Saturday, September 18, 2010

Happy Birthday Fred Willard

My first exposure to all around funny guy Fred Willard was from his appearances on the uncategorizable variety show Real People, which ran on NBC from 1979 to 1984; little did I know then that not only had he been a fixture in American comedy since 1963, but would continue to be watching him to this day...

PhotobucketWillard's first big exposure came through his involvement with famed comedy troupe The Second City; he auditioned for the ensemble alongside fellow legend Robert Klein. Willard's first television break came from sitcom pioneer Norman Lear, who cast him in Fernwood 2 Night, opposite longtime friend Martin Mull. He also hosted Saturday Night Live in 1978, the night the musical guest was Devo. He later guest-starred on Roseanne, playing Martin Mull's husband with his usual dumb, deadpan aplomb.

Lately, when not trading barbs with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, Willard has an enviable position in the company of players lucky enough to work with Christopher Guest, whose films - This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind - are winners all.
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"Rock 'N' Roll High School" by The Ramones

On what would have been the 59th birthday of Dee Dee Ramone, I've decided to post one of my favourite songs by The Ramones; let's face it, it was either this song - 1979's Rock 'n' Roll High School - or The KKK Took My Baby Away, either of which would have done the job.

I chose Rock 'n' Roll High School, though, because it had a) a slightly better video, and b) a tie-in to the 1979 Roger Corman film of the same name, one of that legendary producer's rare forays out of the exploitation/horror genre and into musical comedy. It was followed by a sequel, Rock 'n' Roll High School Forever (1991) which without even having seen it I feel safe in saying wasn't as good as the original, since they never are, are they?

Alas, there will be no sequels of Dee Dee Ramone or indeed of The Ramones either; less than a decade after the band's 1996 break up, three of its founding members - bassist and principal songwriter Dee Dee, lead singer Joey Ramone, and guitarist Johnny Ramone - were all dead.
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In Memoriam: Greta Garbo

So inscrutable was she that no one quite knew for sure what the great Greta Garbo ever wanted, except to be left alone - which she'd said so often to reporters off screen that her screenwriters eventually began writing the line into her scripts...

PhotobucketThe taciturn Swede seemed to turn her dissatisfaction with everyone and everything into her stock-in-trade, making herself even more alluring even as she was pushing you away. As such she has become a symbol of ambivalence and antipathy, especially where fame and adoration are concerned.

Born on this day in 1905, she met famed director Mauritz Stiller in 1922; Stiller worked with the girl until she became a woman - if you catch my meaning - before casting her in his 1924 silent film Gösta Berlings saga, based on the novel by Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf. The brighter lights of Berlin called, and the newly rechristened Garbo went to appear in the 1925 film Die freudlose Gasse, by G. W. Pabst - it's English name, the utterly prescient The Joyless Street.

Shortly thereafter, Garbo sailed to America, with half of that country's news photographers seemingly in tow; her arrival in Manhattan was front-page news around the world, and her train journey across the strange new land in which she found herself was breathlessly covered by all levels of media. She arrived in Hollywood, and thus the brightest lights of all, in September 1925 still aged only 19, at which point she was rushed into production on her first film for MGM, The Torrent.

Garbo made a few hugely successful silent films before the silent cinema died the death it had coming to it; as one of the few silent stars to make a successful transition to sound, however, her star rose even higher. 1930's film version of Eugene O'Neill's Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie was trumpeted with the tagline 'Garbo Talks', and audiences were enthralled by what they heard. Although the film is clunky to watch, and even the best-restored extant prints of it aren't in the best of shape, Garbo's serious performance is almost as compelling as Marie Dressler's comic one, despite its low-key nature; for all its faults the film, naturally, has pride of place in the collection held here at the Pop Culture Institute.

Once they got Garbo talking, however, they had difficulty shutting her up; since the studios were making oodles off her, they didn't even mind the increasingly exorbitant paycheques she was demanding. Despite the relatively short duration of her career (which she called a halt to in 1941) her filmography is jam-packed with classics: Mata Hari (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), Queen Christina (1933), Anna Karenina (1935), Camille (1936), and Ninotchka (1939). It all ended with George Cukor's Two-Faced Woman, the only one of her films that could be considered a flop.

Following her departure from Hollywood Garbo mainly lived in New York City, in a habit of increasing reclusion; her last onscreen appearance as such was in Sidney Lumet's 1984 film Garbo Talks, in which she did not appear in the least, except as a kind of phantom on whom all the action was centred. Greta Garbo died in Manhattan in April 1990, and her ashes were interred in Sweden's Skogskyrkogården Cemetery; her estate, estimated at $20 million US, went to her niece Gray Reisfield.
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Remembering... Ernie Coombs


Seeing as most of us Generation X-ers were virtually raised by television, I would be remiss if I failed to observe the anniversary of the passing of one of my favourite babysitters growing up, Ernie Coombs. Alongside gender ambiguous tyke Casey and mute dog Finnegan, Coombs entertained and educated several generations of Canadian children. For five years at least his show Mr. Dressup was appointment television for little me; even when I was an older kid, if I found myself home sick from school and channel surfing, I would stop and watch what was going on in that lovely, calm world of his - even if, following the retirement of Judith Lawrence and the inevitable disappearance of Casey and Finnegan with her, there was for me an insurmountable emotional void in the show.

Although born in Maine in November 1927, Coombs moved to Canada after understudying another famous children's entertainer Fred Rogers; it's a little-known fact that Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was developed in Canada before moving to PBS. The two giants even worked together from 1964-7 on a CBC show called Butternut Square, before Rogers relocated his neighbourhood south and Coombs took on his more famous persona. In no time at all, Canada embraced Coombs as one of its own, and he officially became a citizen in 1994, which he was when he died on this day in 2001.

Many of my lifelong manias developed as a result of Mr. Dressup, including creative play, wearing stylin' outfits, a fondness for puppetry, and the desire to live in a treehouse.
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Samuel Johnson: My Word!

For anyone whose stock in trade is words - even a blogger - Samuel Johnson is a towering figure. If all he'd ever done was compile a Dictionary of the English Language he'd have earned his place in history; as it is, he was also journalist, poet, essayist, moralist, novelist, literary critic, biographer, and editor. So prolific and admired was he that his biography, James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, is either a consummate tribute to a man of enviable accomplishment or else something of an epic reacharound, depending on your point of view.

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1709, Johnson was a precocious child who rose above his humble beginnings - writing for the yellow presses of London's Grub Street - having already overcome scrofula (for the treatment of which he received the royal touch at St James's Palace by Queen Anne herself in March 1712 - unsuccessfully it turns out) and despite a lifelong battle with what has been posthumously diagnosed as Tourette syndrome.

Given that Boswell's biography of him is essentially a phone book, I doubt Blogspot has the bandwidth* to let me replicate it here; suffice it to say, Johnson was more than a man of letters - he was a celebrity, and this was back in the days before every third person was a celebrity!

Samuel Johnson's pop culture presence reached its apex when he was portrayed by Robbie Coltrane in the third series of Blackadder, in the episode entitled Ink and Incapability in September 1987.

*And I know I don't have the stamina.

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