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Killer Subs in Pearl Harbor

December 29th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

Did a Japanese mini-sub launch a torpedo which struck a battleship during the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941? That is the premise of a new episode of NOVA, the prestigious science program on PBS. Long associated with astronomy and the exploration of space, NOVA has surged into the crossover disciplines that bring science and history together to solve mysteries of the past. The subject here is a most intriguing one and the program, premiering on January 5—a scant month after the 68th anniversary of “a date which will live in infamy”—is sure to incite debate among historians, scientists and Pearl Harbor survivors.

NOVA takes a few known facts about the attack and extrapolates them with an in-depth, self-funded study. The so-called midget subs, 80-foot, two-man, electric-drive submersibles, had more in common with the “I” class subs of the Imperial Navy at the time than did other countries’ small submersibles with their own underwater fleets. The principal factor that separated these subs from their full-size counterparts was their design for a single combat operation; part of the growing Japanese “suicide” threat.

The program, well-produced with archival film—including some in color—clear underwater footage and sophisticated graphics, begins with the well-known existence of the five midgets which were launched from “I” class subs on the night of December 6–7. They account for four of them, those known to be recovered or destroyed in the action on Dec. 7. The facts discussed in these cases agree with accepted historical knowledge; none of those four fired torpedoes at U.S. ships.

One of the most fascinating things about the program is the inclusion of Japanese as well as American scholars. (Japanese TV network NHK contributed to the production.) One of the two remaining intact Pearl Harbor midget subs, displayed outside the Japanese Naval Academy, is used to point out features of the craft. Admiral Kazuo Uyeda (Ret.), the senior surviving officer from the Type “A” sub program, goes along on NOVA’s undersea journey to explore war wreckage outside the mouth of Pearl Harbor. Skeptical at first, Uyeda weighs the evidence gathered and concludes, “…this was the special submarine that was used in Pearl Harbor.”

Throughout the investigation scientific and historical principals are seriously interwoven to draw conclusions. The program even makes a good case for the disappearance of the sub in the West Loch, where it is hypothesized to have been blown up by its crew, then dumped at sea in its present location along with wreckage from the accidental destruction of LST-353 in the West Loch on May 21, 1944. If the program’s premise that this sub actually entered the harbor is convincing, it is less so in supposing one or both of its torpedoes were actually fired at Battleship Row.

Again using scientific and historic evidence, the program examines the claim. A famous Japanese photograph of the attack is examined by two experts who claim torpedo tracks and other water motions can be attributed to the sub firing. This is an interpretation open to debate, according to Chuck Haberlein, Head, Photographic Section, Naval History & Heritage Command. He describes the circumstances of the first encounter with the image by U.S. Navy personnel on September 21, 1942. “It was released for publication by the Japanese Navy Ministry (as an inscription in Japanese in the lower right of the photo states) along with several other photographs of the Pearl Harbor attack (none showing, or subsequently interpreted as showing, any sign of Japanese midget submarines).”

One of the two torpedoes missing from the wreckage of this fifth sub is concluded to have been a dud. Two NPS divers cleared to explore the hull of USS Arizona report to the NOVA team no evidence of a strike on BB-39. According to the photo interpreters, that would leave only USS Oklahoma or USS West Virginia in range. Stuart Hedley is a survivor of the December 7 attack on USS West Virginia. “In the narrow space the sub had to operate it would surely have been affected by the explosion because underwater explosions are more devastating. I could not verify if we got hit by a midget sub torpedo or only torpedoes from the air, but USS West Virginia was hit by nine torpedoes. In my (post-war) talk (as part of the Naval Intelligence section) with (Captain Mitsuo) Fuchida (Japanese first wave flight leader on December 7,) he never expressed any knowledge of a submarine hit on one of the targets. They knew we had an armor belt below the waterline and they added an additional warhead to the air torpedoes for this reason.”

Whether or not the program is conclusive in proving all or any its theories scientifically or historically is open to individual interpretation. One hopes that Adm. Uyeda, who carried symbolic sand from the wreck back to a ceremony in Japan, is convinced of the sub crew’s demise in the small underwater tomb the wreckage provides. In any case the program is a fascinating, entertaining and sometimes solemn and haunting tribute to an event of history that will always be with us.

A Christmas Carol

December 22nd, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

One of my most anticipated experiences as a kid was the idea of someday going to Disneyland. Any child who knew about the unique theme park in its first decade of existence dreamed this dream. There was nothing like it at that time. In 1965 I finally got the chance and savored all the splendor, exploring Adventureland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland and the rest of a place that was truly magical. But even after that initiation, I had to go back for more, and continued to do so for many years.

So what does this have to do with A Christmas Carol? The Haunted Mansion, one of Disneyland Park’s most popular attractions, might seem hokey to contemporary high-tech snobs but the ghost effects were pretty cool in the day. I have to believe that Robert Zemeckis, director of Disney’s A Christmas Carol and other cutting edge visual effects films, also enjoyed the Haunted Mansion and its ghosts on more than one occasion. It seems he pays homage to the venerable Disneyland ride in Disney’s A Christmas Carol.

Before I describe a little about the experience—one has to see it as such—of this new film version of Charles Dickens’ Victorian-era classic, it is first important to point out that A Christmas Carol is one of literature’s most interpreted stories in television and cinema. From straightforward plots set in time and place to satires and character studies that touch on the timeless morality themes of the tale, there is A Christmas Carol for every taste. What is the best rendition of the story? Different people will find a certain version more memorable than others. Hopefully readers will respond with a holiday cornucopia of opinions to this blog.

There is quite a history of films to choose from. The first was a 1910 Edison Company short, A Christmas Carol. Other filmmakers took a shot at the story over the years, including MGM in 1938, using contract players such as Leo G. Carroll and Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge. These black and white versions capture the dreariness of the world Scrooge creates for himself but in the hands of talented directors of photography they also bring out the shining faces and places of Christmas joy. I rather like the idea of sitting around with the family on a snowy holiday watching old Christmas movies on TV.

Many people point to Alistair Sim, Scrooge in the 1951 British production A Christmas Carol, as the best performance of the man in a most faithful rendition of the novella. Two other British films, one made in 1935, one in 1970 and both named Scrooge, tell Dickens’ tale as well. In the 1970 production Alec Guinness is a frightening Jacob Marley but Albert Finney hams up Scrooge a bit too much—a sign of things to come in some more contemporary productions. A more convincing Scrooge is played by George C. Scott in the 1984 TV movie A Christmas Carol, also shot in England.

Ebenezer Scrooge is a juicy character that many actors have wanted to play and the story of redemption never dates. So it’s understandable that other well established Hollywood types have wanted to take on the project. Welcome to a world where characters play characters, sometimes in a play within a play. What? How about Mickey Mouse (as Bob Cratchit) in Disney’s first version of the classic? Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983) with Donald Duck and others in Mickey’s group of animated friends voiced by their long-time real life companions was nominated for a best animated short Oscar.

Other television characters have taken on the story as well. Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Carol (1979) featured Mel Blanc as Bugs (the Ghost), Yosemite Sam (Scrooge), and Porky Pig (Cratchit). Two familiar animated characters played the role of Scrooge in community theater productions within their cartoon worlds. Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962) features musical numbers and Jim Backus, as a redeemed Scrooge, sings about gold coins, “Give then away and nobody can rob you.” A Flintstone Christmas Carol (1994) reveals Fred, the Bedrock theater Scrooge, taking on the miser’s persona at home. In The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) Michael Caine is a wonderful Scrooge surrounded by Miss Piggy, Kermit and the rest of the Muppet gang. It’s a favorite rendition of the story for many people.

And the films just keep coming. On the fringe is a recent internet production, A Clown Carol: The Marley Murder Mystery (2007). The unfinished work introduces a clown ensemble acting the traditional roles in a Dickens meets Cirque du Soleil affair. Apparently the producer turned into Scrooge and wouldn’t open his purse to finish the production.

In Disney’s A Christmas Carol it would be hard to find anyone who doesn’t believe Jim Carrey is a brilliant Scrooge. Unfortunately, despite the vocal, facial and body nuances of Carrey, Gary Oldman and others, the motion capture animation still lacks the heart of a performance for me. The 3-D experience offers the opportunity for all sorts of sight gags and flying about. But as with Disneyland rides, audiences are treated to a lot of motion, color and sound from mechanically animated characters who lack soul in their eyes. Disney’s A Christmas Carol is a film that’s sure to be a hit without hitting on all cylinders.

My personal favorite interpretation of A Christmas Carol is Scrooged (1988). Bill Murray plays TV executive Frank Cross, walking the tightrope between executing his own zany comic style and interpreting a classic character. The implications in the story about how the TV business is run are hilarious and biting. Bobcat Goldthwait, Karen Allen, John Forsythe, Robert Mitchum and David Johansen are part of a stellar cast. Like Dickens’ 1843 literary classic, this film can be enjoyed again and again. Happy Holidays!

G. I. Joe and the Action Figure

December 10th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

In this season of giving, a brief history of a successful product line of enduring tradition seems appropriate. We all know that jewelry, clothes, appliances and tools make great gifts, but the focus of gift giving on Christmas and other holiday celebrations this time of year is still oriented toward children (of all ages) and that means, above all else, toys.

There was a time not too long ago when using “guys and dolls” in the same phrase referred only to the title of a timeless and classic Broadway musical. That is until Hassenfeld Brothers looked over at what competitor Mattel Toys had achieved since 1959 with its Barbie™ line of dolls and accessories. Under the guidance of toy designer Stan Weston and partially influenced by the TV show The Lieutenant, Hasbro, as Hassenfeld Brothers came to be known, in 1964 launched a line of pliable figurines called G. I. Joe and the “guy doll” concept was born.

But G. I. Joe and other similar products were never called dolls. Rather, the term “action figure” was developed to describe this type of toy. The key element of the 12-inch doll was the articulation: twenty-one moveable joints that enabled the toy to be posed in combat positions. The imagination of the players determined how the action figures and their sold-separately accessories would be used in play. This past summer Hasbro co-produced two blockbuster movies that originated with their action figure lines: G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Transformers 2. The success of movies, cartoons, books, games, accessories and the toys themselves attests to just how successful a merchandizing concept the action figure has been.

Boys have been fooling around with toy soldiers for centuries, but these have been of the hand-painted or extruded non-malleable variety in play sets. Napoleonic War – of which there are examples in the fine hand-painted collection of figurines in musée de L’Armée at Hôtel des Invalides in Paris – Civil War and Revolutionary War soldiers are among the play sets that have been around for a long time. For the past sixty years or so World War II army sets have probably been the most popular toy line using military figurines. Settling on the WWII theme, the name of the original toy was inspired by the Ernie Pyle biopic The Story of G. I. Joe. There was a ”Joe” for each major service branch dressed in military fatigues. A scar on the face was a touch to help differentiate G. I. Joe from traditional dolls. A public relations campaign claimed that the face of the doll, err, action figure was a composite of twenty WWII Medal of Honor recipients.

Knock-offs of G. I. Joe appeared quickly, including an imitator from toy giant Marx called Stonewall “Stony” Smith. None of the knock-offs generated any serious threat to G. I. Joe and it wasn’t until action figures inspired by a megahit movie, Kenner Products’ Darth Vader and other outer-worldly characters from Star Wars, burst onto the scene that the military theme action figures had some serious competition.

The accessories for G. I. Joe, as well as the action figure itself, expanded the toy line considerably. In 1965 the first African-American G. I. Joe was introduced, followed by a nurse version and Talking Joe. Anti-war sentiment during the Vietnam War caused Hasbro to deemphasize the original military model in favor of the Adventure Team. Whether it was the political climate, the higher cost of plastic during the late 1970s oil crisis or competition from R2D2 and friends, the G. I. Joe line was discontinued in 1978. But consumers appealed to the company and Joe returned in a smaller 4-inch version, becoming popular with a new generation of youngsters in their imaginary action figure playgrounds. In 1983 the FCC lifted a 14-year ban on toy-inspired programming. Starting with the animated G. I. Joe cartoon series, Joe-themed productions on the large and small screen began a long run that continues today.

The G. I. Joe line advanced more exotic personas: foreign soldiers, movie-inspired hi-tech Joes and others. Today’s stocking stuffers include “Snake Eyes” and “Duke” from G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. But World War II models are still popular. The talking G. I. Joe Navajo Code Talker, one of the newer 11-inch models, gives phrases in Navajo and English. Vintage G. I. Joe dolls and accessories are in demand on auction websites and on-line forums devoted to collection, discussion and news about the many action figures produced over the years are all over the web. The toy originally inspired by real and fantasy heroes of “the Good War” has had quite a history of its own in the annals of popular culture.

The Airmen and the Headhunters on PBS

November 11th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

The more we speak with veterans of World War II, the more we learn that, beyond the high profile events and personalities, there are hundreds of stories that would make great drama. Such is the case in one of the many campaigns that receives little attention compared to the major actions of D-Day, Stalingrad and Iwo Jima for example. The bombing runs over Indonesia, the former Dutch East Indies, aided the ultimate victory achieved by the Allies in Southeast Asia and the Pacific by striking at the heart of the oil supply that kept Japan mobilized.

One such bombing run occurred sixty-five years ago on November 16, 1944. A squadron of B-24s was on a routine hop over Borneo, where Japan harvested nearly fifty percent of its petroleum supply at the height of the war. On that particular day, rather than targeting tankers, the Liberators were searching for a Japanese carrier reported to be in the vicinity of Brunei Bay when they ran into heavy anti-aircraft fire.

One of the planes dropped out of the sky. Thanks to the skillful flying of co-pilot Jerry Rosenthal, seven of the ten crewmen parachuted to safety before the B-24 crashed in the rugged highland jungle of northern Borneo. The story told in the November 11, 2009, episode of Secrets of the Dead on PBS comes from the bomber’s radioman, Cpl. Dan Illerich. His eyewitness account and many others contributed greatly to the book The Airmen and The Headhunters by Judith M. Heimann, on which the Secrets of the Dead episode is based.

Aware that Japanese soldiers stationed along the coast would likely investigate the crash, Illerich and another crewman with whom he quickly rendezvoused knew they must avoid capture. Photos and stories of prisoner beheadings had been circulated widely among Army Air Corps personnel. But they also knew they were in the land of the storied “wild men of Borneo” whose traditional practices included preparing shrunken heads from their victims. Their first encounter with the Dayaks, the name given to the tribesmen of the region, was a tentative exchange of gestures across a river. After one of the men crossed to the Americans, the tensions relaxed and the two airmen realized they were about to embark on a journey into a completely different culture—one that welcomed them in.

Christian missionaries had preceded Dan and his fellow airmen into these jungles by decades. Earlier in the war, Japanese invaders had scattered and gunned down the missionaries, creating sadness and hatred among the native converts. By rescuing Illerich and his six companions, some of whom were in bad shape from the crash, the resolve of the Dayaks to do something about the invaders was stiffened. Encouraged and helped by William Makahanap, an educated East Indian administrator pressed into service by the Japanese but sympathetic to the natives, the Dayaks not only skillfully hid the Americans, they launched a campaign to torment the enemy occupiers.

One would think the tale of the Dayak people protecting the American airmen and waging a retaliatory campaign against the Japanese would consume this story, but there is more. About the same time an Australian anthropologist who had previously studied the Dayak was given an unusual war assignment. Commissioned a major, Tom Harrisson led a group of his countrymen on a clandestine operation to Borneo called Z Special. The operatives parachuted in, made contact with the Dayak and learned about the downed airmen. The Australian officer and his team took the Americans in and planned for their extraction. At the same time, Harrisson conducted a sustained guerilla effort against the Japanese in conjunction with Dayak warriors and ahead of a major Australian invasion of Borneo. He encouraged traditional warfare for the Dayak, including lifting the colonial ban on headhunting if the victims were Japanese. The tribesmen excelled in using their age-tested blowguns to cut down Imperial soldiers and took advantage of the temporary return to the ancient headhunting practice.

The documentary is quite compelling to watch. Using a combination of vintage film clips, photographs and reenactment scenes, the story unfolds against a timeline narration by the fine actor Live Schreiber. Heimann and another Borneo authority contribute as well but the most fascinating parts of this program are the interviews with Illerich, Australian veterans of Z Special and octogenarian Dayak tribesmen and women who witnessed it all. To hear Dan Illerich tell of the harrowing bomber ditch and then listen to Dayaks who were boys at the time talking about what they saw and did when the plane went down is incredible stuff.

Some of the vintage footage is quite rare and the filmmakers are forced to repeat certain scenes where appropriate. The same explanation can’t be given for the reenacted scenes which are not strong, repeated too often and mixed haphazardly with Borneo scenics. These are beautiful but at times appear in strange spots and without much justification. I would rather see the Dayak eyewitnesses on screen—their faces, adornment and expressions are wonderful. They proudly show off their blowguns and demonstrate how they built a unique bamboo runway to land a military plane in the rugged area in 1945. Thankfully, no modern demonstrations of headhunting are given. “The Airmen and the Headhunters” makes a memorable contribution to the WNET series Secrets of the Dead on PBS.

Veterans Day 2009 in Radio, TV and Film

November 9th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

This Wednesday is Veterans Day, which historically celebrates the end of World War I, but has more recently focused on honoring active servicemen and women. With engagements on-going in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is a good time to focus on the efforts of these service people in the line of fire and recent veterans of these combat actions. The mass media has been trying to use this Veterans Day period to honor service people. It’s also a good time to review the programs and projects with timely themes, of which there have been several in the past year.

One place where Veterans Day has been mentioned quite a few times is in sports programming. The NFL radio and television coverage of the past weekend recognized groups of military men and women in the stands at games, mentioned Veterans Day on the broadcasts and aired PSAs (public service announcements) about cooperation between the NFL and the U. S. Army. No doubt the NBA and NHL will have similar efforts during their games on Wednesday. News programs will cover Veterans Day ceremonies in Washington and elsewhere. Regrettably, the recent tragedy at Fort Hood, Texas is dominating the news at the moment but by Wednesday the focus should return to the vast majority of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who are just doing their jobs in service to their country. Watch for mention of any of the several private and military community efforts to bring care packages and other relief to those serving in the combat zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. On the local level there will probably be visits to military and Veteran Administration hospitals. If a need is identified, get involved if possible.

Some of the broadcast and cable networks are featuring special programs for this remembrance holiday. Military Channel is premiering Return Salute, in which three returning veterans are seen being honored with their special wishes, Wednesday night. On Veterans Day and other times during the week Military Channel is airing Timewatch: Last Day of WWI, several episodes of its Medal of Honor series and Return to Tarawa, reviewed on during its premiere last April. During the day the History Channel is airing a documentary about the “Tunnel Rats,” assigned to destroy a network of enemy tunnels in Vietnam, on Modern Marvels and several World War II episodes of its popular series Battle 360. On the spin-off channel Military History, Civil War Combat features “The Battle of First Manassas.”

PBS will be premiering a documentary with a title that, on first glance, doesn’t sound appropriate on a day we honor combat veterans, “The Airmen and the Headhunters,” on Secrets of the Dead. In fact, it’s a fascinating story of a little-known incident in World War II that featured cooperation and valor among some unlikely partners. The program will be reviewed on shortly.

Looking back on past stories, two special presentations seem appropriate to mention. Taking Chance from HBO Films (now on DVD) starred Kevin Bacon in a story about a military escort who accompanied a soldier killed in Iraq to his final resting place. The escort mission really took hold as a tradition after World War I. The feature documentary Brothers at War, in which a filmmaker documents his two brothers and others serving in Iraq, premiered last spring and is in limited release. Not yet reviewed on but receiving much award attention is the dramatic film The Hurt Locker about an explosive demolitions team in Iraq.

The Civilian Conservation Corps Explained on PBS

November 2nd, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

Agriculture and working the nation’s natural resources were aspects of American progress that made this country the land of opportunity and helped turn it into a world power. For 300 years pioneering Americans used the soil, water, wildlife, timber and minerals to make unprecedented economic achievement and create a dazzling civilization. Unlike Native Americans who preceded them, these progressive-thinking Euro-Americans gave little regard to what their exploits were doing to the earth they lived and worked on. By the 1930s America had what in today’s vernacular would be known as a serious environmental problem.

Thrust into this maelstrom of fires, floods and shifting, decaying topography was a monumental government mobilization program. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, faced with national economic and natural resource crises, convinced the U. S. Congress in his first hundred days in office to pass legislation to get the country moving again. One of the opening salvos in the New Deal was the Civilian Conservation Corps, the topic of the second program in the American Experience series The 1930s on PBS.

Filmmaker Robert Stone, who created the episode “The Civilian Conservation Corps” for the series, considers the effort one of the most important of Roosevelt’s early policies.

“The Civilian Conservation Corps both addressed the issue of unemployment, particularly among young people, men, and also addressed this environmental problem head-on. And I think really saved this country. The reason we’re the bread basket of the world right now is largely because of the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps in preserving America’s topsoil which was really just washing out to sea.”

Billions of new trees were planted by the CCC. The initial group of men, more that 250,000, was inducted in just three months and the program was run by the U. S. Army. Though discipline and the rigors of army life were introduced in the camps that spanned all regions of the country, the CCC was not a military training operation. Nevertheless criticism sprung up initially in nearly all quarters—business, labor, communities—but the FDR administration used some savvy politics and strong public relations to keep the program on track. As a result says Stone:

“In 1937 when Roosevelt attempted to balance the budget and cut back on these New Deal programs, Congress wouldn’t let him. Republicans wanted the CCC as much as anybody because it was very popular in their districts. The CCC was probably the most popular New Deal program perhaps with the exception of Social Security. It was widespread across the country—people saw what good works they were doing and that in turn built support for all of the work that Roosevelt was doing.”

Among those other New Deal programs was the Works Progress Administration that broadened the work of the CCC through expansive public projects such as the construction of Hoover Dam, the topic of the third episode of The 1930s. (Part One of this article outlines all episodes). The CCC also expanded its goals for the corps members, including teaching construction and other skills, expanding erosion prevention and wildfire control.

Stone uses four CCC veterans to narrate his piece. Their experiences are revealing in the honesty of their comments—they ate well, they learned a lot, they were glad to be working at a time when work was difficult to find. They talk about the camaraderie but also the resistance they sometimes felt in the communities where the camps were located. One of narrators is Hispanic and one African American (the CCC had separate camps for African Americans) and they talk about prejudice within the corps and the towns where they served, but still their overriding impressions were positive. Stone evaluates their feelings and what the experience meant to these men.

“My impression is the reason they look fondly at this time in their lives is that there was this sense of the community spirit—that we’re all in this together. And that‘s a spirit that was lost in the in intervening years. Everybody that we spoke to that went through an experience like that, it profoundly impacted the rest of their life.”

“I think we came out of the Depression, we came out of World War II—what we call the Greatest Generation—with national purpose, national spirit, that in the intervening years we’ve kind of lost. We’re in a recession now. I don’t see the country uniting the way that it did in the 1930s unfortunately. I would like to see a kind of national service program like the CCC. Certainly if I was a young man, I would join something like that.”

Amelia Takes Audience on Bumpy Ride

October 30th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

The best thing that I can say about Amelia, now playing from Fox Searchlight Pictures, is the filmmakers found the perfect actress to play Amelia Earhart. Hilary Swank is a talented performer and producer who has had a solid career, often playing quirky characters (Million Dollar Baby (2004), The Gift (2000) among many others). With high cheekbones, a lanky frame and a slight overbite, she doesn’t get and probably doesn’t seek ultra-glamorous movie roles. By the way, uncommon beauty never hurt Katharine Hepburn either. Swank has brought depth and believability to strong but vulnerable real-life women before – teacher Erin Gruwell is a recent example in Freedom Writers (2007).

The fact that Swank resembles Earhart physically is an advantage in that she can sell the aviatrix’s off-beat looks with no effort. She has to work a lot harder, however, to reveal all the shades of character this film requires on a whirlwind tour of Earhart’s relatively short life. Perhaps the first tipoff to the trouble in this biopic is the title in the opening frames crediting two books as the basis for the story: East to the Dawn by Susan Butler and The Sound of Wings by Mary S. Lovell. Writer/flight instructor Kim Green writes on about the thesis prepared by Lovell – that Earhart was torn between the limelight of her early fame and the drive to be a real aviation pioneer. Through the efforts of her promoter/book publisher (and later husband) George Putnam, Earhart’s early success was more pomp than accomplishment. She had to walk a fine line between keeping up the hype in order to focus attention on women in aviation while satisfying her own goals.

The exposition of this thesis is often overbearing in the film. It’s hard to completely fault India-born actress/producer Mira Nair, who directed Amelia, on this if one is to imagine the deal-making that got this ambitious production off the ground. Among the worst obligatory faux-pas was to cast Richard Gere as George Putnam. With his non-stop career as a romantic lead it would have been virtually impossible for him to keep the romance between Putnam and Earhart in the realm of believability. That difficulty is very obvious in the film. To further complicate matters, the introduction of Ewan McGregor as Gene Vidal pulls Butler’s thesis into the work about Earhart’s extra-marital affair with the New Deal’s head of commercial aviation. One can see in Swank’s facial expressions at times a lack of focus on how she should react. It’s no wonder she had trouble properly emoting in this part travelogue, part adventure film, part soap opera.

The best scenes in the film are the flying sequences. The planes look great, the flyovers well photographed and the visual effects mostly unobtrusive. Even if the scenics are overdone, they give Earhart and the audience a break from the issues back home. In her interaction with a cavalcade of characters, Swank as Earhart works most effectively with her fellow aviators and a lively Eleanor Roosevelt (Cherry Jones). The best of these supporting performances comes from Christopher Eccleston as Fred Noonan, making the round-the-world flight and the interaction between him and Earhart the most compelling in the film.

All of the characters and storylines in Amelia are based on true events and people in Amelia Earhart’s life (except the opening “girl chasing a plane” sequence — her interest in aviation came as a young adult). But the divergent paths and near collisions of the storyline resembles an air show gone awry more than a fluid biography. Lost in the process is the opportunity to showcase Earhart’s dedication to advancing women’s aviation and how her actions set a concrete foundation for the feats and opportunities of those who followed her in this ambitious endeavor.

Repeating History Whether We Want To or Not: The 1930s Debuts on PBS

October 26th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

To some, the parallels between the situation that faced America in the beginning of the 1930s and that in the end of the first decade of the new millennium are frighteningly similar. Upon closer look, they may be even more so. The cyclical nature of events is often based in patterns of human behavior and the new American Experience series on PBS could not be timelier in presenting stories from one of America’s most trying periods, The 1930s. Indeed, in the opening teaser of The 1930s is a clip of President Obama, sounding very much like President Franklin D. Roosevelt in one of his early speeches urging the country to unite against adversity.

Robert Stone, who directs the second episode of the series “The Civilian Conservation Corps,” is one who sees the similarities between the two periods of history.

“We’re in the midst of the worst economic crisis the country has been in since the Great Depression. It looks like we dodged the bullet and avoided falling into another great depression largely because policy makers in Washington knew the history of what had gone right, what worked in getting us out of that previous crisis in the thirties and the kind of misjudgment that led us into it and made things worse. It was learning from history that enabled us to avoid the worst of what many people predicted might have happened. I think the series will help the general public understand what that history is and how important it is to the present day.”

The five programs, to premiere on five successive Monday nights are: “The Crash of 1929,” “The Civilian Conservation Corps,” “Hoover Dam,” “Surviving the Dust Bowl,” and “Seabiscuit.” The first episode celebrates the opulent, progressive and carefree 1920s and how the economic boom of the postwar nation fostered speculation and investment across a wide spectrum of Americans. The lives and Gatsby-like palaces of the fast rising stock brokers are seen and their lives described by descendants. It becomes easy to spot the causes of “Black Monday” and the ensuing economic strife. While there was plenty of blame to go around, most of it fell on the shoulders of previously popular President Herbert Hoover.

“There was serious talk of revolution in this country,” says Stone. “People were really questioning the capitalist system itself. They were questioning democracy. The word dictator was bandied about as a positive thing by many people. Many people thought Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin were doing a good job. So people were really questioning the entire foundation of our country. I think Roosevelt’s programs and Roosevelt’s political abilities largely deserve the credit for preserving what we know as America.”

Two of the programs focus on the massive economic stimulus programs of the Roosevelt administration. In public relations jargon of the time “economic stimulus” was the New Deal. These episodes, on the CCC and Hoover Dam, will be explored more closely in part two of this article. And the problems of the day were not just economic, as director Stone points out.

“I think one of the things that’s largely forgotten about the 1930s is that what this country was facing economically was in no small measure caused by a terrible environmental crisis that had befallen the entire country, not just the Dust Bowl which is what most people are familiar with. I think most people also think of the Dust Bowl as a natural phenomenon that sort of happened to take place in the 1930s and they don’t really relate the two things, the financial crisis and the environmental crisis. In fact the two are totally intertwined.”

Sound familiar? An environmental crisis spurned by unchecked growth and progress? Those parallels are more eerie all the time. The hardships caused by environmental strife, including the Dust Bowl, are revealed through film footage and interviews with survivors. Finally, the touching tale of the famous racehorse Seabuscuit details how a rag-to-riches sports story captured the interest of a population who needed just that kind of hero.

The series does not cover all the important story lines of the 1930s. The crime wave started by desperate and colorful criminals, the decaying international situation and the emergence of radio, music and movie stars at the top of their game would be other inviting topics for exploration. But the effort by American Experience to rope viewers into a period with so much turmoil and need for hope has arrived at the perfect time to remind everyone for the need to stay on the correct course for future success.

Woodstock: Looking Back on 3 Days of Peace and Music Part III

September 9th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

More than forty years have passed since performers, stage crews, filmmakers, festival workers and some 456,000 spectators left Max Yasgur’s farm and the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. With many who were there now in their sixties and beyond, one might think the legacy of the event would pass into that of fondly remembered nostalgia. But the Woodstock legacy continues to grow.

The event has been preserved since shortly after its conclusion via audio recordings and a documentary film. The two original LP sets, Woodstock: Music from the Original Soundtrack and More and Woodstock 2, were recorded under technically difficult circumstances but were eagerly anticipated when first released. Since then they have been re-mastered and made available in every listening form imaginable. Archived unreleased songs from the event continue to appear.

The Oscar®-winning film Woodstock, still occasionally shown in its original wide screen format in theaters, is widely available in various home video packages: the latest being Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music The Director’s Cut 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition with bonus features such as added scenes and interviews. An increasing number of books, photo essays, websites, memorabilia, and a museum on the site – even a new Ang Lee film – give the Woodstock phenomenon a sight, sound and tactile presence. The opportunity exists for current and future generations to get an idea of the experience without having been there.

But what about the feel and meaning of Woodstock? The promotional bonanza has not escaped the attention of two key participants personally interviewed for this series. They recognize some of these keepsakes as an opportunity to expand the reach of Woodstock’s music and message. But the lasting cultural implications of three days of peace and music are omnipresent and include the impact on how popular music is presented live and on film or video.

Before Wadleigh, Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker and others began the mammoth task of editing hundreds of thousand of feet of film into a big screen presentation, Wadleigh set the tone for how the music and the event would be treated on film:

I really gravitate to not only good musical performances, and good music, but to the message that’s coming through the words. One of the things that made the camera work so effective to me is that I lectured to myself and the other twelve or fourteen cameramen, “Don’t make it a move or zoom to celebrate the technique of the effect. Listen to the sound, listen to the lyrics, really involve yourself in the content and the performance and let your selective lens, zoom, move and so on serve what the music and the artist and lyrics are saying.” So when Jimmy Hendrix played the U. S. National Anthem not with a single vocal word but with sound effects in his guitar, that sonic screaming and anguish counts as well. It was a lyrical expression of language, a sonic one.

Wadleigh differentiates between the performances that were captured on film at Woodstock and the highly produced concert and music video performances of today:

You have someone like Joe Cocker on stage, that’s an example of a great performance by somebody who has no backdrop, no make-up, no hair style, no nothing. Today with all of their hairdos and with all of their choreography, all of the carefully lit stuff, is that what a performance is all about? I don’t think so, I think it’s really a raw entertainer or communicator to the world, getting up there and doing their thing.

Managing the stage, performers and audience announcements still allowed Chip Monck time to appreciate the ground-breaking performances of the festival. Noting the periodic celebrations of Woodstock, he looks ahead to the fiftieth and wonders how the original could ever be outdone. “It may very well be because of my age and because of my musical tastes, I don’t hear anything anymore that’s as good as we had there. Is it an act that’s going to make you tremble? Those did.”

Immediately following Woodstock many other events attempted to duplicate the non-stop music and festival atmosphere. Over the decades large musical gatherings have lessened. They have become more sophisticated and must compete with multimedia concert experiences, but they are still relevant. The Coachella Valley Music Festival is one. Wadleigh talks about another.

There’s this famous festival (in the U. K.) called the Glastonbury Festival that started one year after Woodstock and that’s a direct result of Woodstock. I went this year because they were doing homage to Woodstock and it’s a fantastic festival. Who was the star act Friday night? Neil Young. And how old was the group watching him? Young. That was a performance right out of Woodstock. The next night, Crosby, Stills and Nash. Then a guy who’s pushing sixty, Bruce Springsteen. He went on for 2½ hours, with no break in between. I think what the audiences get is these people are the real thing, playing music for themselves, and not writing it to have hits. I think that’s contemporary proof that this is successful stuff.

And the social implications of Woodstock? Perhaps the long-standing “generation gap” closed just a little because of the non-confrontational theme of Woodstock. “One interesting vignette,” says Monck “was about one of the Monticello police officers. An older man who’d been on the force for about 35 years, he said that he didn’t really agree with their dress, or with their length of hair and the way they looked, but that he had never in all of his years on the force met a more courteous and flexible group of young people. And he said, ‘It was a delight to take off my gun belt and my hat and put on a T-shirt and help cook hot dogs.’”

Wadleigh sees the social awareness raised by the counter-culture forces of the Woodstock era still relevant today as the world struggles with environmental and economic concerns, for which he is now actively working toward awareness and solutions:

Today’s problems really tie back to the major questioning of the 1960s and I would point out to you that a Nobel laureate, a great guy named (Dr.) Steven Chu, who (President) Barack Obama had the great intelligence to appoint as head of the Energy Department, has been giving very “Woodstockian” interviews. You will hear the words come out of his mouth that could have come out of the mouths of the counterculture of the 1960s. Steven Chu is right there with the same ideas.

Indeed, the legacy continues to grow.

Woodstock: Looking Back on 3 Days of Peace and Music Part II

September 2nd, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

The lineup of talent at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair was significant at a time when “rock” music was establishing its own identity well beyond the initial country music inspired “rock -‘n-roll” and “doo-wop” sounds of the 1950s and the progression of pop-rock combinations earlier in the decade. Once Creedence Clearwater Revival, who had gained a rapid rise in popularity with hits such as Proud Mary, committed to the festival other acts, thirty-two in all, fell into place. Notable exceptions—Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and Joni Mitchell (who wrote the song) to name a few—did not attend the festival for various reasons. Some who declined—The Doors, Spirit, Tommy James and The Byrds—stated later they wished they had been part of the experience. Yet when it came time for the music to start on Friday, August 15, 1969, nobody wanted to go on.

“Look at all those people!” Michael Wadleigh, director of the Oscar-winning film Woodstock – 3 days of peace and music, remembers fondly the words of Janice Joplin at Woodstock. “You have to remember no one,” says Wadleigh, “no musician anywhere in the world had performed before that many people. An hour before the first performer went on there was a flurry of activity backstage where the producers of the festival asked, ‘Okay, who’s going to go on?’ Frankly, nobody wanted to go on, they were all scared. They just didn’t know how well the material would translate to that many people. This one guy, an African American who had actually been to Africa, Richie Havens said, ‘I’ll go on, I’m not afraid.’ If you watch his performance in the movie, you see he hardly even looks at the audience—he was used to performing in cafes. He defocused and concentrated on his performance. The whole audience stood up for Richie and clapped along with him, when he didn’t even make a big thing about ‘clap your hands.’ I think that was really influential for the performers that we were watching from the back of the stage there and they said, ‘Gee this is a friendly audience. This is an audience that’s positive and therefore I can go out there and do my thing and not worry about it.’

Despite the positive beginning, great effort was put into the logistics of getting the musicians to perform. Chip Monck, the production/stage manager who had also designed the lighting and was acting as emcee, recalls, “The schedule just went absolutely to pieces. Richie Havens kept coming off the stage saying, ‘I finished my set’ and I said, ‘No you haven’t.’ (Laugh) Sometimes the stage waits were up to an hour which was somewhat embarrassing and difficult, but maybe half an hour of that was finding who the next act was.”

According to Monck, the stage system was originally designed for ease of transition, with six semi-circular turntables allowing for set-up of one band while another was performing. But these gave way very quickly when artists, coming on stage to escape the soggy ground and then onto the turntables to get better views of what was going on, collapsed the wooden structures early on. Another technical problem was the amplifiers used by the Grateful Dead. The unique design of these units caused them to gain hum from the oscillations of the Super Trooper arc lights. But generally, the sound system, specially designed for the event, performed very well. Another problem was not so easily overcome.

“God decided that there would be rain, there would be a deluge. There would be flood and pestilence (Laugh),” says Wadleigh. “The greatest technical problem was caused by the rain. It really caused problems in the Éclair cameras and caused us a great deal of difficulty. Of course it also caused the major fear of the event which is that people would be killed by the Super Troopers which were on the towers and weighed a thousand pounds each. If one of them had come down and into the audience, I’m sure people would have been gravely injured and probably a couple killed. But on the other hand, what great scenes it produced. Without the rain storm, you wouldn’t have had nature coming in and biting us in the ass. Many people comment on the kids out there—how charming it was that, rather than fighting, they enjoy it, sliding in the mud, banging on the cans and chanting.”

“As you can see,” says Monck, “everything was not as we had desired. The fact that we did run 24 hours of music, I think was a blessing. The rain was absolutely a blessing, although inconvenient for everyone…it actually was a unifying factor and we also managed to break the barrier between performer and public. Everybody was just the same as everybody else. And this sort of strange sharing and politeness, and caring for each other just grew out of that.”

Along with some memorable performances by the likes of Mountain, Country Joe and the Fish, Ten Years After and Santana (who, according to Wadleigh, as a little known act at the time was only paid $50 for their set), to name a few.

Next, the movie, the recordings and what we’ve learned from Woodstock.

Read Part I of Woodstock here.

Inglourious Basterds

August 21st, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

“You haven’t seen war until you’ve seen it through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino,” proclaims the trailer for Inglourious Basterds, now playing from The Weinstein Company and Universal Pictures. But I have seen multiple personalities, at least in dramatic presentation such as the HBO series United States of Tara, and I’m more inclined to imagine Inglourious Basterds might be a series of sequences in the mind of Toni Collette’s character in that show.

By this I mean what is this movie trying to be? Longtime fans of Quentin Tarantino films (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2) will say it’s exactly what it should be. But I still have to justify why it is all over the map. Is it a realistic war drama? It provides a fascinating alternate history to aspects of the war in Europe, devoid of large battle scenes yet with compelling action and a good bit of graphic violence, a Tarantino trademark.

But I was more moved by Carl Foreman’s The Victors (1963), for example, in exploring the dark underside of the war. Is it Tarantino’s homage (positive and negative) to European directors? Most probably it is, with overt references to G. W. Pabst and Leni Riefenstahl and subtle (and not so subtle) reflections on the styles of Sergio Leone, and perhaps even Ingmar Bergman and François Truffaut.

Is it a satire on World War II personalities and films with often silly and outlandish scenes? Absolutely! So for those who want to see a historical movie with a good dose of wackiness from one of modern cinema’s most popular and quirky directors, Inglourious Basterds is for you.

The film is divided into chapters. Chapter One presents one of the most gripping scenes I’ve witnessed in a long time. The interchange between a French farmer (Denis Menochet) suspected of hiding Jews and an SS officer (Christoph Waltz) is well-written and staged and, despite the “Spaghetti Western” score á la Ennio Morricone, would stand up well in a dramatic treatment of the period. With Chapter Two and the introduction of The Basterds, one begins to suspect something different is afoot here, starting with Lt. Aldo Raine’s (the most grizzled looking Brad Pitt yet who delivers the role with customary excellence) monologue. From there the film meanders through carefully connected scenes that build to the climax of “Operation Kino.” These sequences range from dramatic and interesting to graphic and buffoonish, depending on how they play in Tarantino’s grand plan. Waltz manages to navigate these variations deftly while one imagines Pitt had to keep from cracking Raines’ granite jaw over some of his scenes and lines.

Although Tarantino took his film’s title from Enzo Castellari’s 1978 film Inglorious Bastards, Castellari, who appears in Inglourious Basterds, says, “It’s a completely different movie; this is Quentin’s own thing. This is not a remake, this is…this is something that I inspired.” World War II magazine lists among Tarantino’s reading list Occupation – The Ordeal of France 1940-1944 by Ian Ousby (1998), but there is historical precedent for the idea of an organized Jewish force fighting fascism. The British formed a Jewish Brigade of “three battalions of excellent infantry, all Palestinians,” according to Sgt. Major Mick Goldstein, a member of the force. And the British No. 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando unit of the 1st Special Service Brigade served in Normandy from June 6, 1944 for raiding and reconnaissance.

The film was shot in Germany and Paris, in some cases on historic sound stages; it is authentic in many details of uniform, props and scenery. The primarily European actors, who are terrific if not yet well known in the U. S., are joined by a few familiar faces including Mike Myers as British officer Ed Fenech. “Both my parents were in WWII in the British Army,” says Myers. “My Dad was in the Royal Engineers, and my Mom was in the Royal Air Force. When Quentin called and said, ‘Would you like to play a British General?’ I couldn’t believe it.” Veteran actor Rod Taylor gives a brief and strange performance as Winston Churchill. The low point of the film for me was the portrayal of Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and particularly Adolph Hitler (Martin Wuttke) as one-sided caricatures.

What’s the uniqueness in that?

I like my history movies straight, not shaken or stirred, even if celluloid is only a two dimensional device that can’t envelop the full complexities of war. Other writer-directors have done it better for me. On the other hand, filmmakers like Tarantino and Joel & Ethan Coen are making movies that are seen and talked about long after their premieres. Inglourious Basterds will have audiences talking and scratching their heads about what they just saw; and even fantastical, improbable and downright silly historical portrayals are worth talking about.

Woodstock – Looking Back on 3 Days of Peace and Music

August 14th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

Two place names that begin with the letter “W” took a prominent place in history in the closing decades of the 20th century. It is not completely far-fetched to suggest there is a relation between them.

Watergate symbolized the result of a cloud of paranoia that hung over the presidential administration of Richard M. Nixon, an atmosphere of fear whipped up by the vocal questioning of government policy by large numbers of Americans – mostly young Americans. To its detractors, the “counter culture” was merely a rebellious throng of young people whose lives were dominated by “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.” To themselves, they were a generation of harmony and change and their ultimate celebration was at Woodstock.

This is the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, an event which was not only a landmark showcase of musical talents, but a statement of hope, peace and love that has endured through the years. Not everything about the three-day festival was positive – the physical conditions were horrendous, the crowd was too large – yet nearly everyone observed the unifying spirit brought on by the music and togetherness. This three-part article will describe some of the event’s problems and triumphs; how it is perceived and celebrated now, and its place in history. Two key figures in the event, Michael Wadleigh, director of the Oscar-winning film Woodstock – 3 days of peace and music, and Chip Monck, the event’s lighting director, stage manager and emcee, give personal insights and impressions of Woodstock.

The event was not held at Woodstock, New York. That Catskills village was a symbolic location, explains Michael Wadleigh, speaking from his farm in Wales. “My first exposure to Woodstock was through one of the first films I made, about Gus Hall and the American Communist Party, founded in Woodstock in 1911. That is an indication of what Woodstock was; a place in the countryside where wanted criminals and anarchists from New York City could get away and plot the overthrow of world governments and economic systems. Then Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan started going up to that same little village and of course, the organizers and producers of the Woodstock concert went there.”

The place selected by Michael Lang, the promoter who started the festival, was Wallkill, near Woodstock. Chip Monck and his crew went to work at the rocky, unsuitable site, using local kids to as day laborers. Then something happened which turned out to be a blessing according to Monck. “The kids who were helping started telling their parents who was being booked. Their parents went nuts and they cancelled the permit.” Lang and his associates were then taken by a real estate agent to look at properties. When the group arrived at the Yasgur farm, near Bethel, New York, Lang stopped the car and approached the house alone. He made a deal with Max while they stood in the field. Miriam Yasgur, according to Monck, explained how Lang was able to make the deal on a site he knew would be perfect. “Within the first 15 minutes you know you’re being had, but you gotta love the kid.”

So workers arrived and, after waiting three days for Yasgur’s alfalfa to be harvested, began building a massive stage, with less than half the time needed to complete the work. Meanwhile filmmaker Wadleigh, with an established reputation in documentaries including films about musicians, had been contacted about filming the event and was making his preparations. Using an analytical approach derived from his university education in science, he stresses the importance of first deciding what the film would be about.

“In this case what I wanted to make the documentary about was the counter culture of the 1960s, the ideas that the young generation had about revising society. When the producers of the Woodstock event came into my office and they introduced the logo, a dove sitting on a guitar and the slogan three days of peace and music, I guess I thought, well, here are exciting ideas falling into place that will really guide what kind of film will be made.”

The lack of time precluded the completion of a roof over the stage, the keystone of lighting for modern concerts. Monck says, “We couldn’t hang lights and we did the whole thing with a dozen carbon arc follow spots. There’s only side light and front light and it was a bit of a problem for Mr. Wadleigh to say the least.”

By the time the show was about to start on Friday 50,000 spectators had gathered. Lang looked over at Monck, now wearing his production/stage manager hat and said, “I didn’t get an emcee so you’re it.” His first assignment was to get the audience to move back 50 feet so the pressure of people behind wouldn’t force them against the stage. He observed, “My God, they’re moving backwards. So two guys run out and put up the metal stakes and all there is for a barrier is a piece of clothesline which strangely enough was never breached during the whole time we were working.”

It was a spirit of cooperation that lasted throughout the event. And now it was time for the music to start . . . along with the rains.

More in Part II.

The Restaurant, Playground, Pony Ride, Passion Pit, Swap Meet, Movie Theater – History of Drive-Ins, PART I

August 8th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

Ah, summer. In simpler times, say the 1950s and 1960s, there were certain symbols of the season practiced almost universally in America – family vacations, trips to the beach or lake, backyard barbeques, Fourth of July fireworks and drive-in movies. Drive-ins were unique entertainment venues that took us from being kids stretched out in the backs of station wagons to adventurous teenagers goofing with friends or pursuing romance and finally to savvy adults looking for a good entertainment value in a night out for the family. Enterprising walk-in theater owners countered the trend by installing and advertising air conditioning to lure patrons inside, but this idea was no match for the cultural experience of the drive-in.

Earlier this summer the drive-in celebrated its 76th birthday. Contrary to some stories, there is still a good business at drive-ins, and not just in swap meets and flea markets. The creation of the drive-in is credited to Richard M. Hollingshead, Jr., a New Jersey manufacturer who experimented with the concept at home in 1932, then opened the first drive-in theater in Pennsauken, NJ on June 6, 1933. He received a U. S. patent for his invention but the certification was later rescinded by a federal court. Industry legend has it that Hollingshead’s motivation for the idea was an overly plump mother who could not fit comfortably into theater seats of the time.

Drive-in theaters began to spring up across the nation in the 1930s, and then rapidly increased in number after World War II. There were solid sociological reasons for this. First, GIs who experienced drive-ins near bases where they served took the idea back to their communities. Second, parents of “baby boomers” seized the opportunity to have a night out without a getting a baby sitter or handling noisy toddlers at indoor venues. The increased number of private cars in the 1950s led teenagers and young adults to take dates to drive-in movies.

The number of drive-in theaters peaked in 1958 at 4,063 sites with almost 5,000 screens (multiple screens theaters were starting to be used at both indoor and outdoor theaters). At the same time, the number of indoor theaters was declining. Not only were there more screens, there were also bigger drive-ins, the largest of these accommodating 2,000 to 3,000 cars. To augment the family experience and encourage customers to arrive earlier, operators set up playgrounds and picnic tables – even pony rides, petting zoos and miniature golf courses on site.

As to the movies themselves, there has been much vacillation in program choices since the British comedy Wives Beware premiered under the stars for that first New Jersey audience. D. Edward Vogel is a drive-in operator and volunteer spokesperson for the United Drive-In Theatre Operators Association. He points out that drive-ins have always had the opportunity to bid on first run movies, but the competition for this product was fierce. Samuel Arkoff founded American International Pictures (AIP) in the drive-in heyday to get product out faster and cheaper. The AIP story is a pop culture topic in its own right, but the producer/distributor’s product line led a string of “B” movies that began a trend toward exploitation and “sexploitation” fare at the drive-ins.

In the late 1970s, Smokey and the Bandit, the first of the Hal Needham-Burt Reynolds movies, with an appropriate theme of car chases and hijinx, brought drive-ins back into first-run competition according to Vogel. The trend has continued through today. There have even been occasions where operators have invited celebrities to open their movies at drive-ins to position them alongside walk-in theater premieres.

Next up: food, architecture, birthing and Grease.

The Road to Sturgis on a Harley-Davidison

August 3rd, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

The history of pop culture in America is very broad, but much of what I’ve written about for this category up to now has dealt with the history of entertainment topics such as movies, television and recordings. It’s high time to also take a look at America’s passion for things that go vroooom – specifically two-stroke, two-wheeled, open-air vehicles. The roadside culture of the United States makes it an ideal country for people from all walks of life to feel the wind in their faces and the blacktop rolling beneath them as they travel the land by motorcycle.

The 69th Annual Sturgis Rally is now underway. Motorcycle riders from all over the U. S., Canada and elsewhere are gathering in South Dakota for a week of fun, camaraderie, entertainment, food and trade. The Sturgis Rally is the largest gathering of Harley-Davidson recreational riders in the country, though other cycle brands are also seen at the event. The venerable Harley, first built in Milwaukee in 1903 by William S. Harley and three brothers named Davidson, has become a post–World War II American icon. It was used by GIs during the war and afterward became the motorcycle of choice for countless law enforcement agencies and notorious gangs, celebrities and millions of other enthusiasts. This has made the Harley-Davidson, in all its many models and designs, the most visible symbol of open-road motorcycling for over half a century.

Last year, four of my Hollywood colleagues hit the road for a ten-day road trip to Sturgis and back. Reminiscent of the famous Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road” pictures (Road to Morocco, Road to Singapore) these Paramount Studios motion-picture editors embarked on an exotic adventure with high expectations. The journey was organized by Rick “Lone Wolf” Howe and included such historic sites as Deadwood, Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial and Durango – the latter in Colorado with its working steam train journey to Silverton. I spoke to them about their trip to see what it is that gets thousands of people from diverse backgrounds to tank up, take to the road and head for the Badlands each summer.

Jack Mauck rides a Fat Boy® and compares riding the open road to meditation. “You’re physically constricted but you’re mentally free while on the road to explore your own thoughts and path. Riding in a group is like a couple that goes out for breakfast together but each reads the paper. There’s a kind of connection to each other but you’re still doing your own thing.”

Howe’s bike is a Road King® and despite organizing group rides he insists the “Lone Wolf” moniker is accurate. “I plan a trip for myself and if anyone else wants to go along, fine,” he says wryly. “I see a road trip having a sense of freedom, adventure, independence and a little risk. It’s this incredible feeling of you and your bike, like a cowboy of the Old West, taking in scenic vistas which are so much more panoramic from a cycle.”

These vehicles are built for the long haul with features and accessories to suit riders who want comfort, style and performance. Reed Trusel, who rides a Screamin’ Eagle Dyna Super Glide®, estimates they covered 380 miles a day but, “By the end of the day I didn’t want to get off my bike. I fell in love with the road and the experience of unstructured riding. It was refreshing. Sturgis is a place with a lot of crazy people showing off their equipment and themselves. I really enjoyed the music and entertainment”

John Butler rides an Electra Glide®, the heavy duty model often used by police. He’s an aspiring Country & Western singer and enjoyed swapping stories and songs with other like-minded folks at Sturgis. Jack adds, “At Sturgis it’s a thrill to see all those bikes in one place, but there are also motorcycle traffic jams all the time. The event gets a big turnout because there’s a lot of activity, trading and connection of different types of people who get to feel a little of the bad boy aspect of motorcycles. A Harley’s not the fastest or most agile bike, but for people who are in other lives during the week riding one evokes a feeling of power and escape.”

The consensus among my friends is that one Sturgis Rally is enough for awhile, though many riders return year after year. Others make the pilgrimage to Milwaukee where Harley events also frequently occur. Undoubtedly riders of Honda, Yamaha, BMW and other makes also get together to share their passions. But as long as there’s fuel and places to go, the familiar Harley-Davidson logo in chrome or paint on a motorcycle will be a common sight on America’s roads. And the riders might be Rick, Reed and Jack – who just took off on their Harleys on the road to somewhere else.

Digging into History: PBS Unveils Time Team America

July 21st, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

It has all the markings of a reality show on one of those cable music networks; opening theme by Cold Play, goateed host in a sock cap, sped-up camera sweeps. But Time Team America gets down to the serious business of history and archeology pretty quickly, so a little hipness can be forgiven as a way to rope the Twitter crowd into what is a very interesting and at times, entertaining show. The PBS series is a summer event on Wednesday evenings.

The show attempts to capitalize on the tension and fast pace of reality TV. A team of archeologists travels to sites of American history via caravan and gives themselves just three days to uncover a particular objective. The first episode, which is available to view in its entirety on the PBS website, takes the team to Roanoke Island, North Carolina. Sir Walter Raleigh attempted to start his Virginia Colony on this protected island in the Outer Banks more than two decades before Jamestown became America’s first permanent settlement. The area has been the subject of much research and the Lost Colony is now a national historic site, but the Time Team America scientists are there on a specific mission.

The team, as explained by host and team sketch artist Colin Campbell, is there to discover the colony’s dwellings, which have remained elusive in previous archeological digs. Upon arriving, the team meets with local historians and archeologists who introduce them to past findings. The introduction of the local contingent is a smart move for the show because it reveals the true nature of the disciplines of science and history that are involved in these discoveries – that they are painstaking and time consuming. The locals explain what is known: there is still much to learn about the site’s most prominent feature, the earthen Fort Raleigh; a “science building” was a major find in a 1991 dig; and it’s important to seek post holes dug to anchor the dwellings in the sandy soil. Apparently the 16th century explorers had the foresight to study the area scientifically and employ an artist to render findings. The surviving paintings are an important tool for the present-day researchers.

By the time the project gets started quite a crowd has gathered. There’s the usual hero-worshipping, “Will you sign my trowel?” and the introduction of high-tech gear for a mission that’s on a timetable. Ground penetrating radar outputs a series of cryptic views which Time Team America’s experts interpret for clues. To save time a large motorized shovel peels back the topsoil at a suspected site. Now it becomes obvious why there are so many people hanging around. It’s time to pick through the area on hands and knees looking for the small clues that make archeology the patience-trying art it is. But this is the way artifacts will be found to help solve the questions of history.

For those who have never seen an archeological dig on television, Time Team America gives a credible presentation of the field work necessary for the science to achieve results. But the show doesn’t ignore the background and auxiliary work needed in order to have digs yield telling shards of history. There is no question the program includes the necessary elements to make a TV series tick – a group of regular characters with varied roles and personalities, a slick fast pace and a little bit of drama. But these elements balance with the reality of science and history to make Time Team America a source of fascinating knowledge as well as entertaining television.

Apollo 11 and Television - 40 Years Later

July 20th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

It was a pivotal event of the 20th century as well as in the history of television. Forty years ago, on July 20, 1969, the first human set foot on the moon’s surface and that person, astronaut Neil Armstrong, muttered the immortal words, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Indeed, a leap forward in space exploration had been achieved with the Apollo 11 moon landing and subsequent walk on the planet’s surface; television was there to bring live moving pictures of the event to the homes and televisions of more that half a billion people.From both a technical and programming perspective television had gained much in the 40 odd years of its existence before 1969. Already color had given a TV a more realistic look. Magnetic tape recordings were rapidly replacing film “kinetoscopes,” allowing for faster and more frequent archiving of television programs. Microwave links and community antennas were providing improved reception of TV broadcasts that were then cabled into homes. The live streaming of pictures from space was a result of National Aeronautics and Space Administration developments. Communication satellites would soon be used to bounce commercial television signals from the earth and back to living rooms across the world.

But the milestones in television by 1969 were not only technical. Programming changed in the 1960s and among the most important of these innovations were those in network news. With their vast resources the news departments of CBS, NBC and ABC were bringing important stories into homes, often as they happened. The Kennedy/Nixon debates, Adolph Eichmann trial and JFK funeral are just a few examples. A group of dedicated reporters, producers, cameramen and other technicians, spearheaded by news anchors, were putting television journalism on an equal footing with print and radio news and replacing movie theater newsreels.

NASA was always a media savvy organization. Their grasp of television coverage at an early stage of the space program was vital to their success. NASA officials realized that public interest, translated into support of the race for space in the U. S. Congress, was essential to the space agency’s survival and growth. Coverage of live launches, introduction of the Houston Space Center command facility and cooperation between NASA spokespeople and on-site reporters gave the public an inside view of the accomplishments and workings of the agency. Network news producers such as NBC’s Reuven Frank recognized that public fascination with the space race was good television and programmed thorough coverage of developments. Unfortunately, this up close and immediate look also made viewers eyewitnesses to tragedies such as those that befell the crews of Apollo 1 and the Challenger shuttle.

In the minds of television viewers who watched the moon walk, the astronauts were the stars. However, the next group of people whose audiences most closely associated with this and other early space successes were not the scientists, engineers and thousands of others backing the efforts of Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins (and whom Armstrong recognized in a later interview), they were the TV news anchors who set the stage for the events and oversaw the stories and images broadcast to the public. Sadly, the last of these TV icons has passed away just days before the 40th anniversary of the moon walk. Walter Cronkite was the last of a generation of network anchors who set the standard for the presentation of network news. Cronkite was an enthusiastic supporter of the space program whose great impact on perceptions of the space race cannot be overstated.

Neil Armstrong commented upon Cronkite’s passing, “For a news analyst and reporter of the happenings of the day to be successful, he or she needs three things: accuracy, timeliness, and the trust of the audience. Many are fortunate to have the first two. The trust of the audience must be earned. Walter Cronkite seemed to enjoy the highest of ratings. He had a passion for human space exploration, an enthusiasm that was contagious, and the trust of his audience. He will be missed.”

Recently restored high-definition video of Apollo 11’s mission to the moon and other anniversary stories can be found on the NASA website.

Public Enemies: The Lore and Lure of 20th-Century Outlaws

July 6th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

The people responsible for Public Enemies, led by director Michael Mann, have given us another reason to revisit the world of the 1930s maverick criminals. This new movie is a smart blend of contemporary style and Depression–era nostalgia. The basis of the film is a recent book by Bryan Burrough using extensive research of government files – Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–34.

Public Enemies is touted to be the most historically accurate portrayal of this tumultuous period. Given the book source and Mann’s well-known attention to period authenticity, this is likely true. Great History’s crime writer, Paul Davis, evaluates the history behind the movie in a series of articles on the subject. I found the FBI’s use of technology in the film, including wiretaps and voice recordings, to be a fascinating revelation. My focus, however, is the ongoing attraction in films and popular media of these criminals and the law enforcement officers who pursued them.

The most famous of the 1930s gangsters was John Dillinger, the Indiana malcontent who became the title character in five dramas and numerous documentaries, was a key character in several other films and is the most prominent outlaw in Public Enemies. Given the rare opportunity in that era to hold court with reporters (after his capture in Tucson), Dillinger’s notoriety, charisma and charm won him a perverse admiration among the public at a time when economic classism and financial mismanagement turned the population against bankers.

So great was Dillinger’s influence as a folk hero during the Depression that the first motion picture about him was not released until 1945 because the Hayes Office (the industry’s censoring body at the time) would not allow it. Even then the film, Dillinger, was independently produced by the King Brothers for a smaller studio, Monogram. Lawrence Tierney, who later established a career as a character actor, interpreted Dillinger as a confident tough guy in a movie that opened with Dillinger’s father appealing to the audience of a film within the film; that scene seems to serve as a warning for parents to be watchful of young people rebelling against the law, a moral message that would have made the film more palatable to the censors. Essentially a melodrama (like Manhattan Melodrama, the film Dillinger saw the night of his death) it has action, story and performances that make it a very watchable film.

These films also brought Dillinger and his associates, including “Baby Face” Nelson and “Pretty Boy” Floyd, to the big screen. Dillinger (1973), written and directed by John Milius (Big Wednesday, Apocalypse Now) took advantage of the 70s’ penchant for realistic, graphic violence. The title character, Warren Oates, is thought by many to possess the best physical resemblance to Dillinger, although Ben Johnson seems more like a grizzled Western sheriff than the real-life FBI agent Melvin Purvis. The film is action-packed, colorful and violent. Look for a young Richard Dreyfuss to stand out as “Baby Face” Nelson. The Lady in Red (1979) directed by Lewis Teague for New World Pictures focuses on Dillinger’s association with a Romanian madam and Polly, one of her girls, in the weeks before his death. The film was one of Roger Corman’s low-budget features stocked with emerging talent including Robert Conrad (Dillinger), Pamela Sue Martin (Polly), Louise Fletcher (madam Anna Sage) and Christopher Lloyd in a minor role. The screenplay was written by John Sayles (Return of the Secaucus Seven, Baby It’s You) and the score composed by James Horner (Braveheart, Titanic).

Johnny Depp’s engaging portrayal of John Dillinger captures the essential attributes of the man’s character with an easy style that is so familiar to Depp fans. He builds a characterization that ranges from sensitive to coldly calculating as the need requires. If Dillinger was as clever and confident as Depp portrays him in Public Enemies it is understandable why he became such a popular figure in newsreels, magazines and newspapers of the day. An equally strong performance is turned in by Christian Bale as Special Agent Melvin Purvis. Bale studied the life of his character thoroughly, even talking with Purvis’ son, and creates a performance that is memorable in a film with many noteworthy elements.

One can really appreciate the setting of Public Enemies with the style, tones and essential details that went into recreating the period and events; some scenes were shot on the locations where they actually occurred. And a whole lot of “Tommy Guns” fire a whole bunch of bullets throughout the film. (Did these guys actually take that long to die?) Add to these aspects many strong performances, fluid camerawork (with some very extreme close-ups), an eclectic music mix and a solid storyline that delivers right to the film’s end. While all of the films mentioned can provide interesting entertainment, Public Enemies could well be the best of these and may achieve the status of a top-tier crime film.

Confederate (artifacts) in the Attic: the History Detectives

June 21st, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

A new season, the seventh, of History Detectives is beginning on PBS this summer, and the popular series has uncovered a number of intriguing story lines that are sure to hold interest like a good detective novel. Most of the stories deal with tales of America’s past and begin with viewers who have unearthed questions about items, events, people and places for the History Detectives to solve. Among them: a letter alluding to a mysterious World War II military program to train dogs, a souvenir from Pancho Villa’s notorious Columbus, New Mexico raid, a 300 year-old beeswax carving from an Oregon shipwreck and a Western Field single-barrel, 12-gauge repeating shotgun allegedly used in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

So what if you dig up something old and potentially interesting in that steamer trunk in the attic or excavate a shiny object from that pile of junk in the basement? Is it historic? Is it worth something? Elyse Luray, a noted appraiser, auctioneer and art historian, who has worked Antiques Roadshow and is in her seventh season of History Detectives, offers some tips:

The first thing I always do, and tell people to do, is get a piece of paper and start making a list of questions. Is it period? Does it look like paper that was actually from that time period ? Does it have some wear and tear or oxidation ? You would expect through the years for it not to be perfect. If it’s a photograph, look at the landscape for (evidence) of the time. If it’s a document, look at the style of the handwriting. There are very different styles of handwriting from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. You need to look for the common sense issues. By using your own observations you can get the ball rolling.

But what if you’re not related to George Washington or Alfred E. Newman? Can a family heirloom be valuable?

Elyse’s advice: “There is an intrinsic value (its monetary worth), a personal value and a decorative value to a piece. What History Detectives shows is that there is always a historic value to a piece. But if you can connect it to that greater history, obviously it makes that piece more valuable and more important. If you connect it to your own genealogy then personally it’s priceless.”

Okay, so maybe Aunt Tilly’s wooden dentures aren’t going to make you rich on Ebay, but there’s adventure in the journey, right? New History Detectives host Dr. Eduardo Pagán thinks so. “It’s always a fascinating journey when you are out there poking around and you come across something of historical significance that really strikes you. The show’s appropriately called History Detectives. I think any good historian is a bit of a detective–trying to piece together parts of a past that we don’t understand.”

Whether you are a seller, buyer or just a part-time sleuth of historical objects, you have to be wary of fakes and frauds. Again common sense is your first defense. Beware of things too good to be true, Elyse cautions. And she adds, “Our website has so much phenomenal information. Our goal is to let everybody be a history detective and to teach everybody how they can authenticate their own pieces. Your gut and good common sense is the best place to start.”

Great History readers can submit their mystery, comment on the program, or ask questions at the History Detectives website.

This Is Cinerama

June 19th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

The word itself has become part of the vernacular, spawning an entire vocabulary of “rama” suffixed words added to the language. The phenomenon involved some of the biggest names in 20th century entertainment: John Ford, Lowell Thomas, Stanley Kubrick, Michael Todd and Merian C. Cooper. But if anyone is still unfamiliar with the subject of this article, this title will surely help–How the West Was Won. The epic 1963 film was the last and most famous to use a cinema technique that had vast entertainment, social and even political ramifications in the 1950s and early ‘60s and set the standard for how we view movies and even television today.

The concept is widescreen, and Cinerama was the father and king of all wide-screen formats in use since that time. It is a filming and projection technique, rather than a film style, genre or subject. Only once before was the wide-screen concept tried in a motion picture, in the final sequence of Abel Gance’s epic 1927 film Napoléon. It took Fred Waller, an innovative engineer and filmmaker, to explore the idea of giving audiences an image on screen that would imitate how the eye sees things. Waller, who was responsible for many early filmmaking gadgets, strapped eleven 16mm cameras together and shot sequences that were then projected on a parabolic screen. The result of this experiment was to wow audiences at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

War worries kept Waller’s invention from gaining any commercial acceptance at the time. However his Vitarama Corp. received a contract from the federal government, and he molded his invention into an elaborate training mechanism for Army Air Corps gunners, the first virtual combat game. The film clips of flying targets, sound effects and a grading mechanism won praise from many aerial gunners who later were faced with real combat situations in the bellies of B-17s and other aircraft.

After the war several factors, especially the introduction of television, precipitated a drop in box office revenues. A few forward-looking individuals then decided to investigate the potential of Waller’s invention, including exhibitors from the Warner theater chain and well-known documentarian and radio personality Lowell Thomas. The idea of involving the audience in a film with enveloping visuals and, just as important, audio from many sources, had great appeal to Lowell in bringing his travelogues to a large audience.

The advent of Cinerama required great preparation, not only in photographing with the special three-film, multi-lens camera, the seven microphone audio recordings and the complicated editing process, but in the preparation of the theaters for exhibiting the films. The premiere on September 30, 1952 of This Is Cinerama set the tone for the technique, not only in the hair-raising reality of a roller coaster ride and other sequences to maximize the technique’s strengths, but in a marketing approach that turned the theater-going experience into a social event, with evening gowns, red carpets and press coverage of non-celebrity theater patrons.

Because of the complexities of exhibition, Cinerama was only available in a few major city theaters, and folks would actually include Cinerama show reservations in vacation plans. President Eisenhower was so enthralled by the vistas of America in This Is Cinerama that he and the state department developed a propaganda use for Cinerama in international fairs and exhibitions where it won many awards. Cinerama’s world-wide popularity did not escape the attention of the USSR and a “wide-screen race” soon developed.

Although travelogues by Lowell and others ran for years – sustaining Cinerama through the 50s while at the same time creating imitators such as Cinemascope, Vista-Vision and other wide screen formats – eventually the demand for dramatic films led to How the West Was Won and a few others. Even though the western won many awards and took in a lot of money, the glamour of Cinerama eventually wore off in an industry often obsessed by faster-cheaper. The process nearly succumbed until resuscitated by Michael Forman and his Pacific Theaters. But the complex Cinerama technique was reduced to one 70mm film frame, still with excellent multi-channel sound, for films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

The story of Cinerama, the people, places and films that make up its history, is detailed in the fascinating documentary Cinerama Adventure (2003). In its presentation of Cinerama clips, the documentary simulates the experience with an innovative technique. Theater screenings of Cinerama are rare these days and Randy Gitsch, producer of Cinerama Adventure, explains why. “Cinerama was always difficult to exhibit because it required perfect synchronous projection. And today, it’s still difficult to properly present.”

The American Widescreen Museum and ArcLight Cinema are resources for upcoming theater presentations and other Cinerama information.

D-Day on the Tube - World War II Television Programming

June 1st, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

If you are not able to attend one of the D-Day 65th anniversary commemoration ceremonies in Normandy, France, at The National WW II Museum in New Orleans, The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia or elsewhere; if you have read the D-Day themed articles in the latest Armchair General (May 2009) and World War II (July 2009) magazines, perused World War II articles on this website, and and you still yearn to stay in the moment, you’re in luck. The programmers at TV’s history-friendly networks have laid out a schedule of interesting programs to coincide with this historic event.

HBO Films is premiering Into the Storm this week on HBO, the continuation into the war years of its dramatized biography of Winston Churchill. Much has been written on the Weider History Group websites ahead of the program, including interviews with the film’s star, Brendan Gleeson, and the writer, Hugh Whitemore. Churchill is also dramatized in the new PBS mini-series WWII: Behind Closed Doors – Stalin, the Nazis and the West. The focus on this combination of dramatized and archival film scenes is the Soviet leader and his relations with his allies and enemies during the World War II period. The three episodes “Unlikely Friends”, “Cracks in the Alliance” and “Dividing the World” focus on Stalin and the war in three chronological time spans. This fascinating look at one of the world’s most influential leaders includes frequent glimpses into how his personality shaped shrewd and ruthless dealings with everyone from the Allied leaders to his closest comrades. PBS schedules vary among affiliates so check local listings.

The Military Channel is premiering Color of War: D-Day on June 6. Using letters and diaries, the program takes a personal look at how this monumental event affected the men in combat as well as family and friends who sought news of their loved ones in uniform during the difficult opening of the invasion of France. The Military Channel will also air Battlefield: World War II and other programs during the weekend that focus on the Normandy invasion. To commemorate the anniversary, The History Channel will air its special D-Day: The Lost Evidence. It focuses on the Allied photo reconnaissance of the D-Day beaches during the landings. The recently rediscovered photographs have been interpreted with specially designed computer animation and augmented by eyewitness accounts of American, British and German veterans. Computer animation is also a feature of The History Channel’s popular new series Patton 360 that combines video-game-inspired battle scenes with period film footage. A new episode, “On Hitler’s Doorstep,” airs D-Day weekend. Rounding out the WWII–themed programming on the channel is Tora, Tora, Tora: The Real Story of Pearl Harbor.

The television industry’s own “D-Day” occurs a week later, and it has nothing to do with Normandy. After June 12 full-power U. S. broadcast stations will cease analog transmission by order of congressional legislation. Not to be confused with HDTV, the new all-digital transmission of television signals will affect all TVs, from the new flat-screens to those vintage portables and fine wood cabinet models you’ve managed to hang onto all these years. Unless you have cable or satellite service, or a recent model TV with a built-in digital tuner, you’ll need a converter box. With digital TV you’ll now be able to get all kinds of strange new local channels over the air as each traditional channel is multiplied: 2-1, 2-2, etc. For more information check out the official digital TV website.

Museums Hope for Victory in Battle of the Smithsonian

May 26th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is the sequel to a 2006 film where night watchman Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) sees exhibits come to life via a magic tablet and becomes part of this nocturnal world. New York’s American Museum of Natural History, where Night at the Museum and part of this sequel take place, claims a 20% increase in visitors after the first film was released, particularly among young children whose interest was initiated by the movie. For this reason and for the merchandising potential these family films bring (the history of film merchandising being a fertile topic for a future popular culture blog), the Smithsonian Institution agreed to be involved in the movie.

In this installment Daley, after becoming a successful infomercial product inventor, learns his “friends” at the museum are being crated up for shipment to the Federal Archives, which in the story is a huge repository beneath the National Mall in Washington. For film trivia buffs, this is the second time Stiller has played an infomercial entrepreneur. (The first was Barry Levinson’s 2004 comedy Envy.) In Battle of the Smithsonian, Daley receives a distress call from cowboy Jedediah Smith (Owen Wilson), one of a collection of miniature figures in the menagerie Daley has befriended.

Once in Washington, Daley infiltrates the Smithsonian as a guard and meets up with a new group of animals and artwork who come to life – including antagonist Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), who wants the magic tablet to rule the world and Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams), who takes a liking to Daley, helps him defeat the bad guys and saves his friends.

The costume and make-up departments give credible treatment to the people of history, and the actors execute well enough. Robin Williams, as President Teddy Roosevelt, gives an appropriately restrained performance. The dialogue ranges from familiar jokes and character stereotyping to a few snippets of real history, such as the introduction of the Tuskegee Airmen. There is enough slapstick comedy to entertain any youngster, but a sea of story conventions could well drown the interest of most adults, causing them to miss the film’s occasional historic facts and touching moments. There are a few clever sequences, such as when Daley, Earhart and some bad guys enter the famous Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph “The Kiss” and interact with V. J. Day revelers in Times Square.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is the best represented of the institution’s museums in the film. The bright and colorful scenes inside the National Mall facility represent well the breadth of the collection there. That museum’s exterior, the Smithsonian “Castle” and other Washington locations are visually stunning. Beyond these features, there is not much to separate the dizzying special effects and fast-paced hijinks from other movies in the popular fantasy genre. Whether or not Battle of the Smithsonian has any life beyond short-term entertainment and the aiding of  film-inspired museum tie-ins depends on how well parents, teachers and others in the know handle questions from pre-teens about a particular scene or character. If they encourage these youngsters to read, explore and evaluate the real stories behind what the movie portrays, and if the inquiries produce trips to libraries, museums or historic sites, then the movie has some value to museums and the advancement of historical knowledge. Otherwise the monkey slap scene in Battle for the Smithsonian becomes  just another, well, silly monkey slap scene.

We Shall Remain – The Final Chapter But Not The End

May 11th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

The last of the five-part American Experience series on Native Americans, We Shall Remain, is entitled “Wounded Knee” and deals with the 1973 occupation of that portion of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where 83 years earlier the last notable armed struggle between Native Americans and the U. S. Army occurred. The 1890 event was yet another in a string of overreactions by federal soldiers and Indian police to the difficult process of committing the Plains Indians tribes to reservations. At Wounded Knee, followers of Bigfoot and the leader himself were trapped in a firefight that claimed the lives of some 300 innocents. The action on the frozen South Dakota landscape was for all intents and purposes what it has been described as, a massacre.

This fact was not lost on any of the parties in the 1973 action, which is detailed in what is essentially traditional historical documentary form in We Shall Remain. During the height of Indian activism in the 1960s and ’70s, which itself was an extension of the overall wave of social activism of those turbulent decades, Lakota people on the reservation called on the most visible Native American organization of the time, AIM, to help with a tribal leader who was running the reservation like Tammany Hall. AIM, the American Indian Movement, was one of those organizations deemed dangerous by the U. S. government at a time when organizational surveillance was virtually a full-time mission of the FBI. And though it addressed a multitude of injustices borne by Native Americans at the time, AIM’s penchant for armed confrontation and violence made it controversial, even among Indians. It was therefore with no small amount of concern that the traditional tribal leaders called on AIM to initiate action to remove the elected reservation leader, Dick Wilson, when all other means failed.

One of the great strengths of this episode of We Shall Remain, and what sets it apart from the others, is the opportunity to get contemporary interviews with the participants of the historical event. Former members of AIM, retired government agents, an ex-U.S. Senator and residents of the reservation appear on camera for the program, as well as in film and photographic coverage of those 71 tense days. The interviews reveal just how significant the occupation was in the lives of those who lived it, and emotional scars occasionally seep into the modern perspectives of the interviewees. The documentary chronicles the significant events of the preplanned occupation, and a group of thoughtful scholars, primarily Native American, analyze the impact.

Technically, the program is well designed. However, the filmmakers lack balance and completeness in some aspects of history beyond the Wounded Knee occupation itself. The explanation of 20th century policy and treatment of Native Americans is grossly oversimplified. Also, the audience is led to believe that all Indians who were sent to government boarding schools were permanently scarred. There are scholarly examinations that detail the pros and cons of the experience. The existence of Indian activism beyond the exploits of AIM is also largely ignored, especially the 1969-71 occupation of Alcatraz by the self-proclaimed “Indians of All Tribes” that continued longer and with less violence than that of Wounded Knee.

Still, the overall impression of this program as the climax of a very fine series is a positive one. It leaves the audience with the correct impression that Native Americans would leave Wounded Knee with more awareness and strength in their histories and cultures and in their lives in the modern world. While there is much still to be done, this is what has been happening in the three -plus decades since the occupation. In a interview, We Shall Remain director Ric Burns said the magnitude of work in this series could never be duplicated in bringing the story of Native Americans to the television public. Whether or not that is true, the mission of We Shall Remain is not over. The ReelNative Short Film Project and other outreach programs that are an integral part of We Shall Remain assure that it is a project that will keep on giving after its initial TV run ends.

Gene Roddenberry Got It Right – Star Trek

May 8th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

Franchise is a common word in the world of commerce and marketing. It refers to a product powerful enough to extend beyond its initial form and expand in every way – content, reach and performance. In the world of media and entertainment it’s the Holy Grail, that product line that can self-perpetuate with less tinkering and energy, and often with less creativity, than a new creation. One of the greatest entertainment franchises of all time is Star Trek, an obscure television series of the 1960s that has morphed into a multi-billion dollar industry that seems to have no end. Witness to this is the current film Star Trek, a new millennium revved-up version of the TV show with the humble beginnings.

For Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, an ex-World War II and commercial aviator, it was a vision of a different kind of television drama. To support his family, Roddenberry had to work as a Los Angeles policeman while moonlighting as a writer of teleplays for popular TV series such as Highway Patrol and Have Gun – Will Travel. After six years of developing the concept of a space-based drama, he finally sold NBC executives on the idea of taking the very popular Western genre to new territory, a “Wagon Train to the Stars.” The cleverness of Rodenberry was to create a new fictional universe with its own rules where he could symbolically comment on social issues he saw as important without upsetting network sensibilities, practices and standards of the time.

The drama combined relatively standard elements – strong central characters, conflict and action, good and evil – with the exotic ideas of space travel that were only beginning to have some basis in reality in the 1960s. Although some of the gadgets seem comical by today’s sophisticated production techniques, (the automatic sliding doors on Enterprise? two beefy grips pulling at the same time), many have worked their way into the vernacular of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Still others (the tri-corder, Dr. McCoy’s diagnostic table) have influenced the development of technological products and techniques (the PDA, the MRI).

The other phenomenon of Star Trek is its failure-to-success story. Cancelled by NBC after three seasons due to low ratings, Roddenberry’s morality plays in space piqued the interest of a unique audience. In the original Star Trek series, the characters battled each other as well as their own frailties for the greater good in a future world that Roddenberry envisioned without violence or greed or petty squabbles. The struggling writer-producer carried the story to the lecture circuit after the cancellation left him without a franchise to build on. The grassroots interest eventually led Paramount, which controlled the series, to give Roddenberry another shot, even though an animated version of Star Trek was already running on TV as the first franchise spin-off.

Though the second television series was never produced, it led to the first of the Star Trek motion pictures, in which Roddenberry was creatively involved. He also had a large hand in developing Start Trek: The Next Generation, a series that not only found great favor among critics and legions of Star Trek fans (known as Trekkies or Trekkers), but completely bypassed the networks and became one of two successful first-run syndication series, along with Deep Space Nine, in the Star Trek legacy.

Gene Roddenberry never became enormously wealthy from Star Trek and his creative differences and personal difficulties paint a picture of a troubled artist. But his effective idea of combining basic dramatic elements, popular television concepts and a fantastic flair for a world of hope and progress clicked with audiences and spawned many creative forces both within and outside the vast Star Trek franchise. With eleven feature films, six television series, a theme attraction in Las Vegas, as well as hundreds of books, games and other merchandise objects and of course, an unwavering fan base and annual fan conventions, the franchise will have a life and legacy in popular culture for untold star dates.

Down and Out in L.A. - Interview with The Soloist's Steve Lopez

April 24th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

The new film The Soloist is the fascinating story of Nathaniel Ayers, a schizophrenic cellist trained at the Juilliard School who ends up on L.A.’s skid row. The subject of homelessness has had a very thin history in theatrical motion pictures, which makes this film a bold example of using the conscience-raising power of movies. Award-winning Los Angeles Times journalist Steve Lopez befriended Ayers and brought his story to light. Lopez is played in the movie by Robert Downey, Jr., Steve speaks about the movie and what he hopes it might mean to understanding people like Nathaniel Ayers, in this exclusive GreatHistory interview.

Jay Wertz – Excluding the comedic Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Drillbit Taylor, only two films have featured principal characters who are homeless in Los Angeles, On The Nickel (1980) and now The Soloist. While not a unique problem to L.A., is homelessness in the land of glitz and glamor a difficult concept to present to film audiences?

Steve Lopez – I do wonder if people who live nowhere near Los Angeles will wonder if the skid row scenes in The Soloist can possibly reflect reality, but for the most part, they do. Skid row exists just blocks from city hall and from the rebuilt downtown, and only a few miles from a completely different world of easy L.A. living. This is a story of such juxtapositions – wealth and poverty, beauty and ugliness, compassion and neglect – it’s a story that celebrates the courage of those who have fallen through the cracks through no fault of their own and continue their daily struggles, out of sight and out of mind.

JW –There are quite a few documentaries on homelessness, but few dramatic films. Does The Soloist offer a rare opportunity to make visible a pervasive domestic social problem in the same way Slumdog Millionaire opened millions of eyes to the problem in India?

SL – I don’t equate The Soloist with Slumdog Millionaire but yes, I suppose there are some parallels. Yes, the social decay is an important part of what makes The Soloist so powerful. The only reason I continued writing the columns and the book and agreed to support the film was to take all that I’ve learned to a broader audience. I’d like to think that in humanizing Nathaniel, thousands like him will be humanized, and all of us more sensitized. Skid rows exist in the nation in part because of the stigma associated with mental illness, and I think this story helps address our public policy failures. We know how to help those who were struck down through no fault of their own. We know how to help military veterans who come home shattered spiritually and mentally. But we don’t have enough of the programs, namely permanent supportive housing, that can help reclaim and rebuild lives. Those are our sons and daughters out there, our brothers and sisters, and we wouldn’t leave them camped out in a human corral if they had ovarian cancer or Parkinson’s. The story asks the public a question: why is it okay to shove people with a terrifying and debilitating mental illness into a human landfill?

JW – Your work with L. A. street people is a local legend. Are there others like Nathaniel Ayers out on the streets who have hidden talents, stories and dreams that their condition impedes or inhibits?

SL – There are thousands of Nathaniels out there. Not all of them are great musicians, as he is. Unfortunately, I don’t know that a book would have been written or a movie made if Nathaniel had been a plumber rather than a musician who once shared a stage with Yo-Yo Ma, but all those people out there have stories of heartbreak and hope. They’re a prophetic presence, a good friend of mine likes to say, reminding us of our obligations as citizens of the world. Meeting Mr. Ayers was a gift in my life. I’ve learned compassion, patience and hope. I’ve learned to look past stereotypes and generalizations. and I’ve been inspired by the way in which, for all his challenges, Mr. Ayers has something many of us do not – he knows the meaning of life. He has found purpose and passion, and he has been faithful to his love through the darkest and most difficult hours of his life.

Return to Tarawa - Restoring Desecrated Hallowed Ground

April 20th, 2009 in Military History by Jay Wertz

It is an insignificant piece of real estate in the central Pacific Ocean but to those who fought there for four days in November 1943, it was an address in hell. What made the Battle of Tarawa different from previous island clashes between United States and Japanese forces in the South Pacific was the level of Japanese defense. For the first time, U. S. Marines met stiff resistance to an amphibious landing, from the beach onward. And though the struggle for the atoll was fierce and costly for both sides – and the strategic significance to the American military operation ultimately questioned – the experience was a foreshadowing of important assaults later on other islands.

Among those who endured the landing under fire on Betio, the small islet where the battle was principally fought, was Leon Cooper, a U. S. Navy landing craft officer who ferried some of the 2nd Marine Division to Red Beach. It was a harrowing first combat experience for the young ensign.

“I still don’t know to this day how I survived. I saw scores of guys just falling … everywhere. We got on the beach fortunately. I wouldn’t allow these guys to get in the water because with their heavy packs they would have drowned.” Cooper didn’t think he would ever go back to Tarawa until a news item he uncovered a few years ago took him back with a disturbing report and photograph, “… a kid sitting on a garbage pile, a young Tarawan native obviously, and I looked closely at the picture of the boy and at this point I recognized that it was Red Beach where I had been as a young man many years before.”

Saddened by the image and the description of garbage littering the hallowed ground, Cooper commenced a correspondence campaign to bring the idea of a clean-up and memorial effort for Red Beach to the attention of U. S. authorities. His campaign was not successful, and so he returned to Tarawa with a camera crew to document the litter-strewn beach. Now that documentary, Return to Tarawa: The Leon Cooper Story, will air on The Military Channel at 10 pm Eastern Time, April 24. This also marks the debut of Military Channel’s History Fridays.

Narrated by Oscar-nominated actor Ed Harris, the program follows Cooper’s trip to the island and efforts to create a permanent war memorial. He met with the president of the Republic of Kiribati, the country formed from the former Gilbert Islands, and while the government is sympathetic to the issue, they lack the means to deal with the garbage dumped on the beach. As a result, Cooper has initiated a plan to get entrepreneurs to build a cost-effective and ecologically friendly incineration plant as an alternative. To date, the New Zealand government has commissioned a preliminary study of the idea.

In addition to garbage, Cooper also observed spent and live ammunition on the island. A group under contract from the government of Australia is still defusing live rounds there. And his attention was brought to yet another disturbing discovery.

“There are plenty of American remains still lying on that island,” says Cooper. Volunteer groups are accumulating evidence of this fact but according to Larry Greer, spokesman for the Department of Defense POW/MIA Office in Washington, none of the evidence has yet been presented to them. The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Honolulu is aware of the situation Cooper and others have pointed to at Tarawa and claims all leads on unrecovered remains are taken seriously.

The documentary brings attention to the need for proper dedication and memorializing of hallowed ground outside the United States even as challenges to maintain and expand domestic war sites continue. The vastness of the Pacific War means numerous locations currently have less than ideal commemoration. For now, Cooper is focusing on Tarawa, where a pristine beach with the 2nd Marine Division monument permanently displayed on it will give him the feeling that he has done something for those comrades he saw fall there, many of whom gave their last full measure of devotion on Red Beach.

A preview of the documentary and program times can be found on the Return to Tarawa website. An exclusvie interview with Leon Cooper appears on

We Shall Remain Brings Native American Stories to PBS

April 10th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

Native Americans have been part of American popular culture for centuries. Unfortunately, their portrayal has been primarily stereotypical and consequently negative. Wild West shows, cigar store Indians, Plains tribes labeled as “savages” in books and movies – these are the indelible images most Americans have of Native Americans. The most recent identifier tying “Indian” and “casino” in the same phrase has done little to bring America’s first residents into the cultural mainstream. The situation for Canada’s Native People has been much the same.

However, change is afoot. New books, commercial as well as academic; museums, cultural festivals and heritage centers – many of the latter funded with income from the casinos – are raising the visibility of the culture and history of Native Americans. The most significant, though certainly not the only heritage museum, is the National Museum of the American Indian, part of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C. In addition, films and film festivals, with works created by Native Americans, are raising awareness of the culture in the movie-going public. Nothing on film yet exists like the gritty, realistic portrayal of Latin American Indian culture in Apocalypto (2006), but it could happen soon. And now, finally, television has produced a high-profile, intelligent look at American Indians in We Shall Remain, a new five-part American Experience series from PBS icon WGBH in Boston.

I asked the series’ executive producer, Sharon Grimberg, why American Experience decided to introduce these programs now. Although this has been a five-year project, she points to the significance of recent changes in attitudes and politics as indicative of the willingness to accept painful periods of American history – slavery, the Civil Rights struggle, the elimination of the greater part of the Native American population – by a broader American public. She also sees current difficulties such as economic stress and environmental problems causing a period of societal upheaval not unlike previous pivotal changes on the continent.

“I think that’s what Native people went through. They had a way of life and everything was thrown up in the air and somehow they survived it.”

The stories are presented in dramatic form, punctuated by on-camera commentary from Native and non-Native scholars. The photography and staging are sometimes artful and panoramic, sometimes thrusting one in the middle of some detailed action or exchange. Routine and extraordinary events co-exist and are held together by the soothing yet determined narration of actor Benjamin Bratt. Indian characters and interviewees often speak in native tongues. The five programs cover a broad time span from first contact. They include “After the Mayflower”, “Tecumseh’s Vision”, “Trail of Tears”, “Geronimo” and “Wounded Knee.”

It is risky to attempt to tell the history of Native Americans, even that which has occurred since first contact, through these diverse, unrelated snapshots. An even greater concern is that these stories end in defeat or disappointment for Indians, ignoring the many positive ways they have shaped American culture. Grimberg defends the decision to separate the tales geographically and jump chronologically through different centuries. And, she says, “We wanted the stories to have strong characters that the audiences could connect to. We also wanted stories to represent the different ways the Native people resisted and ultimately survived; to show that Native people were ingenious, courageous and adaptive in their responses.”

An ambitious outreach plan accompanies the airing of the programs, focused on 15 cities in which PBS affiliates involve schools, libraries, Native American and other organizations in screenings, discussions and other activities. Grimberg says, “I hope that this sparks a national conversation about this history, a new awareness about its complexity and a new respect for Native people.” Certainly the time to do this is right, and the need is great.

Editor’s note: Visit Great History’s partner site History Net to view a slideshow of Native American images and read What Do We Owe the Indians?

Slumdog Millionaire Benefits From Quiz Show Heritage

April 1st, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

Americans have always been fascinated with get-rich-quick schemes – and why not? This is the land of opportunity, and if one can make it big by getting an “edge,” more power to him! It was only natural, then, that the pioneering commercial television industry would seize on this idea and develop the quiz show format program. A relatively simple concept, the quiz show offered average Americans the opportunity to compete for cash prizes, pitted against unseen experts – the question writers. Toss in an engaging host and there were all the makings for entertaining programming. Early examples from the 1950s were The $64,000 Question, Twenty-One and You Bet Your Life, the latter featuring the zany antics of host Groucho Marx.

It wasn’t long before quiz shows morphed into game shows and featured new wrinkles, such as celebrities teamed with or against contestants, merchandising offshoots and new forms of competition – not just mental, but physical as well. And the trend went worldwide as commercial television networks across the globe craved the audiences and relatively cheap production requirements of the format.

Which brings us to Slumdog Millionaire, last year’s popular- and critical-hit movie that garnered a staggering eight Oscars in the recent 81st Annual Academy Awards. The film explores the world of contestant Jamal, a poor Mumbai teenager, on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, a popular quiz show that began airing on ABC in 1999. Aspects of the film mirror the history of the quiz show genre – an average guy the audience can relate to, tension building as Jamal reaches the final round, a dynamic host who whips up suspense and . . . accusations of cheating.

Such was the case in the real-life scandal on Twenty-One, which led to a U. S. Congressional probe in 1959. The investigation revealed that contestants on popular shows were tipped to answers in order to keep audiences rooting for certain attractive players, resulting in high ratings for the shows. The facts and personalities of the scandal were the basis for the 1994 movie Quiz Show, directed by Robert Redford.

In Slumdog Millionaire, Jamal is accused of cheating, but as the story unfolds, it reveals a different reason for his unusual ability to nail every question. The path his young life has taken is the key to his success, and the way it is dramatized keys the success of the film.

The interest level produced by the film is prompting ABC to consider bringing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire back to prime-time TV in the fall. The star and director of Slumdog Millionaire have been invited to appear on the UK’s version of the quiz show to raise money for charity. And Make Me a Millionaire is a California Lottery game that mimics the show. Never underestimate the power of get-rich-quick opportunity and fifteen minutes (or more) of fame to stir up a frenzy in popular culture.

Watchmen Revisited - Superheroes versus Real Heroes

March 23rd, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

Watchmen, the movie based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore, features a rambling storyline of geo-political scenarios that borrow from the history of the late 20th century. Woven into Moore’s prose is the threat of Communism, with its perceived ideal of world domination opposed by the free nations; and the buildup of arms and nuclear weapons hurling the planet toward the possibility of Mutually Assured Destruction. In this created world, Moore and the film’s director, Zack Snyder, spin the tales of superheroes, including Dr. Manhattan who, with his fearsome power, wins the Vietnam War, keeps the Soviets at bay and performs other deeds for the government, as does his unsavory associate The Comedian.

The real story of this period has many heroes. I offer here a few examples of those who faced danger and sometimes recrimination to take their places in the history of the Cold War period.

USAF pilot Francis Gary Powers logged many hours flying the Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance jet for the CIA when he became a Cold War casualty. A Soviet surface-to-air missile took the plane down over Sverdlovsk on May 1, 1960. Powers parachuted to safety but was unable to destroy the craft and the jet survived the impact well enough for the Russians to recover its sensitive spy equipment. Powers was tried for espionage in the Soviet Union and received a harsh sentence but was exchanged within a year for a KGB agent. Back home he was initially criticized for not destroying the plane or committing suicide prior to interrogation. A Senate panel cleared him and he returned to the air as a test pilot. He was killed while piloting a news helicopter in Los Angeles in 1977 and was decorated for his CIA work posthumously. In an effort to understand his father better, Gary Powers Jr. founded the Cold War Museum and recently talked about both to

Two of the many heroic actions performed by U. S. military personnel during the Vietnam War were at Hill 488 and the Dong Ha Bridge. In June 1966 thousands of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers advanced through rugged mountains toward the American air base at Chu Lai. U. S. Marine recon forces watched their progress and called in bomb strikes. On June 15, a detachment of 16 Marines and two Navy corpsmen under Staff Sergeant Jimmie Earl Howard fought off a force of more than 400 VC that was advancing up all sides of the virtually coverless small plateau known as Hill 488. Howard used a number of clever techniques to heighten the spirits of his men and play psychological warfare on the VC, who withdrew shortly after dawn. Howard was awarded the Medal of Honor and the force became the most highly decorated small unit in U. S. military history.

Capt. John W. Ripley, while acting as an advisor to South Vietnamese Marines, single-handedly placed 500 pounds of TNT along the substructure of a key bridge at Dong Ha while under fire. His strategic placement of the boxes of explosives and successful detonation on April 2, 1972, resulted in the bridge’s complete destruction in front of 20,000 advancing NVA soldiers and 200 tanks. The highly decorated Marine retired as a colonel and passed away late last year.

Finally the USS Pueblo, a Navy technical research ship, was fired upon and boarded by North Korean forces on January 23, 1968. The North Koreans maintained the ship was spying within territorial waters when they seized the vessel and jailed and tortured the crew. The ship’s captain, Cmdr. Lloyd M. Bucher, was forced to sign a confession of espionage, though he cleverly mocked his captors in the process. After 11 months the crewmen were released. Court martial was recommended for Bucher and another officer but never carried out. The ship remains in North Korean hands though it is still a commissioned vessel. Ironically, this week the Communist government of China is wrangling with the Navy over spy vessels in the South China Sea. As long as nations distrust each other the Cold War will continue to play out in some form.

'Brothers at War' Takes Audiences Behind the Headlines in Iraq

March 13th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

The word “passion” is often used today to describe a person’s commitment to something. Sports journalists write about “a passion for winning.” One can be passionate about exotic cars or fine wines. For Jake Rademacher,  it is not a stretch to say he was doubly passionate about producing his film, Brothers at War. The reason lies in the nature of this unusual work. Rademacher decided to make the film – his first – about his two brothers and their deployments into the combat zones of Iraq.

Jake Rademacher dreamed of becoming a soldier but his life took a different direction. However, two of his younger siblings chose that path. Isaac, right behind him, graduating from West Point and serving in the Army officer corps and Joe, enlisting and becoming an Army Ranger and sniper. Isaac had already been to Afghanistan and Iraq by the time Joe became a member of his company in Iraq. In order to understand what his brothers were going through beyond what was gleaned from, as Jake put it, “the 30-second clips we were seeing on the news of the war,” he decided to find out for himself by going to the war zone and documenting his journey.

Creating any film project is difficult, more so for a first time producer-director. To go into an active combat zone to film a personal look at a current and sometimes controversial war is a near impossibility. Jake’s passion for his quest was strong enough to overcome a number of obstacles. He had to find an experienced producer who could convince the Pentagon to grant Jake and his crew access and security clearances. Veteran television producer Norman Powell (American Valor, 24) learned of the project and agreed to back it for this purpose. To finance the project Jake returned to his home town of Decatur, Illinois and solicited the help of small business owners who, “voted with their pocketbooks to make this film a reality.”

He also had to seek distribution for the film. After disappointing results trying to get television outlets interested, a mutual friend introduced veteran actor and director Gary Sinise (Forrest Gump, CSI: NY) to the film. Impressed, Sinise signed on as executive producer and arranged a screening in Hollywood. He was instrumental in the film’s gaining distribution as a feature documentary. The film struck a chord with Sinise; he has distinguished himself entertaining America’s deployed military.

“I’ve met so many extraordinary people serving our country that, when I saw this film, it visualizes what I see very well,” he said. “It’s a great story about a brother’s love for his two brothers serving in the military, and these two guys and the men and women who are seen in this film are the people that I see on these trips.” Others, including venture capitalist David Scantling, came on board to help get the word out.

Other obstacles were more personal for Jake. He had to convince his family to express their thoughts and emotions on camera – the role of the family in adapting to and supporting loved ones deployed to combat is a key theme in this film and one that creates many touching moments. And Jake had to gain the trust and respect of his brothers – to put themselves on the line for the film as they were already doing for their country.

The result is a gritty, thought-provoking work that goes beyond news sound bites. In Jake’s two journeys to Iraq he actually spends little time with his brothers there, but quite a bit with soldiers whose trust and respect he has to gain. The film examines why and how they fight, who and what they leave back home as well as the relationships between the Americans and Iraqis in the war zones. It’s a special kind of personal look in which anyone in the audience can find relevance and understanding. Following special screenings in select military cities, the film opens nationwide. The Brothers at War website includes a space for military men, women and their families to share their experiences. An interview with Gary Sinise and Jake Rademacher will appear on Armchair shortly.

New HBO Film Deftly Explores Sensitive Subject

March 10th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

Taking Chance, the new HBO film which premiered on February 21 with frequent replay on the HBO Network, is much more than a clever title. It is neither a war film nor an anti-war film, but a work dealing with a most sensitive role of the U. S. military during armed strife – the treatment of the remains of fallen soldiers. In this case “Chance” refers to Pvt. 1st Class Chance Phelps, a young U. S. Marine killed in Iraq in 2004.

He comes to the attention of Marine Lt. Col. Michael Stobl, an officer on desk assignment at Quantico, Virginia played by Kevin Bacon. Stobl then decides to volunteer for the first time as a military escort to Phelps’ remains. What started as Stobl’s report of the week-long escort duty and funeral attendance created a buzz on military websites and resulted in the film project. For an in-depth look at the film from Stobl’s and Bacon’s perspectives, see HBO Films’ Taking Chance – Kevin Bacon, Michael Stobl Interview on Armchair

The focus of Bacon’s character is on the role of the escort, a tradition that began as a result of the formation of the Bring Home the Dead League after World War I. Thousands of war dead were returned from burials in France and escorts accompanied them home. A veteran officer of the conflict, Paxton Hibben, wrote in The New York Times in 1920, “No appropriate expense, however, is spared that is fitting the last journey of a man who has died for his country.”

The escort tradition was in flux until the end of the Korean Conflict and was handled separately by the different service branches. Then, as in the case documented in the film, remains began to be sent to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, to what is now the Charles Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs. Here all the details of preparing the body for its final resting place are performed, as well as briefing of the escorts. The mortuary is the focal point of military funeral preparations in the United States and has also performed services for other high-profile situations including handling remains of Jonestown victims, Challenger and Columbia astronauts, and 911 victims.

The procedure has also changed since Chance Phelps’ journey home. A new Federal law eliminates commercial airline transport of the remains unless requested by the family. Honor guards, not baggage handlers, remove the bodies from military or military chartered aircraft away from other airport operations. But the escorts remain, and play an important role in honoring the memory of the fallen. The film succeeds in telling this little-known story in a touching and dramatic form, and brings the true cost of war home to everyone in a way rarely seen.

Is Watchmen a History Lesson?

March 6th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

The Watchmen movie is the cinematic embodiment of the 1986 graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore, illustrated by Dave Gibbons. The novel was hailed as a brilliant work of fantasy fiction at the time, with a deeper analysis of the personalities of the superheroes depicted in its pages. Other popular comic heroes had for generations pitted good against evil in illustrated stories that, by their nature, left little room for interpretation.

By all accounts, the film, which took years to develop under veteran Hollywood producer Lawrence Gordon and passed from studio to studio in the process – is a faithful reflection of the printed version. Director Zack Snyder, who won over fantasy aficionados and gore freaks with his stylized 300, another graphic novel-based film, incorporates successful techniques from that film with a palette of 20th-century design motifs that reflect the film’s place in time – 1985 – and numerous treks into the back stories of the characters. Sophisticated visual effects, intense performances by the cast of lesser known actors (some big names, including John Cusack, Sigourney Weaver and Keanu Reeves were associated with the project at different times), and a Snyder trademark, lots of oozing and dripping sugar blood, make the film highly stylized. The movie is a credible interpretation of its roots as a narrative moved forward by thought balloons and colorful comic realism.

What this has to do with history is in the story’s ability to draw an alternative America of the latter 20th Century with factual touchstones. Set primarily in New York, the film projects a broader Cold War, with hot items like the Vietnam War and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy tied to the characters’ stories. Many of the historic events are in the past by the time the violent murder of the sleaziest of the Watchmen, The Comedian, starts a truth search in which fellow Watchman Rorschach seeks to reinvigorate and revalidate the Watchmen’s purpose. The others, Nite Owl, Silk Spectre, Ozymandias as well as Dr. Manhattan who, like The Comedian, was in the employ of the federal government, are forced to revisit the past they thought was behind them. The series of flashbacks in the story provides a look into the second half of the 20th century in which the Watchmen, and their crime-fighting predecessors, thrived.

It will be interesting to see how well audiences relate to the global threat – nuclear war and the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction with a Soviet menace - that Moore wove into the story. One symbolic device he used was a countdown clock with midnight representing the time of the world’s destruction. Snyder chose to leave the setting alone, rather than update the threats to the world with modern problems of terrorism and economic suffocation. Scenes depicting a strategic war room in which leaders assess the damage from a first nuclear strike, Viet Cong laying down their arms (to an all-powerful Dr, Manhattan) and political manipulations of the president, (a power hungry Richard M. Nixon), will not relate the complex problems of the era to a young audience. But after all, this is a story about superheroes and their own personal complexities, and in that regard the film is likely to intrigue, entertain and satisfy a broad spectrum of viewers. For a preview of the movie from many angles, visit the Watchmen website.

Abraham Lincoln in the Movies

February 23rd, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

The life of Abraham Lincoln is being explored in every way possible during this period celebrating the bicentennial of his birth—so naturally, I’ve decided to add one more. To get a unique perspective on how Lincoln has been portrayed as the larger-than-life personality he is in the larger-than-life media, I contacted five people who are among those most familiar with the Lincoln legacy. The question I put to them was, “Who in your opinion has given the best Abraham Lincoln performance and in what movie or television production?”

One overriding theme among the responses was that these performances should be judged in their own time frame. Hence, as Dr. Gerald Prokopowicz, Acting Chair of History at East Carolina University, pointed out, Walter Houston’s portrayal in D. W. Griffith’s Lincoln (1930) should be viewed differently from Sam Waterston’s characterization in Lincoln (1988), based on Gore Vidal’s novel. As the former scholar-in-residence of the recently closed Lincoln Museum of Fort Wayne, Indiana, Prokopowicz generated a video exhibit on “Lincoln in the movies” that included the late film critic Gene Siskel. Among other observations made in that program and in Dr. Prokopowicz’s recent book, Did Lincoln Own Slaves? are the worst Lincoln movie—The Lincoln Conspiracy (1977), which he says “is a complete fiasco”—and what is probably one of the most unusual of the 200-plus movie and TV portrayals of the president: Lincoln teamed with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock to battle icons of notorious historical villains that included Genghis Khan, in the Star Trek episode “The Savage Curtain” (1969).

Judge Frank Williams, retired Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court and current literary editor of The Lincoln Herald, likes Waterston as well as Raymond Massey’s portrayal in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940). Massey also played Lincoln in John Ford’s epic How the West Was Won (1962). Judge Williams complimented Gregory Peck’s Lincoln in the television mini-series The Blue and the Gray (1982), too.

The favorite portrayal “by a large margin” for Dr. James M. McPherson, author of Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief and other works of the period, is Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939).

Thomas Mackie, director of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum at Lincoln Memorial University, noted Lincoln’s portrayal in the National Park Service film Abraham Lincoln: A Journey to Greatness as encouraging but is looking into the future for a performance with a “bite” that he feels will capture the spirit in which Lincoln delivered his sharp wit, which at times could be acerbic.

Frequent contributor to Civil War Times Illustrated and noted Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer gave specific notes on his favorite Lincoln: “Without question, Sam Waterston: he not only played Lincoln brilliantly on Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, the network mini-series, he has recreated Lincoln on stage, in readings (many with me, for which I feel blessed, as do his audiences), and as Lincoln’s voice in Ken Burns’ The Civil War. No one has ever better captured the timbre, tone, and spirit of Lincoln’s words.”

Another television documentary in which Lincoln’s words were used extensively was Smithsonian’s Great Battles of the Civil War. As director of the series, I supervised all the voice-over sessions, including Charlton Heston’s readings of Lincoln. The late actor came into the session and told me he had studied the 16th president and had great admiration for him. He asked to be allowed to give his interpretations first and, afterward, if I had any suggestions, we could do the lines again. No second takes were necessary.

So who will be the next Lincoln in the movies? Liam Neeson, in Steven Spielberg’s much anticipated film Lincoln, now in pre-production. Judge Williams, who has spoken with the award-winning actor during bicentennial events, thinks Neeson will make “an excellent Lincoln.”

The Day the Music Died

February 16th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

Fifty years ago this month the fledgling world of rock ‘n’ roll endured its first major tragedy. Singers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J P “The Big Bopper” Richardson, along with their 21-year-old pilot, died early on February 3, 1959, when their chartered Beechcraft Bonanza crashed just after taking off from the snowy airport in Mason City, Iowa. The singers had completed a concert in nearby Clear Lake hours earlier and were continuing on to Moorhead, Minnesota, the next stop of the Winter Dance Party, while the rest of the tour musicians traveled by bus. By this time all three had hit records: Buddy Holly was rivaling Elvis Presley as rock ‘n’ roll’s top star; Valens, né Valenzuela, was pioneering Chicano rock; and Richardson was a known singer, songwriter and DJ. The lives of these three young celebrities and their abrupt endings were detailed in two biopics, The Buddy Holly Story (1978,) La Bamba (1987,) numerous documentaries and books, and one mega-hit song, Don McLean’s “American Pie,” with arguably the most studied lyrics in all of pop music.

For teenager Jack Hoffman, living in tiny LeMars, Iowa, at the time, the event had a special meaning. Jack was a member of The Jags, a teenage rock ‘n’ roll group that had a following in the upper Midwest. They had a record out at the time, “Hey Little Girl,” which was a regional hit and got airplay elsewhere in the country. The recording served primarily as radio play to whip up interest in the band as they toured from town to town. So, Jags was rock ‘n’ roll slang for Jaguars? No, it was the label name of the blazers the group wore to perform.

At that time dance marathons were in vogue. The headliners would play one or two sets, then bands like the Jags would play out the remainder of these concerts that could go six hours or more.

The Jags already knew they would be performing such a service as the Winter Dance Party came to Sioux City, Iowa, on Friday, February 6. Jack and the other band members were looking forward to their first encounter with Holly, Valens and Richardson; The Jags did cover versions of “Peggy Sue” and other chart-toppers by these stars. But when Jack was in school on the morning of the 3rd, a school official brought news of the crash to his class, “and when we heard that they were killed it was like being hit by a truck, we were all terribly upset about it.”

But even with a tragedy of this magnitude, the show must go on. Filling in at the Moorhead concert was a local kid later known as Bobby Vee. The Sioux City gig remained on the schedule. The Jags’ manager called the band to inform them that their role in the concert would change-they were going to play in place of Buddy Holly and the other two singers and more than double their time on stage.

Jack remembers the mood of the audience that night as being understandably different. The crazy dance steps were less pronounced, the shrieks of the teenage girls were decidedly subdued. Although there were a few headliners on the bill-he remembers Frankie Avalon and Conway Twitty-he doesn’t recall seeing Dion, Holly bassist Waylon Jennings, or anyone else from the Clear Lake concert. Undoubtedly they were in shock and already heading home. After their performance The Jags and the other musicians went out for food together and conversed about the tragedy.

Jack spends most of his time now engineering a new design of aerial firefighting equipment from his home in San Diego and playing drums and piano in local pickup gigs. In the fall of 2005 he and the rest of The Jags reunited for a special occasion back home-induction into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Certainly the meeting of old friends turned to reminiscing of the peak era of The Jags’ popularity and their bittersweet memories of “The Day the Music Died.”

Hollywood, History and Presidents

February 10th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

Hollywood and history go together like ham and eggs, or in California, perhaps sprouts and endive. For that reason this blog will attempt to explore history in entertainment and visa-versa. Since the United States just inaugurated its 44th president I thought it would be interesting to look back at some portrayals of fictional commanders-in-chief, characters in films and TV who outnumber the men who have held the office.

They have appeared in dramas, comedies, animated films and television episodes too numerous to count. Some have garnered starring roles and others barely get mentioned in the credits. They may be unseen, adding only a voice, or affecting the story without ever appearing. The position carries certain assumptions that the writer can avoid scripting. America’s president as a movie character essentially began in science fiction films of the 1950s—When Worlds Collide (1951,) Red Planet Mars (1952,) War of the Satellites (1958)—then really took hold with a number of Cold War–, espionage- and terrorism-themed films.

Here are a few favorites-movies that create the kind of suspense and drama that challenges the soul of a public servant. Fredric March as President Jordan Lyman stood up to a powerful military leader who was after his job in Seven Days in May (1964). Henry Fonda not only played Abraham Lincoln but was also a fictional president trying to avert nuclear disaster in Fail-Safe (1964). Peter Sellers tackled the same issue in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964); he was outrageously funny playing the president and two other characters in Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy of the Cold War.

Tom Clancy has mastered the art of blowing up international incidents into high drama, and he often uses the U.S. president as a character. On screen, Donald Moffat was calculating as a scheming president in Clear and Present Danger (1994) while James Cromwell sweated through a face-off with the Russians in The Sum of All Fears (2002). Clancy film protagonist Harrison Ford introduced the president as action hero in Air Force One (1997). Kevin Pollack worked through an epic crisis in the little-known gem Deterrence (1999).

In some cases audience expectations of “presidential” qualities give way to the human side of the leader. Michael Douglas played a dashing widower in the romantic comedy The American President (1995) while Alan Alda amused in Michael Moore’s send-up Canadian Bacon (1995). It was only a matter of time before the president would enter that staple of prime-time television, the workplace drama, in this case the workplace being the Oval Office. Hugely popular, The West Wing (1999-2006) showed Martin Sheen as both president and ordinary guy. Geena Davis convincingly balanced the challenges of country and family in Commander-in-Chief (2005-2006).

The leader of the free world will always be of interest to creators and audiences of cinema and television. Whether biographical or fictional, the list of characters playing the chief executive will lengthen over time. The latest entry is Monsters vs. Aliens, due out this March, with Stephen Colbert giving voice to an animated president of the United States.

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