Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Elvis Presley Remembered - An account by Robert Steven Mack of a recent visit to Graceland and how I learned about Elvis' life, career, and taste

Elvis Presley was unique: He led a unique life, had a unique career, and a unique taste for food and a way of life. Quite unique, particularly for a man of his impressive superstar status and wealth. Just have a look at Graceland, his "oddly" decorated and beloved estate; his Delta airliner converted to a home on wings with all the niceties; most importantly, I urge you to taste his favorite dishes. Simple but delicious! Try his mouth-watering banana pudding recipe, the appetizing morning dish of bacon and eggs, the simple but plentiful dish consisting of meat loaf and fried potatoes for TV dinners and such. Then there is, of course, my now absolute favorite that I tried while at Graceland: the grilled banana-and-peanut butter sandwich - to be eaten in total delight and relaxed satisfaction. Grilled peanut-and-banana sandwich is a must-eat when visiting Graceland!

Yes, Elvis was a unique guy. There have been thousands of fan clubs around the world, and yet he maintained a simple albeit plentiful life. He was celebrated as the all-American guy and starred in more than thirty movies made during the 1950's and '60's. Most of them were phenomenal box office successes. Yet, this all-American boy was keeping to his southern roots. Born in 1935, Elvis' grew up in a neighborhood surrounded by poverty and blues, disdained and rejected from a society not yet ready to accept them as a part of their culture. Elvis learned to appreciate the simple things in life. This is what he liked, what he wanted, and what he got. Sitting on the porch of some coloured neighbor on a frosty morning, listening to the sad on-goings of rhythm and blues coming from some poor tattered old banjo telling his story of despair over and over again and to the world. Yet, no one in the world was listening. Only this neighborhood was listening. Young Elvis loved going to the movies for ten cents and and a bag of popcorn, adding relentless longing to the experience. Just like anybody, Elvis had his silver screen heroes. And just like almost everybody, Elvis' heroes were Marlon Brando and James Dean.

Elvis was no more than 18 years old when the boy who became superstar Elvis Presley walked into a recording joint, "Sun Records" to record a record for his mother, Gladys. At first he failed. People told him he could not sing and would be a truck driver forever. Elvis did not give up and was finally signed with RCA Records and came to the curious attention of the public in incomprehensible fashion. His first hit was "Heartbreak Hotel." The year was 1956 - The year was Elvis'. After being propelled by "controversial" performances on The Steve Allen Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, Elvis put his name into to a different medium, Hollywood movies.
Whether on film, radio, or television Elvis ignited energy and fires,as well the imagination in powerful waves of inspiration.

Recently on a trip my parents and I made, while stopping at Memphis, Tennessee, my mother's omniscient knowledge, love, and devotion to the factors of his life and career made us give a few hours to visit Graceland, an estate of beauty and imagination. Graceland was once the favorite home of Elvis A. Presley. My visit to Graceland made it clear that all Elvis ever wanted to get out of life was happiness and to full fill his American Dream. Through all his countless live performances and movies, all the same nature, Elvis was a first-rate entertainer and always inventing a new way to entertain his audiences in a way pleasing and worth while for them.

Hard to believe, but there was a time before that stop at Graceland two weeks ago when I did not know as much about the Elvis phenomenon. As a knowledgeable historian of film, television, and its artists, I of course knew and read about Elvis. His dramatic endeavour in "Love Me Tender," his first film and the routine musical-comedies he did such as "Viva Las Vegas," "Fun in Acapulco," and nameless others. But did I know Elvis? No. Do you know Elvis? Probably not, unless you've been to Graceland at Memphis Tennessee. You do not go immediately to Graceland. After buying the pricey tickets -and wondering if this really worth all that money- my mother and I proceeded to the shuttle and pressed #1 on our audio tour guide. But not before getting my picture taken with "Elvis." I must say though, Elvis very nice about the ordeal. He was. He didn't one bit seem to mind me taking a picture with him to be magnetized on our refrigerator door for all our visitors to admire. In fact, I don't even think he knew:) It was a short shuttle drive to Graceland - where, I dare say, the spirit of Elvis dwells, though the background music on the audio tour guide helped me to get into the mood.

From the outside, Graceland doesn't look too extraordinary even to the point where you might secretly ask yourself: "So what's the big deal?" Still, after gazing at the mansion for a few seconds you begin to feel its strange presence; you have no idea what to expect. You go through the doors and press play. In the entrance hall you think to yourself and say "So this is how Elvis spent his days"...all the while listening to Elvis' music, fun facts, and trivia on your audio tour guide. The dining room is elegantly decorated with fine dishes and glasses of fine quality, the living room across the hall has a relaxed, "no sweat" sort of feel to it. It can only be the perfect place to kick off your shoes and read a good book. The kitchen is slick and modern-looking in 70's style, complete with a TV-set placed on the counter and an old oven situated heavenly in the other corner. You can only wonder if it was this clean when Elvis was still alive?

Descending into the basement, you'll see the billiards room and the pool room with the walls furnished entirely in cloth. After you tour the rest of the mansion, you'll enter the grounds and eventually come to an exhibit going through the history of Elvis' success story. When you have completed the tour, you will likely come upon Elvis' grave site where the remains of Elvis lie in harmony and peace - yet not complete privacy. Your next stop will be either to one of the shops or the automobile museum, a showcasing of Elvis' unique collection of automobiles...including his famous pink Cadillac. Feel free to stop by one of the restaurants there and get a promising lunch in '50s fast food style. You can also tour the two planes that once belonged to Elvis.

Elvis is unique. But for me, it took that trip to Graceland to bring me into the Elvis mode.

Copyright 2011 by Robert Steven Mack (all rights reserved!)


Friday, August 12, 2011

Robert Steven Mack talks about Muppet history - by Robert Steven Mack

I have long been an avid Muppet fan. A collector of the original tv show "The Muppet Show," a viewer familiar with all six Muppet theatrical films and eagerly awaiting the release of the new film in November, I was rather casually introduced to "The Muppet Show" at the Paley Center for Media some time ago. Therefore, upon reading of follow-up shows such as "Muppets Tonight" and "The Jim Henson Hour," it seems only fitting that I be introduted to "The Jim Henson Hour" at the place where I have seen so many other rarities; The Paley Center for Media!

The show is divided into two parts, each intorduced by Jim Henson Walt Disney did it with his show. The first show featured Kermit, still in television and now a producer of MuppetTelevision and having to deal with soggy attemps at announcing soap operas, cop shows, sci-fiction...and more. He has to deal with issues such as unsteady ratings and an abundance of new weirdos. These weirdos -including a small cameo from Gonzo at the start of the program - working for Kermit have a more modern flair to them as the show was produced in the late 80's, including computer generated imagery. Kermit has a new life now and seems annoyed when one of his personal fans of the original Muppet Show continuously raves about the glory days. He finally stops when mentioning Miss Piggy who allegelly broke up with Kermit to pursue a Hollywood career. Though missing the orginal characters, a laugh track, and the old Muppet flair, it was suitable and at times quite enjoyable.

The second half of the show featured Miss Piggy along with Fozzie and Gonzo tagging along and giving a befuddled tour of Hollywood. With a cameo by Bob Hope, Arnold Schwarzenegger and others, it is pure please and delight to see so many of the characters from the old show doing their thing in original Muppet comedy fashion and a bubbling new plot to go along with it. I thoroughly enjoyed the one-hour follow-up to Henson's previous projects. Unfortunately they are not on Dvd.

I must say that my visit to the Paley was really worth it!


Copyright 2011 by Robert Steven Mack (All rights reserved!)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Shaggy D.A. - A Disney film review by Robert Steven Mack

Dean Jones would make his penultimate Disney film in 1976; his last would be "Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo." For 18 years, the Disney "gimmick" comedies had kept audiences entertained with light humour and brilliantly wacky situations that could only happen in a Disney movie! Alas, the world was changing, and Disney would have to change with it. "The Shaggy D. A." would signify that change. Throughout this fabulously funny film you can catch subtly distinct tributes and homages by recycling material from the former glory of Disney and its Hollywood vicinity. It would start with "The Shaggy Dog," produced in the prime of Disney innocence and storytelling; a time when the late Mr. Disney himself was still alive. It is therefore only fitting that it would end the same way.

Seventeen years after "The Shaggy Dog" hit the theaters out grossing even William Wyler's "Ben Hur," the story of the shaggy dog was expanded with "The Shaggy D. A." Continuing Disney's tradition of all-star casting, we have such glittery comedic talents as Dean Jones, Tim Conway, Suzanne Pleshette, Keenan Wynn, Jo Ann Worley, Dick Van Patten and John Fielder, as well as Shane Sinutko, Vic Tayback, and Pat McCormick. It was written by Don Tait. Wilby Daniels (Dean Jones) is all grown up and has taken on such responsibilities as family and law. However, then the mythical Borgia ring, that's responsible for turning Wilby into a dog in the past, has been stolen. And with the notorious inscription being read aloud, Wilby gets a strong case of deja-vous as he once again begins to turn into a dog. A riotous comic funfest with the contagious antics of Tim Conway and Jo Ann Worley, and not to forget Suzanne Pleshette and Mr. Van Patten alone make this film worth the ninety minutes. This is topped off by Disney's classic villain and leading man (Wynn and Jones) up against each other for the second and final time.

The film itself is the last big dive for "gimmick comedies" and a farewell to the days when Disney Studios, now an established money-maker, was young. The film includes the recycled idea of a group of death-row dogs digging their way out of their uncomfortable confinement. That particular scene has a darker more heavy mood than the rest of the film. Comic relief is offered only by dogs voices resembling that of Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, James Cagney and other stars of a gone era. It is ultimately a homage and tribute to the good old times; a quick last glimpse into the time of Hollywood's youth. Also, the ending resembles that of "That Darn Cat" (1965-also with Dean Jones, as we see the Wilby family wave good-bye to the ice-cream man and his new bride (Tim Conway and Jo Ann Worley)...walking into the sun-set with a trail of dogs behind them to leave a new legacy behind.

Aided by his henchman (Mr. Van Patten) Keenen Wynn plays John Slade (a role similar to that of his famed Alonzo Hawk), a corrupt District Attorney Wilby runs against in the reelection. By the way, it all plays out in the familiar town of Medfield, the land of Professor Brainard, the land of Kurt Russel's college films of the sixties and seventies. (see my preceding blogs) Robert Stevenson, who had helmed some of Disney's most popular and enduring classics - "Mary Poppins," "Bedknobs and Broomsticks," "The Love Bug," "That Darn Cat," "Old Yeller," "The Absent-minded Professor etc. - since 1957's "Johnny Tremain," would make his farewell with this film further signifying the end of an era.

Still, this would not be the last "gimmick comedy" Disney would release. Films such as "Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo" (1977), "The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again"(1979), "The Cat from Outer Space" (1978), "Gus" (1976), "Herbie Goes Bananas"(1980), and perhaps a few others (mostly sequels) were produced, yet usually without much success. "Herbie Goes Bananas" tries in vain to be like the films of its reputable past; alas without paying attention to what time had produced nor heeding to time itself...

Anyways, Tim Conway is hilarious, Shane Sinutlki is multifarious, while Dean Jones is multigarious! Whereas it is hard to believe that Wilby Daniels was once that mixed-up teenager from the fifties, this film is a must-see for anyone who appreciates good old Disney comedy!

"Gus" will be next!

Cheers, "R"

Copyright 2011 by Robert Steven Mack (all rights reserved!)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Ian Fleming's "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," The Magical Car - a book review by Robert Steven Mack

It seems to me that Ian Fleming had a knack for writing books that would eventually be turned into movies. And it seems that all the films adapted from his books, whether they are the James Bond series or other, have not been quite close to the premise of the actual novel.

Does it not appear rather odd that a notorious writer of spy thrillers would write a children's book like "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?" On the contrary, it simply proves that Ian Fleming was a talented and versatile writer of a wide range of genres. "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" would be published in 1964, shortly after Fleming's death. I acquired a copy of the book at a library sale a few weeks ago and was very pleased with my find. I read the majority of the book by the pool on a hot summer day in Palm Springs last week - sizzling like a sausage in a frying pan. It surprised me that a man who had authored the great harrowing adventures of the world's most glamorous super-spy could write a such wonderfully entertaining novel for children.

The plot of the novel differs immensely from the 1968 musical film "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" starring Dick Van Dyke, Sally Ann Howles, Lionel Jefferies, and Gert Froebe - who ironically also battled Sean Connery alias James Bond in Ian Fleming's "Goldfinger" in 1964 as the title character. The book is about an eccentric inventor who acquires a beat up old car and fixes it up to be a magical car that floats, flies and can drive by itself. He and his adventurous family, consisting of Mimsie, Jeremy and Jemima, travel to France where they encounter crooks and gangsters who kidnap the two children in order to use them to rob a famous candy store. In the film, by contrast, instead of battling crooks and gangsters, they are set up against pirates in far-off fairy tale lands. Also, in the musical there is no Mimsie (the mother) and the father is widowed. Along with a number of other significant differences, this book is sheer and original delight. Whether you watched the film first and read the book later or visa versa, the experience is the same. With the fun playfulness of a Ronald Dahl and like the witty wackiness of Lewis Carrol, this book is vivid, smart, yet humorously adventurous. In short, it is sure to be a great playmate for the young as well as the old.

In conclusion, I must mention that near the end of this delightful tale you will find Ian Fleming's top secret recipe, "Monsieur Bon-Bon Fooj" for a simply delicious fudge that's easy to bake and heaven to eat. This book -and the recipe inside- is a scrumptious delight, and I truly do recommend it to be enjoyed over and over again.

Bon appetit, "R"

Copyright 2011 by Robert Steven Mack (all rights reserved!)

Friday, August 5, 2011

Monkeys, Go Home! - A Disney film review by Robert Steven Mack

Many of us know Dean Jones to be Jim Douglas in the "Love Bug" movies, or the highly allergic F.B.I agent from "That Darn Cat." When I find an actor like Dean Jones who is known for one thing but did so much more, I often wonder what else that actor did; which is why I was very excited to see "Monkeys, Go Home!"

"Monkeys Go, Home!" takes places in a small, somewhat quaint little French town where gossip and politics rule, and the "No Visitors allowed" unwelcoming committee -figuratively speaking - ensures peace and tranquility. American Hank Dussard (Dean Jones) is unhappingstancily the target of the latter when he moves to the town after he inherits an olive farm. Hank, after learning the specified requirements for the olive pickers he needs, brings to that town four female chimpanzees whose fingers are ideal for the task Hank has assigned for them: to pick olives. This angers the citizens and also causes numerous scandals, uproars, and misadventures while Hank tries to gain the confidence of the town's people with the aid of the wise Father Sylvain and the attractive neighbor down the street, Maria.

Both, the plot and the title sound arguably rather cliche-like like your typical Disney animal movie. However, I am sure that many of you are openly familiar with the saying " Don't judge a book by its cover," or its title or the plot summary given on the back in this case. The film itself turned out to be one of the wittiest, smartest, most politically and socially challenging and provocatively intriguing examples of cinema I have ever encountered! Starring Maurice Chevalier in his final film role, Dean Jones, and Yvette Mimieux and directed by Andrew McLagen -who by the way is not a Disney/family movie regular - this film lax producing content that takes itself a little too seriously which in turn makes up much of the films realistic and surrealistic humour, is a must see. This movie brings up such subjects like: labor laws, communism vs. capitalism, the Cold War, and a newcomer trying to make his way into an ignorant and unwelcoming closed-up society. For the younger children who watch this film, I do not doubt that the main focus will be the monkeys whose mischievous antics are cute as well as befuzzeling and just enough to keep the movie wrapped in good clean spirits for the inner layer of a black comedy filled with social criticism. The film represents weird and refreshing while strangely intriguing mix of Disney animal cuteness, light romantic humour, and the aforementioned social commentary of the Sixties.

Though perhaps not a real classic due to the plot material being a product much of that time, this film is funny, cute, smart, and witty. It is a true Disney classic!

Copyright 2011 by Robert Steven Mack (all rights reserved!)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

"The Shaggy Dog" - a Disney film review by Robert Steven Mack

In the prime of the colourful twentieth century, Disney entertained us with films of adventure, romance, and laughter. Movies so famous and talked about such as "Bambi" or "Pinocchio;" dramatic tales of adventure and peril in films such as "Treasure Island,"The Swiss Family Robinson," and "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea." Then there were the moving tales of love and loyalty in heartfelt films including "Old Yeller" and many other films that do nothing to tarnish the Disney reputation. The late fifties, however, brought about a new type of movie magic for Disney that fellow merry men could play with. Something that they had not exactly toyed with before. A little something that included riotus and off-beat situations, as well as wacky outcomes that only - and I repeat only - Disney could come up with!

An era dawned. An era that we all grew up with or that our fathers grew up with and that our father's father had gratifyingly been able to see. It was the era of happy families and friends going to their local theater to see the 2 o'clock double-bill martinee. Perhaps to catch a Merlin Jones movie with Tommy Kirk or a Herbie comedy starring Dean Jones. It was an era that would sadly end approximately twenty years after it had come. And this great era of fun-filled Disney comedies dawned on the very day that the film "The Shaggy Dog" was released.

"The Shaggy Dog," loosely based on the classic tale of love and sorcery "The Hound of Florence" by Felix Salton is a Disney comedy film starring an abundance of Disney regulars, including: Fred MacMurray ("Double Indemnity," "The Apartment," "The Absent-Minded Professor"), Dean Hagen ("Singing in the Rain," "Adam's Rib"), Tommy Kirk ("Old Yeller," "Swiss Family Robinson," "Son of Flubber," Merlin Jones movies), Roberta Shore, and Cecil Halloway. The film is about teenaged Wilby Daniels who by accidental possession of a mystified old ring is turned into a dog by means of ancient sorcery and only be returned to his rightful place as a human by an act of true bravery. Bravery is which he attempts to do when he discovers a spy ring headquartered across the street. Brisk and superb performances are given by Fred MacMurray, Annette Funicello, Roberta Shore, Cecil Halloway, Tommy Kirk, Kevin Corcoran, and Tim Considine. While all these actors deliver performances that make the movie strong and extremely enjoyable to watch, I believe it is the latter three that drive the show. As an avid fan of Tommy Kirk, I can safely assert that his performance as the terribly misplaced Wilby Daniels is clean and full of depth as well as understanding of the character portrayed. This is also the very reason why he is underestimated by many viewers. Figuratively speaking, Kevin Corcoran sits at the steering wheel with Fred MacMurray hanging on from the back of the car, while Tommy Kirk is locked up in the trunk and Jean Hagen is making the boys salami sandwiches... And Tim Considine's performance as the conniving and conceited best friend of Wilby - is a riot to watch and almost steals the show. Of course, the shaggy dog's many tricks and abilities used in the film was quite impressive and sure to amuse the viewer. In sum, the film is brimming with one wacky situation after another and is clearly a genuine Disney-style movie.

As Kevin Corcoran stated on the commentary to the DVD, the film's jarring complexity is submerged in a film filled with wacky humor and the pace and tone of a wacky 50's comedy. It is a distinct mixture of Disney comedy, spy thriller, fantasy, teen love stories and suburban comedy humor by the film's adult that leads to a far more complex farce, mixed with 50's cultural change and a Cold War signature. In this way, it is a film of its time. Still, one thing will always remain the same: the timeless Disney movie magic that has something for everyone.

"The Shaggy Dog" set the stardard for the comedies yet to come. Many would go unnoticed to the modern day public eye. Others, like "The Absent-Minded Professor," "That Darn Cat," "The Love Bug" to name a few would go on to become true classics. "Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo" (1977) is perhaps the last of these great films to successfully carry on the standard of these comedies while staying in the now out-dated innocence and craftsmanship of the orginal classics. Naturally, with the growing effects of time and cultural norms, this special genre is now "extinct." Luckily, we have the films safe and sound in homes across the world and vaults across the Disney empire. I would encourage Disney to release rarities not yet released on home video to be seen and enjoyed by the public eye - although they can keep some things secret.

"The Shaggy Dog" (1959) was followed years later by "The Shaggy D.A." (1976) starring Dean Jones, Suzanne Plecette, Tim comway, and Keenan Wynn and will be the next Disney film - after "Monkeys Go Home! - that I shall review.

Copyright 2011 by Robert Steven Mack (all rights reserved!)

"Son of Flubber - A Disney movie review by Robert Steven Mack

People are usually skeptical about seeing sequels. A sequel is a continuation or an add-on to a product of media. A sequel furthermore can and often does determine the fate of the lives and well-being of the characters and settings. If the sequel is bad then the future of the entire series maybe no more. Moreover, fans of the first film or book have their own ideas of what the sequel should be like and therefore tend to be overly critical, myself included. In 1963, two years after the hit comedy film "The Absent-Minded Professor" was released, Disney came out with its first sequel. It is one to be seen!

It is not just because the film came out on January 16 (my birthday!) that I like this film, but it adds and it subtracts, and it explores and it continues! The first film ended well, yet was open-ended with respect to the following: What happens as the professor and his new wife Betsy as they adjust to married life; can she take it? What happens to our jealous conniving friend Shelby; will he return? And: What happens to Alonzo Hawk and his son? In fact, much of the first 3/4 of the film deals with Professor Ned Brainard's personal life that is wounded up with jealous wives, ex-girlfriends, and dear old Shelby, the conniving lunatic that's still out to get Betsy. The rest of the film focuses on Ned once again trying to save the financially insecure Medfield College from the greedy clutches of Alonzo Hawk by using a substance he calls "Flubber Gas." While the latter named quarter is a real sequel and the first three quarters I talked about are a continuation, it fits in quite nicely and is definitely a worthy sequel!

The film has a good star-studded cast which I believe owes itself to the success and attention given to its predecessor. And I also might note that one of my all-time favorites, Tommy Kirk, who plays Alonzo Hawk's son Biff, is a good guy in this film and turns out to be a big help to Professor Brainard and his cause. The cast itself includes those returning to the nutty world of Professor Brainard's "Flubber." Those who were invited in to this fun-filled bounce party includes Fred MacMurray, Nancy Olsoen, Keenen Wynn,, Bob Sweeny, Paul Lynde, Ed Wynn, Tommy Kirk, Charlie Ruggles, Elliot Reid, and Edward Andrews. It is interesting to note that Medfiled College is also the setting of the Disney film "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes" (1969), "Now You See Him Now You Don't" (1972), and "The Strongest Man in the World" (1975) - all starring Kurt Russell in a series of college films. And that Keenen Wynn's character Alonzo Hawk that also appears in the films "The Absent-Minded Professor" and "Herbie Rides Again."

A stormy worthwhile sequel with plenty of bounce to celebrate for generations to come - and it's not just because the 50th anniversary of this comedy film will also be my 14th birthday...

Cheers, "R"

Copyright 2011 by Robert Steven Mack (all rights reserved!)