee-wee Herman Made Me Do It

While Pee-wee Herman famously recorded an entirely sombre Public Service Announcement warning kids about the dangers of crack in the 1980s, I think this clip functions as a warning against an even deadlier, more life-destroying foe - namely prop comedy. After all, crack can kill you, but what will you care - you'll be dead; prop comedy can kill your reputation, and not only that, you have to live with yourself afterwards.

Imagine being constantly being compared to Carrot Top. Nobody wants that. Just say no to prop comedy. Oh, and crack as well. If it helps you to remember, think of crack as the prop comedy of drugs.
share on: facebook

Happy Birthday Paul Reubens

Of all the cretinous villains in the world, few people have been less cretinous and villainous than Paul Reubens; while murderers and rapists run around free, while thugs have been known to occasionally seize the government and demonstrate contempt for both their own constitution and international law with impunity, while genocides and a hundred different forms of hate crime seemingly proliferate unchecked at home and around the world, police in Florida brought down the full force of their authority on a bored actor who, in July 1991, decided to rub one out at a Sarasota porno theatre.

PhotobucketNot a park or a playground, not a mall or a McDonald's - certainly not the men's room at the Minneapolis Airport - but the South Trail Adult Theatre screening of Nurse Nancy.

That the scandal was out of all proportion to the crime is almost a given, especially occurring when it did, just as the tabloid press in America was achieving an almost British intensity; yet the fact that Reubens was ostensibly a children's entertainer seems to have given his critics more than enough ammo to kill his greatest creation Pee-wee Herman.

In the end, it may have all been an extreme example of wish fulfillment; Reubens had grown tired of the character and was thinking of retiring him anyhow. Faced with the prospect of once more squeezing into the tiny suit and potentially becoming a grotesque parody of himself, Reubens found a way out - albeit an embarrassing and highly public one. Paul/Pee-wee's travails were extensively documented in an article for Rolling Stone magazine by Peter Wilkinson.

Reubens has since made numerous appearances in films and on television, beginning with a role as the Penguin's father in Batman Returns (1992); he's also turned up (often in disguise) as the 76th secretary on Murphy Brown, for instance, or as Archduke Gerhard Habsburg on 30 Rock, and so on. Currently, the scuttlebutt on Interweb is that Pee-wee's Playhouse: The Movie is in production and ready to make Pee-wee big again; in the meantime, you'll have to be satisfied with all of Pee-wee's offerings currently available on DVD including all five seasons of Pee-wee's Playhouse.

share on: facebook

Lady Antonia Fraser: Historian Extraordinaire

PhotobucketAs a major history and social studies geek, I can barely imagine what my life would be like without the works of Lady Antonia Fraser...

Fraser's writing combines the rigourous research that is the hallmark of quality history with the kind of sensitivity and insight which is currently being applied to the relatively new discipline of 'social history', of which she is a pioneer. Hard-line old school historians may scoff, and refer to Fraser's work as 'revisionist', to which I would respond by waving a bottle of brandy at them until I got their attention and then toss it aside to watch them give chase. This is entirely in keeping with my contempt for ossified academics and their endless recycling of a petrified world-view; history, after all, is in a constant process of revision, so any criticism of so-called revisionist history is both egregious and jejeune*.

Beginning with Mary, Queen of Scots (1969) Fraser has alternated between histories and detective fiction ever since, writing from her quaint fourth-floor study in the Holland Park house she shared until recently with her husband, playwright Harold Pinter, who died in December 2008.

*Two words I first learned from reading - you guessed it! - the works of Lady Antonia Fraser.
share on: facebook

"Love Will Keep Us Together" by the Captain and Tennille

You lucky readers! Not only do you get to enjoy a performance of Love Will Keep Us Together today on Daryl Dragon (aka The Captain)'s birthday, you may even get to enjoy it again on May 8th, the birthday of Toni Tennille.

Unless that is, I decide to post that other Captain & Tennille classic Muskrat Love that day... I can tell already, the suspense is killing you!
share on: facebook

Pop History Moment: The Assassination of Mountbatten

A sunny day, a silver sea... And then the sound - so sharp it seemed to rend both the loveliness of the day and the Shadow V with equal callousness. Once the smoke had cleared off Mullaghmore - on this day in 1979 - three were dead and four were seriously wounded; a day later and the numbers had reversed. Thomas McMahon and 50 pounds of IRA mortar had done their worst.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketIn the end, her cousin Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma - 'Dickie' to his friends - was the closest Ireland's homegrown terrorists could get to the Queen; mourned as the father he'd never had by both her husband the Duke of Edinburgh and her son and heir the Prince of Wales the Royal Family, upper lips stiff as sailcloth, kept its course.

Also killed in the blast was a teenaged boat boy named Paul Maxwell, as well as one of Mountbatten's twin grandsons, Nicholas Knatchbull, and the Dowager Baroness Brabourne - Mountbatten's daughter's elderly mother-in-law, who died the following day. At the same time it was assassinating Mountbatten the IRA was carrying out what has come to be known as the Warrenpoint Ambush, during which eighteen British soldiers from the Parachute Regiment were killed.

England may have lost one of her most decorated statesmen that day, but she also gained a legend - a knight, fallen on the field of battle, one of the first to occur not at some distant remove of history but in an entirely modern context; that he had fallen at sea served only to make the tale more quintessentially English. A memorial service for Mountbatten - held at Dublin's St. Patrick's Cathedral - was attended by Ireland's President, Patrick Hillery, and Taoiseach, Jack Lynch; his state funeral, meanwhile, was held at Westminster Abbey, and he was later interred at Romsey Abbey.
share on: facebook