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TCM’s History of Hollywood: Peepshow Pioneers

Handbill - GTHE GREAT TRAIN ROEBBERYPeepshow Pioneers (1889-1910), the first part of Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood, a seven-part series scheduled to premiere on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) at 8 pm (ET/PT) on Monday, Nov 1, is an exceptional piece of business history. Chronicling Hollywood by tracing its origins to the inventors, immigrants, Jews, salesmen and businessmen who were its creators, men such as Thomas Edison (who perfected a device called the Kinetoscope that made pictures move), Auguste and Louis Lumière, Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor, Marcus Loew, Carl Laemmle, William Fox, the four Warner brothers, and others during the Industrial Revolution, this 60-minute documentary, narrated by Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music), takes the viewer back 100 years and introduces the exciting new art form that would change the world.

Peepshow Pioneers covers Edwin S. Porter’s film for Mr. Edison, The Great Train Robbery (1903), one of the first films to tell a complete story, and how, in 1905, enterprising Zukor and Loew united to establish theaters to show movies, called Nickelodeons (combining the price of seeing a movie, a nickel, and the Greek term for theater). The prospective consumer was among the poor and the emergent middle class, a new phenomenon which American capitalism was creating for the first time in man’s history, not the titled, the intellectuals and the wealthy. Much like Pixar founder and Walt Disney board member Steve Jobs and Apple are revolutionizing personal technology, Mr. Edison built relationships with investors and manufacturers, including Eastman Kodak, establishing the Motion Picture Patents Company (which the government forced out of business) and demanding royalties from filmmakers. Some chose to compete with Mr. Edison, including Laemmle, who formed his own production company and created Universal Pictures.

This first installment of A History of Hollywood: Moguls and Movie Stars, written and produced by Jon Wilkman, who began his career making CBS News documentaries, working with Walter Cronkite and creating programs for HBO, NBC, and the History Channel, is appropriately reverential of, if not always sufficiently thorough about, Hollywood’s incredible history of capitalism, arts and entertainment. Using rare and never-before-seen footage, including an early film featuring gun-toting Annie Oakley and moving pictures of men departing for the Spanish-American War, and important places in filmmaking history, such as New Jersey, New York, and Pittsburgh, the writing and the pictures are astonishing. I haven’t been this excited about watching a larger-than-life story unfold on television since Alex Haley’s Roots. Among those interviewed are various film scholars, studio mogul descendants, and historians, including, in later parts, TCM host Robert Osborne.

Additionally, and underscoring the cable channel’s commitment to quality programming, TCM is currently touring a related exhibit which features unique memorabilia, including an Oscar for Casablanca, a costume worn by Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music (1965), a dress worn by Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939), a red jacket worn by Marilyn Monroe in Niagara (1953), a vest and coat worn by Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik (1921), an original bound script from Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), a signed check from MGM to John Gilbert, the highest paid star in the silent film era, a vintage camera from the silent film era and a demonstration of a zoetrope, a precursor to motion pictures. The TCM exhibit appears in Denver (Nov. 4-6, during Denver Film Festival) and San Francisco (Nov. 11-12) at the Embarcadero Center and concludes in Los Angeles (Nov. 18-20) at The Grove.

Artist Alex Dilts on Shakes and Jolly

Animation artist Alex Dilts, whom I interviewed for a retrospective piece about Walt Disney’s Bambi, recently posted some of his unused work on his blog. These visual creations are based on his idea (with his partners) for a television program, Shakespeare and Jolly. “The premise,” Dilts writes, is that “an unemployed Shakespearean actor takes a job driving an ice cream truck. With each truck comes a jolly little clown to drum up business. Polar opposites, Shakes and Jolly try to make a living under the scrutiny of their domineering boss, insane meter maids, and strange playground dwellers. Not to mention a unique racial twist.” The artwork is outstanding, from a depiction of a marvelous looking company headquarters for Happy Bros. Ice Cream to a chop suey joint next to a dilapidated movie theater. Dilts told me he hasn’t given up on creating Shakes and Jolly for the small screen. I think it’s a terrific idea.

Screen Shot: ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’

Attending a screening with radio’s sharpest movie critic, Kate Tyler, I’m surprised to say I enjoyed Sony’s animated picture, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, based on a children’s story that Kate tells me she used to read to her kids.

Cloudy‘s not a great movie, yet it offers relatively innocuous family fare. Flint (Bill Hader), a creative child striving to become an inventor for the wrong reasons (pleasing others and being of service to the community) discovers as a young adult that one of his wild creations actually works and all hell breaks loose. It’s a visually fast-paced affair with the usual three dimensional (3D) tricks (no big deal) in an involving father-son story with a villain that echoes today’s authoritarian White House. Add an excellent subplot about a romantic interest (Anna Faris) whom Flint encourages to stop hiding her intelligence and a policeman (Mr. T in a fun vocal performance) that loves his work almost as much as he loves his son, who adopts a Tea Party attitude of personal responsibility and fuels the movie’s most exciting scene, and, despite an absurdist streak, you get a decent candidate for an afternoon matinee. Listen for a swipe at the Bush administration’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and other digs at Big Government in a generally entertaining slice of life.

Is Marvel Comics Deal the End of Walt’s Disney?

Disney Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Robert Iger, briefly profiled in Newsweek in this gushing piece, announced yesterday that the Walt Disney Studios is acquiring the lucrative new Hollywood mini-studio Marvel Comics (Spider-Man, Iron Man, X-Men) for $ 4 billion. Marvel’s a solid player with potential and Disney is one of the best studios and both have their own relatively consistent brands.

What does one add to the other in creative terms? Disney’s driving philosophy had been, until recently, an American, which is to say benign, sense of life expressed with positive characters in story-driven material, whether in a theme park (Disneyland or Disney’s California Adventure) or in a movie. Marvel’s brand of comic book characters is rooted in marginally heroic, or at least not completely anti-heroic, cartoon figures (The Incredible Hulk) with broad appeal. Both derive success from plots that seem to attract general audiences.

Unlike Pixar Animation Studios, which Disney also acquired under Mr. Iger, Marvel’s catalog does not possess a quality that can easily or identifiably be assimilated into Disney’s wholesome, family entertainment. Sure, the Marvel pictures are noticeably less cynical than the competition, but that’s not saying much. This move further dilutes the Disney brand and may make the studio more relevant in the short term at the expense of being markedly less original in the long term. It has been 15 years since The Lion King, 20 years since The Little Mermaid, and 65 years since Disney released the classic Dumbo in movie theaters. I doubt that the un-Disneylike Enchanted, Pixar’s middling Up, or anything with Hannah Montana will be remembered with as much affection. While Marvel makes good popcorn movies, their stories hardly express childlike wonder, adventure, and innocence, something Disney used to imagine and reimagine in timeless tales. Besides, with politically correct Disney’s ban on smoking in movies, it’s hard to imagine Iron Man’s alter ego, Tony Stark, lighting up the occasional cigar, which raises the question of whether this hyped deal may end up as a lose-lose proposition that signals the end of the legendary Walt’s creative influence in an age of dying Americanism.

Screen Shots: Wolverine, Ghosts of Girlfriends, Disney Shorts

The thoroughly confusing, cheesy and contradictory tentpole picture, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, has some entertaining moments and its less-than-spectacular execution is the fault of neither of its leading men, Academy Awards host Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber (The Painted Veil). Blending story aspects of The Incredible Hulk, The Bourne Identity, Rambo—even Shooter—the contradictions mount as Jackman’s superwolf comics character is explained from 1845 to present day: his blades spring to attention without the requisite trigger of his anger and he ages despite being immortal—then he inexplicably stops aging sometime around the U.S. Civil War. Wolverine, battling evil, doesn’t have much of a personality, let alone a sense of purpose, despite having over a hundred years to acquire one. The origins of his wolf-like powers are not exactly demystified, either. Since we already know where his story leads, this poorly scripted, fraternally themed soap opera—complete with a bout of amnesia—lacks tension and excitement.

On the other hand, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is a nicely rendered romantic comedy with a clever, if decidedly inadequate, screenplay. With a semi-serious plot based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Matthew McConaughey is cast as the cad with a lesson to learn, with aid from scene-stealing Michael Douglas as his dearly departed uncle. The well-paced story moves to an impending wedding, where the fashion photographer player must face the consequences of his callous, one-night stands. Of course, it isn’t pretty—and, thankfully, it isn’t toilet-joked to death—and some of it’s funny and thoughtful. Unfortunately, they forgot to develop the female lead character (Jennifer Garner). Because she has no life—she comes off as a spinster with nothing better to do than rescue weddings—their relationship has zero emotional impact and there is no convincing evidence that the playboy chooses to change. Still, it beats watching Wolverine.

I dropped in on the 10th annual Newport Beach Film Festival, where event chief Gregg Schwenk introduced a showcase of rare Walt Disney Studios shorts. The evening was hosted by Disney’s Don Hahn and David Bossert, who provided brief (and, sometimes, cutting) remarks before each animated short. The films were screened at the coastal city’s beautiful Art Deco Lido Theater.

I strongly prefer early Disney shorts, such as the 1942 war propaganda film, “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Firing Line,” featuring Pluto and Minnie Mouse, a delightfully entertaining depiction of how to store fat to fight the Nazis (lard contains glycerin, which was used for explosives) which extols then-President Franklin Roosevelt’s so-called Four Freedoms. The Burbank studio’s influential 1932 film, “Flowers and Trees,” the first color animated picture ever produced, is also excellent. Fast forward 50 years to Tim Burton’s nihilistic 1982 picture, “Vincent,” more than a bit dark for a family event, and the brilliantly computer animated 2008 short, “Glago’s Guest,” which portrays a Communist soldier as a kind, friendly fellow.

Depicting a brute for history’s bloodiest dictatorship as a harmless chap is offensive, but the worst film was a frantic 1982 nightmare called “Fun with Mr. Future,” a snide slice of environmentalism that deliberately desecrates the Sherman brothers’ classic tune for Disneyland’s defunct Carousel of Progress—”There’s a Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow,” a wonderful song composed for that General Electric-sponsored Tomorrowland attraction, which celebrated Thomas Edison’s invention, electricity. The joyless “Fun with Mr. Future” attacks electricity, and watching that travesty is enough to make you want to turn on all the lights. The program ended on an ‘up’ note, with a sneak preview of Disney/Pixar’s soon-to-be-released Up, a colorful, adventure-themed movie that reminds everyone that Walt’s creative successor in animation is, except for the post-apocalyptic WALL-E, more Pixar than Disney. Up looks like a cinematic refreshment for family and friends—perfect for America’s first summer of Obama … and economic discontent.