Saturday, June 27, 2009

Death Takes No Holiday Last Week

It would seem that the whole world is now in mourning for "The Gloved One", despite the fact that Michael Jackson had been largely forsaken by the public in his latter years, reduced to a sad joke, most tragically of his own making. To give him his due, Jackson certainly was a phenomenal solo talent back in his prime years of the 1980s, but he just couldn't seem to sustain it for more than a dozen years or so. While I could admire his technical skills as a dancer, that kind of high energy pop/rock performer so typical of "The MTV Generation" never appealed to me. Remember, I'm a Sinatra guy myself, so Michael Jackson just didn't measure up. For the record, I deplore all contemporary pop music, as I've never liked the rock influence. Sorry...

So instead, here in The Cartoon Cave we're going to celebrate the other two big names of the entertainment world who left us this past week:

Farrah Fawcett is certainly the more tragic loss of the the two, by virtue of her being only 62 and having been in so much physical agony from the cancer that had wracked her body for so long. When I was a teen in the 1970s, this beauty with the big blonde mane of hair was the reigning sex symbol of the day, with her blue eyes and that million dollar smile blazing forth from the ubiquitous poster that became an iconic image of that era. As Marilyn Monroe was to the 50s and Raquel Welch was to the 60s, so Farrah Fawcett became the feminine ideal of the 70s, inspiring many a teenage girl's hairstyle while inspiring something else in we guys! It's ironic really that she made as big a splash as she did, as her greatest claim to fame as the breakout star on Charlie's Angels only lasted the first season, before Farrah decided to leave the show to try her luck in movies. It's a shame that she never did achieve the fame in film that she had strived for.

Admittedly, I was not a huge fan of Farrah, being only a casual viewer of Charlie's Angels back in its day. I found the show entertaining, but a bit too fluffy and silly for my tastes. I preferred my crime shows to be more plausible, favouring Columbo and The Rockford Files at the time. Still, the three gals were very cute and appealing, although truth be told, Jaclyn Smith was my favourite Angel, with her soft dark eyes and warm honey voice. But I certainly admired Farrah and Kate Jackson as well. Having recently revisited the show on DVD, I find their portrayals rather refreshing in retrospect, in that they're not the badass, butt kicking action girls so prevalent in movies and shows today, but are instead still allowed to be very sweet and feminine while solving the dastardly crimes. The 1970s was still a more innocent time on TV!

And not to be forgotten, we also lost Ed McMahon this past week, who was in fact a big favourite of mine. In the 70s and 80s I was an avid viewer of The Tonight Show, back when Johnny Carson was the king of television and the show itself had so much more class than in its later incarnation with Jay Leno. Big Ed was more than just a sidekick to Johnny, in my opinion. His hearty laugh and always affable manner was a very comfortable presence to be around, and I felt that he and Johnny operated more as a team than we see with any of the second bananas working on TV today.

I remember back in 1982, I was in New York City freelancing for the Disney office there. While I was in town, a friend and I got tickets to see the then very late night version of Late Night With David Letterman, which ran on NBC following The Tonight Show. I recall the audience being herded like cattle into the theatre, then having some very crass fellows come out to instruct and nearly threaten us into obeying the applause sign. Overall, I found the experience of that TV show taping rather demeaning and wasn't too impressed at all. About a year or so later, I was out visiting my friend Bryan Stoller in LA and Bryan knew somebody at NBC who was able to secure us very good seats near the front of the theatre to see The Tonight Show. In contrast to the experience at the Letterman taping, I found the taping of The Tonight Show to be very warm and friendly. I recall that Ed McMahon and Doc Severinsen came out before the show to warm up the audience before the taping was to start. They had a very inviting manner about them, putting the audience at ease with their good humour and taking a few questions from the people in the stands. When the show started up, it was just magical to hear Ed's familiar intro of "Heeeeere's Johnny!", bringing forth the king himself. I remember being so impressed with the consummate professionalism of Johnny, Ed and Doc, and their obvious respect for their live audience.

In recent years, Ed McMahon had shown unfailing loyalty and respect for his former boss, even after Johnny Carson had passed away, speaking with great affection of their years working together. At some point I'm planning to do a fuller post on the subject of Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show, but in the meantime I'd just like to pay my respects to that gentle giant, Ed McMahon.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Happy Birthday, Phil Harris!

I've written about Phil Harris before, particularly in regard to his voiceover work for Disney, most notably as Baloo the Bear in The Jungle Book. I just watched him last week on an episode of Burke's Law from 1963, which prompted me to find out when his birthday was so I could celebrate him with a new caricature. Coincidentally, his birthday was fast approaching with June 24th, so I had just enough time to draw something up. Since he was a good buddy of Dean Martin's and I just wrote up a tribute to ol' Dino, here's a fun clip of these two rascals from The Dean Martin Variety Show that will show you what Phil looked like in the mid 1960s, the way I've depicted him in the caricature:

Phil Harris was one of those larger than life personalities that used to be quite common in the showbiz of yesteryear, but sadly is rather rare today. With his broad features, distinctive warm southern drawl, and a brash, yet affable manner, Phil was a memorable character. Though never really a leading man, he had a pretty good career playing variations of himself in a fair number of films. Mostly, however, he's remembered for two things: First, his radio career, initially as one of Jack Benny's regulars, then later alongside his wife, Alice Faye, in their own radio show. And secondly he's remembered as the warm, rumbly voice of Baloo in Disney's The Jungle Book (1967), followed by roles as Thomas O'Malley the alley cat in The Aristocats (1970), and as another bear, Little John in Robin Hood (1973). These Disney voiceovers guaranteed Phil a longlasting legacy with successive generations of kids, an audience quite the opposite to the adult crowds he was more used to entertaining on the Las Vegas strip in the hotels and nightclubs of that great era of the 50s and 60s.

Though I'll always love him best as Baloo, I'm also rather impressed with his role as O'Malley in The Aristocats. Whereas Baloo was purportedly modeled on that affable oaf, Wallace Beery, the popular character actor from the silent era through the early 1940s, Phil's portrayal of O'Malley has always seemed to me much more like an alley cat version of the 50s/60s breezy Frank Sinatra! O'Malley's a middle-aged Lothario, initially looking for an uncomplicated and noncommittal romance with Duchess, the Persian cat damsel in distress that he encounters in his aimless wandering. This in itself always seemed pretty interesting and different to me, since the average Disney hero was always hellbent on love and marriage with the heroine right from the get go, with the only other exception I can recall being Tramp (who puts me in mind of Gene Kelly, by the way). Additionally, I like the fact that O'Malley is obviously a more mature male, quite a bit older than the usual teenage hero of Disney animated features. This placed him more in the company of the type of actors I always liked best, such as Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, as well as the aforementioned Sinatra. I know the critics have never liked The Aristocats, but it remains a guilty pleasure of mine, mostly due to Phil Harris's vocal performance as the rakish O'Malley.

Here's the clip of "Ev'rybody Wants to be a Cat" from The Aristocats:

And here's a neat Youtube video of Phil Harris and Scatman Crothers, reminiscing about their roles as O'Malley and (the Louis Armstrong inspired) Scat Cat:

Monday, June 15, 2009

Let's Drink To Dino!!

I've written on several occasions of my favourite singer, Frank Sinatra. More recently I did a caricature tribute to Bobby Darin. With today's subject of Dean Martin, I now complete the triumvirate of my favourite male singers. Yes, more often than not, one of these three legends is heard crooning from my stereo, as I still yearn for those wonderful years when the radio airwaves were ruled by Italian American baritones. Actually, I had hoped to write this tribute to Dean for his birthday on June 7th, but I'd been on vacation the week before and had no time to draw the caricature at that time.

I am of course a huge fan of The Rat Pack, not only for their music, but also for their breezy attitude and brash humour, so refreshing when compared to today's stifling (and in my opinion, unhealthy) "politically correct" sensitivities that seek to find offense in any off-the-cuff remark. As a cartoonist, I have no time for this latter day nonsense, and much prefer the freewheeling style of Frank, Dean and Sammy. The joke of course is that the Las Vegas routines of The Rat Pack were satirically puncturing the absurdity of ethnic intolerance, but did so through allowing Frank and Dean to behave like frat boys, getting in good-natured digs at Sam, who ultimately came off as both the sympathetic character and the most dignified, yet always somehow getting in a jab or two back at them.

It's always struck me as pretty curious how Frank and Dean ended up as best buddies, as they are actually quite different in many ways. Whereas Frank was a political animal and very passionate about causes he believed in, Dean seemed to prefer not to get too involved and often couldn't work up much passion about something one way or the other. For example, it was Frank who was solidly behind getting JFK elected President, staging fundraisers and using personal clout to sway voters (infamously among the teamsters union). In contrast, Dean was merely along for the ride, showing up to perform at fundraisers more as a favour to Frank than due to any personal political motivation. He'd likely rather have spent the time on the golf course instead, or on his couch back home watching a western on TV.

In their Rat Pack concerts in Vegas, Dean was the court jester sent out first to warm up the audience through feigned inebriation, slurred jokes and humourously altered lyrics to some of his songs. When Frank emerged later for his set, it was a much more serious presentation of his song repertoire, with just the occasional glib aside to the crowd. Dean was certainly the more gifted comic of the two, with an easy humour and perfectly timed delivery. Frank often made remarks that seemed forced and weren't really very funny (except maybe to him). It is likely because of this less than comfortable approach that Frank was not as successful as Dean in hosting a TV variety show, having briefly tried and failed at it several years before Dean went on to a highly successful run with his own Dean Martin Variety Show that lasted for years on NBC. Frank was too intense for a weekly show, whereas Dean's easygoing style made him a natural host that viewers looked forward to spending time with.

There was a trade-off however, in that Frank has to be acknowledged as the more passionate of the two when it came to their recording careers. Frank could sing all manner of songs convincingly, whether it was a swinging, breezy number like Witchcraft, or a heartbreaking ode to rejection and loneliness like One For My Baby, or the wistful It Was a Very Good Year. Though Dean was a wonderful singer, his choice of song material always seemed to remain on the light and breezy side, as I really can't recall him singing anything of great emotional depth. He could sing romantic ballads, but never with the yearning that Frank could imbue them with. His forte seemed to be odes to the swinging bachelor life, with a martini and a babe always within easy reach, my favourite being his rendition of Baby, It's Cold Outside. Interestingly, although both Frank and Dean were proud of their Italian heritage, it was only Dean who included a lot of olive oil saturated Italian ballads in his song catalog, with Frank only dabbling in that genre with his 60s hit, Domani.

I suspect Frank in many ways not only admired Dean, but was likely a little envious of those traits that he himself lacked. It also seems that Dean was alone among Frank's friends in being able to say no to him, while still remaining in his good favour. Frank counted on his cronies hanging out with him and sharing some laughs at the bar until the wee small hours of the morning. Yet Dean was able to get away with often declining the invitation, instead heading back home to bed for a good night's sleep so he could be out the next morning for an early tee off time on the green. Though Frank was one to infamously hold grudges against those who wouldn't jump through his hoops, Dean seemed to be spared his wrath and perhaps was the only guy whom Frank actually admired for his contrariness. Maybe that's also how Dean's fans respond to him as well - as a guy they admire who always marched to the beat of his own drum, critics be damned. Here's to ya' Dino!

For the ultimate Dino site, check out Dino Martin Peters' blog.

(By the way, I dedicate this post to my ol' buddy in Ottawa, Jack Tremblay, another one of Dino's biggest fans. This one's for you, pallie!)

And finally, here's a clip of Dean at his playful best. Check out the part where he's waiting for his cue to resume after the backup singers are through - just priceless!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sheridan Animation at the Bloor!

Please excuse the fact that I haven't updated the blog lately, but I was on vacation for a week back in my hometown of Ottawa. Anyway, I wanted to start back by helping to spread the word on the upcoming screening of a sampling of films from the 4th Year Sheridan grads that will be shown this Tuesday (at 7 pm) and Wednesday (at 9:30 pm) evenings at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto. This screening has been put together quite generously by my friend and Sheridan colleague, Mark Mayerson. You can read more about the show right here on Mark's blog. If you live within a reasonable proximity of the Bloor, please come down for one of the two screenings to show your support for the Sheridan grads. I'm planning on attending the Tuesday 7pm show and hope to see you there.

In the meantime, just to whet your appetite, here is a sample of the cartoon goodness just waiting for you to savour! This is one of my favourites from this year, animated by the highly skilled cartoonist, Kelly Turnbull:

The Chronicles of Turghot and Dragam from Kelly Turnbull on Vimeo.