Sunday, March 28, 2010

Worth 1,000 Words: Cowboy Superstar BUCK JONES rides the KC range

This unpublished photo of Buck Jones astride his steed Silver was taken during a visit to Kansas City, Mo. during the 1930s. Not much is known about the exact date and circumstances, but Buck was probably part of a parade. Judging by the long gone R. S. Elliott Arms Co. sign down the street on left, the location should be 15th and Grand Ave. It is interesting to see the streetcar tracks and overhead power lines. [from Steve Crum’s showbiz memorabilia collection]

By Steve Crum

BUCK JONES (Dec. 12, 1891-Nov. 30, 1942), like Ohioan Roy Rogers, was a major cowboy movie star not bred in the West. Buck was born Charles Frederick Gebhart in Vincennes, Indiana. Much like the western knights he portrayed later, Buck’s heroics began when he was 16 years old. After joining the army and fighting in the Moro Rebellion in the Philippines, 1907-09, the teenager was mustered out of the service after being wounded. He re-enlisted a year later, desiring to be an airplane pilot, but was disqualified since he was not an officer. In 1913, his military career ended.

Then Buck Jones the cowboy emerged. He was working as a ranch hand in Bliss, Oklahoma when he met his future wife, “Dell,” who was an expert rider. Together, they joined a Wild West show and briefly toured. To make more money, Buck signed on at Universal Studios as a bit player and stuntman. Before long, his charisma, looks and horsemanship brought him his first starring role, in the 1920 silent, The Last Straw. Buck was soon among the top movie cowboys in popularity and money making, joining the ranks of Hoot Gibson, Tom Mix and Ken Maynard. 

In 1928, he felt independent enough to start his own movie studio, which did not last. Signing with Columbia Pictures in the early 1930s, Buck began his career in cowboy movies with sound. By the early 1940s, he had 160 cowboy flicks under his fancy belt. By this time, there was the successful “Buck Jones Model” air rifle sold by Daisy. Unlike the Red Ryder model, it was distinguished by having a sundial in the stock.

Buck’s career tragically ended following 1942’s infamous Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston. Legend has it that Buck initially escaped and then went back in to rescue patrons. Historians now say he was merely one of those trapped behind doors that would not open among highly flammable surroundings. Buck and 241 others died.
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Listen to the Buck Jones song, and view images, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZ_P1ZdQcys

Friday, March 19, 2010

Worth 1,000 Words: FESS PARKER's DAVY CROCKETT


By Steve Crum

"Born on a mountain top in Tennessee" he was not, yet FESS PARKER, who died yesterday at age 85, will forever be DAVY CROCKETT, the frontiersman, congressman, and legendary hero of the Alamo. Thanks to Walt Disney and the millions of children who watched Davy Crockett and his adventures on TV beginning in 1954, Fess Parker (Aug. 16, 1924 in Ft. Worth, Texas-March 18, 2010) is THE coonskin hat wearer of all time.

After graduating with a Bachelor's Degree in History, and working toward a Master's in Theater History, Fess Parker veered toward acting. After small roles in Warner Brothers films beginning in 1950, Parker was discovered by Walt Disney, who was casting the lead role of Davy Crockett in an upcoming miniseries on the Disneyland TV show. Disney, the story goes, caught Parker in a minute role in the sci fi classic, Them!, and soon selected Parker over Buddy Ebsen as Crockett. Ebsen was recast as Crockett's sidekick, Georgie Russell.

Only three episodes were planned for the Davy Crockett saga, ending with Crockett's death at the Alamo. It was one of the few, literally overnight sensations in the history of show business. The nation, and eventually the world, became Crockett crazy. Caught off guard, the Disney corporation had no Crockett merchandise ready to peddle. However, it did not take long for Davy Crockett toys, games, and coonskin hats to hit the market and sell in the millions. The Ballad of Davy Crockett, sung throughout the three TV episodes, was in the Top 10. In fact, there were no less than three singers of the same song in the Top 10 at the same time: Bill Hayes, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Fess Parker himself. Disney rapidly released two prequels of the Crockett story, and they were ratings hits as well. Soon all five TV episodes were edited into two feature length movies.

Still under contract to Disney, Fess Parker starred in The Great Locomotive Chase, Old Yeller, and Westward Ho! The Wagons. Post-Disney, Parker starred in the short lived series, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Typecast as a frontiersman, Parker signed with NBC-TV for the series, Daniel Boone. From 1964-70, Fess Parker wore the moccasins, fringe leather, and cookskin cap once again. Before retiring from acting, Parker turned down the role of modern lawman cowboy McCloud. Instead, Dennis Weaver successfully took the role. Soon after, Parker opened the Fess Parker Family Winery & Vineyards in Los Olivos, California. His logo on the award winning wines produced under his name: "The Golden Coonskin Hat." Fess Parker died of natural causes on his wife's 84th birthday.
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The photo at right of the younger Davy Crockett was taken on May 28, 1955, when yours truly, then Stevie Crum, turned seven. For most of that day, I channeled Fess Parker's Davy Crockett as I scouted our neighborhood for bears and cantankerous keelboaters like Mike Fink, King of the River. It was a joy portraying my hero, The King of the Wild Frontier. (from Steve Crum's showbiz memorabilia collection)
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Here is Fess Parker as Davy Crockett in a scene from Davy Crockett at the Alamo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v2Tu8NskR-E

Monday, March 15, 2010

Worth 1,000 Words: AL JOLSON & WILLIE RITCHIE


WHAT A KNOCKOUT PHOTO! Sitting in a 1920's (or earlier) touring car are The World's Greatest Entertainer, AL JOLSON (May 26. 1886-Oct. 23, 1950), alongside The World's Lightweight Boxing Champion, WILLIE RITCHIE (Feb. 13, 1891-March 24, 1975). Someone has written their names in white ink on the photo. The vintage photograph, stamped on the back by the Laval Co. Inc. Commercial Photography of Fresno, CA, is rich in personalities depicted, but weak on any specific information as to the year, location and circumstances under which it was taken. [from Steve Crum's collection]

Ritchie's birth name, Gerhardt Anthony Steffan, was changed to hide the fact from his mother that he had taken up boxing. He began his boxing career in 1907, and eventually became the World's Lightweight Champ (1912-14). He retired from boxing in 1927, the same year Jolson's heralded talkie, The Jazz Singer, premiered. Willie Ritchie was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1962. 
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If anyone has information about the top photo with Jolson (a Where, What, Why or How would be welcome), please enter such in the comment link below.
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For rarely seen footage of Willie Ritchie's July 4, 1913 Lightweight Championship (which he won) vs Joe Rivers, link here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfBmJZ401Qg

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Worth 1,000 Words: GABBY HAYES leads the sidekick parade



By Steve Crum

GEORGE “GABBY” HAYES (May 7, 1885-Feb. 9, 1969) is arguably THE best of the cowboy movie sidekicks. Not taking anything away from Smiley Burnette, "Fuzzy" St. John, Max Terhune, Pat Brady, Andy Devine, and the dozen or so more sidekicks, it is Gabby Hayes who cowboy movie fans usually remember most fondly when the good old days of shoot ‘em up B-western films are discussed.

Gabby played sidekick, ie: backup, comedy support who could use his pistol and fists when necessary, with the best of the best western stars. He was first Hopalong Cassidy’s sidekick Windy Halliday from 1935-39. Then a salary dispute with Paramount triggered (good verb, huh?) a move to Republic Pictures, which became Hayes’ home studio for years. His screen name was changed to Gabby Whitaker as he rode alongside Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Wild Bill Elliott in over 40 oaters through 1946. He supported Randolph Scott in six movies, and John Wayne in 20. Most of the time he was the sidekick, but he frequently played a character role outside his norm. Gabby’s last role was with Randolph Scott in 1950’s The Cariboo Trail. (He played "Grizzly" Winters in that one.)

Then Gabby moseyed into Saturday morning television with NBC’s The Gabby Hayes Show (1950-54). In 1956, his show moved to ABC for a brief time. At that time, there were popular Gabby Hayes comic books as well as a Gabby Hayes Children’s Summer Camp in New York.

It was an impressive career journey for one of seven Hayes kids born in Wellsville, New York. Gabby did not seem to age that much over the years he was a cowboy icon, probably due to the fact his greying, grizzled beard and removal of his false teeth kept him looking older than his real age. To this day, he is still considered (and often satirized) the premier and most beloved cowboy movie sidekick of them all. Check out Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles as well as the singing group Riders in the Sky. Their “Sidemeat” character is pretty much Gabby.

Every year in April, at the start of trout season, a group of old friends and admirers gather in Pennsylvania to participate in the Gabby Hayes Memorial Fishing Expedition. Gabby would surely get a "kick" out of it.
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FROM A SMALL PHOTO taken from way back and above the crowd, Gabby Hayes rides in a convertible while in a parade. I acquired this unpublished snapshot years ago without any explanation as to the location and date. It appears to be in the late 1930's or early ‘40s. If anyone knows anything about the location (using a magnifying glass might help ID the town), please leave a comment below. [from Steve Crum's showbiz memorabilia collection]
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Here is some of the best of Gabby: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7koigiUq7GE

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Depp + 3D visuals are 'Alice in Wonderland' draw power


By Steve Crum

With Alice in Wonderland in 3D, you get not only Johnny Depp, but Johnny In-Depth. That pun out of the way, be aware that Tim Burton’s partially live action remake of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is an eyeful, and that is about it. Its 108 minutes seem laboriously longer, and Depp and company ham upon ham.

Without the 3D, which is frequently used cleverly, Alice would only marginally deserve a second looking glass look. Incorporating the songs from the 1951 cartoon would have helped immensely. Since Disney produced both films, why not? As it is, Burton has directed a surprisingly lifeless take on Lewis Carroll’s classic fairy tale. Even Depp’s endless mugging can’t save it from the pit wherein Alice falls.

But visually, which is where this Alice really radiates, there are many riches. Ken Ralston’s visual effects are stunning and surreal; Colleen Atwood’s costumes are dazzling; and Dariusz Wolski’s photography is spot on. However, all suffer because most scenes are so darkly shot. How can one fully appreciate their good work when even the brightest days seem like sundown or dusk? Either Burton and Wolksi purposely took the visual design from Arthur Rackham’s sepia-tone illustrations for the 1907 publishing of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (which includes dimly lit imagery) or the problem was at my screening. Perhaps the 3D projector had an under-watted bulb?

From 1903 to the present, there have been 16 film adaptations and numerous TV and video productions of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy novel. Originally published in 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was followed by Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871). So what has Tim Burton brought to the Hatter’s table? For one, he and screenwriter Linda Woolverton have included doses of Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky, first featured in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. In fact, Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter humorously recites its nonsensical lines at one point.

Unlike Disney’s classic animated film, most of Burton’s Alice features a young adult heroine (played by Mia Wasikowska), even though the story opens 13 years earlier when the child Alice first encounters or fantasizes about “Underland.” The older Alice, living in Victorian England, is about to be engaged to a young man about whom she does not care. Distracted by a large rabbit at an outdoor surprise party, Alice runs after the critter, tracks it to a large hole in the ground, and promptly falls in. She then arrives in Wonderland, aka Underland, encountering adventures familiar to most viewers. There are the potions she drinks for both shrinking and growing tall, the Mad Hatter’s tea party, encounters with the wise caterpillar and the floating cat, and her relationships with both the good White Queen and the evil Red Queen. I do like the Red Queen's footstool. Talk about hamming it up!

For the record, Helena Bonham Carter sneers as Red Queen; Anne Hathaway is sweet goodness as White Queen; Crispin Glover’s head digitally sits atop a tall and evil knight called Stayne, Knave of Hearts; and Matt Lucas has his face morphed on the roly-poly, identical twins Tweedledee and Tweedledum. There is fine voice work by Stephen Fry (Cheshire Cat), Alan Rickman (Blue Caterpillar), Michael Sheen (White Rabbit), Paul Whitehouse (March Hare), Timothy Spall (Bayard), and Barbara Windsor’s Dormouse.

What most will come to see, outside of the 3D, is Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Mad Hatter, and they won’t be disappointed. Depp is basically doing a blend of Willy Wonka and Captain Jack, which translates to goofy, yet heroic, innocence. That, as previously said, includes his patented facial takes and mugging. Nothing wrong here since our greatest screen clowns had their shtick too. Count how many times Danny Kaye repeated his facial contortions in picture after picture throughout his screen career. Kaye fans loved him for it, and so now do Depp fans.

Mention should be made that Alice in Wonderland is pretty heavy on beheadings and like violence, certainly too intense for younger kids. In days of yon, this PG rated film would surely have garnered at least a PG-13.

Incidentally, the 3D is effectively used throughout Alice in Wonderland, but the pudding’s plum occurs in the very last second of the film. While it doesn’t qualify as a grand finale, it certainly outgrabes the mome raths. My Hatter’s tip to Lewis Carroll.
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On an A to F grade scale: B-
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Beware the Red Queen as you view the Alice in Wonderland trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LjMkNrX60mA