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What to explore: How Santa continues to conquer the Martians (collectively)
It is 1964, and New York-based producer Paul L. Jacobson, armed with a $200,000 budget and a cast assembled from the ranks of the Broadway stage, as well as a crew comprised of behind-the-scenes principals from the ranks of New York area television, has set out to create a big, large scale science fiction adventure starring ..... Santa Claus? There are many individuals who have, over the 30 or so years since Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was first released, tried to explore the many reasons why this particular story, so remarkably third-rate in terms of sets, scripting and even special effects, and yet, in one sense prophetic, given that the story foretells at one point the short attention span of the succeeding generation of children to come. Still, the adventure Santa shares with the Foster children, Billy and Betty, as they spend their time in the house dwelt in by Kimar, Momar and their kids, Bomar and Girmar, has a degree of suspense and dignity.
In the scenes taking place at the region called Chochem's Chair, the wise old Martian sage rants that the children of Mars are rising up in rebellion, for the simple reason that they have not yet discovered the meaning of fun. Only Santa Claus, Chochem proclaims, can provide such a meaning. For the remainder of the film, we follow Kimar and his crew, including hilarious Dropo, the laziest Martian of them all; and Voldar, the jealous, petulant angry person who sees Santa's presence as a potential threat to the Martian future.
There are many who have discussed young Pia Zadora and her appearance in this film --- and, frankly, these descriptions run the gamut from too cute to too campy and back again. Yet such descriptions are noted here because recently Penguin Books USA has published an unprecedented novelization of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, written by film historian Lou Harry. In his version, in which he uses approximately 90 per cent of the actual dialogue taken verbatim from the film itself, the story is presented from the perspective of a now grown-up Girmar, who has succeeded her father as ruler of Mars. Harry's Girmar narrates the tale in a sort of Valley Girl/Queen of Outer Space sort of dialect; indeed, her account of the film's concluding toyshop battle, wherein she and her brother, along with the Fosters, pummel Voldar with toy after toy, ultimately leaving him in tears, will send your funny bone into the stratosphere --- somewhat.
The final verdict has still not yet been fully written regarding Santa Claus Conquers the Martians --- there will be many more historians who will argue its reasons for being --- but one thing is certain: however many times one may call it a flop, there will be others who will wonder what producer Jacobson was "on," if you will, when he conceived the project. What will matter in the end is the simple question: Did you enjoy the movie already? If you did, wonderful; if not, well, who knows?
Richard explores the Star!
The story of the life and times of Broadway veteran Gertrude Lawrence was a unique odyssey in the realms of legitimate theater, and, by all accounts, it seems a unique bit of subject matter to devote an entire movie musical to telling her story. Yet director Robert Wise did exactly that when, re-teamed with producer Saul Chaplin and the one and only Julie Andrews in the lead role, the folks at Fox asked them to make the "totally magical musical entertainment called Star! Star! covers the period from Gertrude's childhood to her triumphant show-stopping run in "Lady in the Dark." Interspersed with the various episodes are stretches of newsreel footage (some of it in black-and-white) narrated by Peter Church. The idea, you see, is that Gertrude and producer Jerry Paul are screening one of Paul's "Screen Profiles" at 20th Century-Fox Studios; and Paul needs Gertrude's approval to release the footage that has been prepared, along with the Star! title song.
The most telling aspect of Star! lies in the problem that not many audiences in 1968 were aware as to who this Gertrude Lawrence was. Sure, she wowed them on stage night after night on Broadway and in London, but most critics of the film found themselves asking why her story should be told as a movie. A further problem that plagued Star! was the fact that the genre of the movie musical was dying a slow death; the big-budget, movie musical extravaganzas were now being considered by the newer, younger studio executives as little more than "loss leaders," and Fox, in the midst of a re-emergence after the horror that was the Burton-Taylor Cleopatra, was just bouncing back. That Star! proved to be an out-and-out failure is not at issue; the REAL question is: Was Gertrude Lawrence a popular actress; and, if so, what was the justification in terms of bringing her story to the big screen? Even after having seen Star! in its widescreen version, I have to say that it is probably one of the underrated musical landmarks of its day. The bottom line is simply that here was a film made at the wrong moment, involving the wrong subject matter, and yet possessing the right kind of magic essential to a movie musical of its period. In light of the recent death of Donald Brooks, the film's costume designer, one would go so far as to suggest looking deeper into how he went about crafting his designs for Star! The distinctive style and force of Brooks' costumes represent a wonder and fabric we will likely never see again..... and all because the film for which these costumes were crafted did not prove successful.
In the end, it is not the songs, or the costumes, or the story, that allow us to re-examine Robert Wise's Star! Rather, it is the gist of the film's plot overall: that here was a woman who took risks to rise to the top of the heap as an actress and performer, continuing a tradition as eternal and unblinking as the eye of a hand-held motion picture camera.
Exploring the Chocolate Factory
With the release of Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory looming upon us, I think it's time we explored the original one more time.
One commentator whose review of this film was totally hostile got a lot of the elements of the production's backstory utterly incorrect. Thank goodness that Mel Stuart, the film's director, set everyone straight with his recently published book, "Pure Imagination: The Making of 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory'." According to Mel, his then 12-year-old daughter, who had read the Roald Dahl book, was the person who first suggested the idea for the film, and that her father take the idea to his then boss, producer/presenter David L. Wolper. After Mel did exactly that, Wolper in turn took the idea to executives at the Quaker Oats Company.
"Quaker Oats? That's not a studio, that's a food company," Mel told Dave. But that, oddly, was exactly why Quaker wanted to get into the movies to begin with: to promote a candy bar to be made by its then confectionery division. The irony: even when the Wonka movie was completed, Quaker never got around to manufacturing its proposed candy bar, let alone promoting it.
Yes, the film was released in its original theatrical run by Pararmount, but the initial deal called for that studio to hold onto the U.S. distribution rights for seven years, at the end of which time said rights would revert back to Wolper Pictures, Limited and the Quaker Oats Company, who, after all, were the joint copyright holders of the film. Paramount was anxious to relieve itself of that 7-year deal anyway, and was therefore not willing to renew the terms of the deal. In 1977, David L. Wolper sold his namesake Organization to Warner Bros., at which point he then joined WB's Board of Directors, ultimately selling to Warners his own and Quaker Oats' 50% shares in the Wonka movie.
The Stuart book explores the terms of the deal in greater detail than can be shared here; suffice to say, the incident shows us just how unwilling we sometimes are to get all the behind-the-scenes facts straight. It seems to me, friends, that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in its 1971 version was a film reeking of sweetness and magic, yet created specifically as an infomercial for a candy bar that in the end was neither manufactured, marketed or distributed. Today, any movie with a candy bar as its centerpiece would not be burdened with such problems; movie dealmaking today is more covering every base than skipping certain loopholes.
Besides, I think the Burton remake represents a perfect opportunity to celebrate and re-examine the Wonka legacy. Oompaloompa.com, anyone?
Remembering King Brian
There are a good many reasons why Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People remains number one on my list of all-time favorite Disney films. It's the first of director Robert Stevenson's great Disney fantasies (the others being: the two Flubber movies; Mary Poppins; the first Love Bug film; Blackbeard's Ghost; The Gnome-Mobile; and Stevenson's last film at Disney, The Shaggy D.A.); it's the first film to spotlight a very young Sean Connery; and also, if you read between the lines, it's a film with a lot of unexpected history.
The behind-the-scenes aspect of Darby O'Gill has always been more interesting to me than the plot itself. Walt cast veteran character actor Albert Sharpe in the title role after seeing him, Sharpe, on Broadway in the original production of Finian's Rainbow. Many of the supporting actors were veterans of Dublin's famous Abbey Theatre --- most notably, Jimmy O'Dea. With his harsh genuine Gaelic Irish brogue, it's a piece of cake to figure out why he landed the role that ended up bringing more magic in my young life than I would ever know.
What can I tell you? King Brian Connors of the Knocknasheegan Leprechauns had me believing in all Leprechauns before I was even grown up. I was, at the time, only 11 years old when I first saw the film. Curiously, this was the second and last of the only two movies Jimmy O'Dea would ever make during the era of sound on film, the first being The Rising of the Moon, a trilogy of Irish-themed short stories narrated by Tyrone Power and featuring the Abbey Players, as directed (and financed!) by none other than John Ford --- himself an Irishman, having been born under the name Sean Aloysius O'Feeney. O'Dea's film career up to that time had consisted largely of various roles in silent films made in Ireland, that nation's own cinematic history not yet having reached its proper potential.
But of course, all I needed at that time was a simple look at King Brian, and there'd be that pure Disney magic, alive and whole and fearless --- as it should be! When I got home from that first time I'd seen the movie (and again, this was when I was 11 years old), Leprechauns were all I'd talk about. I even thought that one day, Disney might make the film again, as a disco musical (this was, remember, the 1970's). In retrospect, it's enough that they didn't.
Still, if you want laughs, whimsy, a little bit of drinkin', fightin', romance and the unexpected thrill of a tall tale, you can't do better than Darby O'Gill and the Little People. If you get the DVD, pay particular attention to "I Captured the King of the Leprechauns," Walt's hour-long look at his own personal encounter with both King Brian and Darby. The show is another significant link to history: it was the only work both Sharpe and O'Dea, reprising their respective roles, would ever do for television; guest star Pat O'Brien even sings a Lawrence Edward Watkin/Oliver Wallace song that was (presumably) cut from the feature at the last minute.
Hey, King Brian: I haven't forgotten you at all, old friend. Every time I attend the annual Clan MacDuff Scottish Games at Old Westbury Gardens, on Long Island, New York, which is held every fourth Saturday in August of each year, the memory of you and your fellow Leprechauns keeps coming back to me. Just like it does every St. Patrick's Day. Let's face it: when you spend a lot of your time being surrounded by bagpipes, chances are Darby O'Gill might have had something to do with it.
That said, Bennachtai na Faile Padraig! (That's Irish Gaelic for Happy St. Patrick's Day!)
The Return of the King (1980)
The Ascent of the Animated King
It was the first time that Rankin/Bass had dared to take on a two-hour special. But, having plunged into Tolkien's Middle-earth once before, it was a challenge they could pull off with the expertise R/B fans had always expected of them. Hence, The Return of the King: A Story of the Hobbits, to give the film its full title.
One wonders, I'm sure, what inspired Romeo Muller to change Bilbo's age from "eleventy-one," as Tolkien wrote the number, to one hundred and twenty-nine. Still, it was a thrill having most of "The Hobbit"'s vocal contributors back: Orson Bean, John Huston, Theodore, Paul Frees, Don Messick, Glenn Yarbrough --- and adding Casey Kasem, Theodore Bikel and Sonny Melendrez to the mix, too --- to take us on the journey that Ralph Bakshi should have finished, but didn't.
Many are the tales told about how Bakshi was only given enough financing to see us through most of The Fellowship of the Ring and approximately the first half of The Two Towers. When it became apparent, though, that the second Bakshi Ring movie would never come to pass, that made it possible for the folks at Rankin/Bass to seize a golden opportunity. And this they did, as we know by now, with a vengeance. Playing the story straight, as they did with "The Hobbit," the R/B team set out to take all the best elements from Return of the King and begin the film in flashback, with Bilbo's 129th birthday party, as he, Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Gandalf and Elrond look back at the good times and excellent adventures that culminated in the end of the Third Age of Middle-earth ..... and with it, in Gandalf's words, "the beginning of the New Age of Man."
Again, as I did with Peter Jackson's version, I will dispense with a plot synopsis, assuming that you are already familiar with the legend without having to hear me tell it to you. Among the several strange moments that one does not notice about Rankin/Bass' Return of the King occurs during the sequence in which Gollum battles Frodo for control of the One Ring of Power. In a move considered unprecedented at the time of its original showing, Rankin/Bass decided to depict this climactic showdown graphically. The closeup of Frodo's just bitten hand shaking as though it were an earthquake monitor was, for its time, the most horrifying scene R/B's animators had ever attempted. To this day, one shudders in surprise that this scene was even cleared by ABC's censors!
In place of Tolkien's original songs, Maury Laws and Jules Bass save the day again (assisted partially by Bernard Hoffer, who would later write the score cues and theme songs for R/B's classic 80s series, Thundercats, Silverhawks and The Comic Strip). "It's So Easy Not to Try," "Small Things," "Retreat!", "Where There's a Whip, There's a Way" and "The Ballad of Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom" are all singable, they help the story along (indeed, in the case of "Where There's a Whip, There's a Way," it has the proverbial great beat you can dance to --- or, one presumes, torture your enemies with!) .... and they're songs you can believe in!
But no one sequence in the film is as deeply powerful visually as Aragorn's Coronation Procession, set to the film's title song. Here's something you didn't know: For one short panning scene, the animators went to Jerusalem, where they shot live-action footage of people cheering. The footage was then studied and brilliantly rotoscoped, so that it actually looks like there are citizens of Minas Tirith cheering on the coming of their King!
Once again, we see that the Rankin/Bass team were second to none in their constant efforts to share with their audiences adventures unlike anything they had previously experienced. And because they were the only production entity that had pioneered the "dramatic animated television special," they could take this type of story and put it into the context that was its rightful due.
This, then, was the power behind The Return of the King --- a simple, straightforward saga that would not bow to the attitudes of so-called sensationalism, but would nevertheless be the only Tolkien adventure that one could truly believe in.
And then, as the world knows by now, came a man named Peter Jackson. But that, again as they say, is another story.........
Writing in character again --- on Prisoner of Azkaban
Well, once more we have another journey into the struggle for the future of Hogwarts. This time, the quest involves the saga of Sirius Black. Who is he? Why is he on the prowl for young Harry? And what, ultimately, is the truth behind the murder of James and Lilly Potter, Harry's parents? The tale opens with yet another killer title sequence, this time bringing the familiar Warner Bros. shield to light in spurts before focusing on Harry's 'homework assignment,' if you will --- the Lumos Maxima spell. After this, we come to the first segment of the story proper. Now aged 13, Harry is angrier, and more unsure of his destiny than in his previous adventures at Hogwarts. His rage against one of the Dursleys' relatives intensifies when he finally decides it's not worth it to remain there ("Anywhere's better than here," he complains to Uncle Vernon).
A few moments later --- the Night Bus. What a ride, especially with British veteran comic Lenny Henry contributing the voice of the manic Shrunken Head! The film reaches its most beautiful moment, however, as Hagrid --- newly installed as Professor in Charge of the Care of Magical Creatures --- introduces his class, and us, to Buckbeak the Hippogriff. The haunting flight of Buckbeak, with Harry on his back, is complimented by a new theme from John Williams; and yes, Harry does the 'king-of-the-world' thing a la Leonardo DiCaprio (but that, of course, we can forgive).
Director Alfonso Cuaron, who makes here a return to making films from family stories, provides us with as unexpected an ability to play mind games with the Potter legend's staunchest supporters (us, the audience) than even Chris Columbus did, when we discover at last what is really going on. That Sirius Black is Harry Potter's godfather, and would willingly sacrifice himself for Harry's honor, brings more sorrow than joy to our hero's emotional psyche, setting the stage for the major payoff sequence.
How horrifying it is to learn that the rat you have loved and cared for for all of 12 years is no less than the traitor who brought Voldemort the means to slay James and Lilly! One can imagine what's going through Ron Weasley's mind as he, Harry, and Hermoine witness these bitter revelations.
And finally, we have the theme of expressing freedom, as Harry sees himself, changed into a glowing stag, giving the evil Dementors what for, thus freeing both Sirius and Buckbeak --- two innocents who, like Hagrid himself, have been falsely accused and condemned. Alas, Sirius' destiny, as we know all too well, is to be a short-lived one.
So, what did you love about the movie? I hear you asking. Well, aside from the usual smokin' performances from our regulars (and a jolly toast to Michael Gambon who, one hopes, will be given a bigger, cooler beard once Order of the Phoenix goes into principal photography), there is also the delightful spectre of darkness surrounding the story, and a ferocious bid for battling against revenge. And, for the first time, the inclusion of the Marauders' Map is not only emphasized, it also serves as the inspiration --- and literal setting --- for the movie's end-credit sequence.
All in all, Prisoner of Azkaban brings the darker Potter power to light in ways one would not dare expect out of screenwriter Steve Kloves. Alas, they're saying that Steve will be leaving the production team after having completed the Goblet of Fire script; if another writer does Order of the Phoenix proper justice, they'll be hard-pressed to take on the search for one. That being the case, I sincerely hope our legions of fans will enjoy our film. Who knows? I may have to do this again three years from now when Half-Blood Prince gets the movie treatment! (Heh-heh!) Faithfully, Albus Dumbledore
The Polar Express (2004)
A letter to those without imagination
The word is out: Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis' historic third collaboration, The Polar Express, is making a mark in terms of the incredible computer-generated technology called "performance capture," allowing star/co-executive producer Hanks to take on not just one, but an unprecedented six roles: The Boy, His Father, The Conductor, The Hobo, Scrooge and Santa. The technicians of Sony Pictures Imageworks allow you to experience the story the way Chris van Allsburg's original illustrations permitted you to. "Derails in zombie land," scoffs Newsday's film critic. "A failure as much of imagination as of technology," grumbles the New York Times' critic. People, ignore the mixed reviews. The money and the imagination are up there on that screen --- and more, they're there for one reason: for the first time, you're not just a part of the CGI experience, the experience literally happens to you!
There are several reasons why the popularity of the original book simply had to result in the making of the film, some of those reasons having real life on their side: since the book was first published nearly 20 years ago, several real-life performers have literally staged their own adaptations of The Polar Express, using some of van Allsburg's characters as key elements. The real test, I think, will be in comparing the staged versions, of which, I think, there were some 60 across the country and counting, with the film.
The story follows a young boy who is gradually losing his faith in Santa --- until a mysterious train appears at his front door, its mission being to take him and various other children with similar doubts to the North Pole, where, in celebration of his first Christmas flight of the year, Santa will present the first gift of the season to one person. Who will that person be? And can that person prove himself brave, truthful and unselfish enough to go the distance and make it to the end of the journey in one piece? That is the mystery surrounding this remarkable film, and I would be surprised if the incredible technology combined with the spellbinding story did not earn this movie the Best Animated Feature Oscar, as well as the Oscar for Visual Effects.
The film is dedicated, by the way, to the memory of co-star Michael Jeter, who died shortly after completing his scenes in this film. His contributions will obviously be a lasting legacy.
In conclusion, then, the magic of this awesome adventure is right up there with all the live-action Christmas classic features of the last 30 years. Jack Matthews of the New York Daily News is right: "If you take one train this holiday season, this is the one." To which I, being a train lover in one or more senses, must add:
"Get me on this train!"
Richard Explains the King
It was inevitable, I guess, that for this, my 40th missive here in this Internet Movie Database, I should turn to Peter Jackson's now-immortal Lord of the Rings Trilogy --- specifically, its 11-time Oscar-winning finale, The Return of the King.
You all know the plot by now without my having to make a proper assessment of it, much less a legitimate synopsis. Still, you have to realize that there is much tragedy and pathos mingled with the overall story, in which Frodo and Sam, led by the ultra-obsessive Gollum, take the final steps on their journey to the fires of Mount Doom, where they must destroy the One Ring of Power in the only means possible: casting it back into the evil fires from whence it was forged. To accomplish the mission requires Frodo to make the ultimate conscious choice; alas, that he cannot do so, for at the very moment he makes his decision, we the viewer follow this one innocent Hobbit into the echo of madness and dementia --- an echo that ultimately results in the biting by Gollum of the Ring-finger, a sequence depicted more graphically here than Rankin/Bass did in its 1980 animated version (itself at the time the most graphic sequence in any of R/B's two-dimensional animated works).
The most spectacular element of Return of the King is Aragorn's Coronation, in which director Peter Jackson allows to drink in the full power of Aragorn's declaration that "by the labour and valour of many have I come into my inheritance." He has asked Gandalf/Mithrandir and Frodo to represent those many, Frodo by bearing the Crown of the Kings; Gandalf by setting that Crown on Aragorn's head. In this one moment, then, you begin to understand that the Trilogy is about to end .... and that nothing can be done to change or even deny that.
As I have written elsewhere, this film has made its very special share of history in that, for the first time ever, a sci-fi/fantasy movie has landed that most powerful of all awards: The Academy Award of Merit for the Best Motion Picture of the Year. Never again will the science-fiction/fantasy community be denied proper honors by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, because the legions of fans of this once uncool genre will no longer permit such a denial. I for one doubt that such a denial will be permitted in my, or in anyone else's, lifetime. And now, the inevitability persists that "The Hobbit," the Trilogy's remarkable and enchanting Prelude, should itself be made into a film --- a film that, as many have wished, needs the chance to be put together with the same love and devotion given to these three films.... preferably, by the same production team whose combined talents brought this epic saga to life.
It is yet to be determined if, ultimately, Peter Jackson and the Wingnut Pictures crew can legitimately do King Kong proper justice. We laughed, I think, in 1976 when Dino De Laurentiis, director John Guillermin, and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr. made their maniacal bid to thrust the great Kong into a 1970s Multiverse. At least the Jessica Lange we know now is far more respected as an actress than she was in those days. The new Kong, a la Jackson, will have to not only transcend the original, it must make us forget Dino's version. (Of course, knowing Dino, it would not surprise me at all were he to be enraged by these remarks.)
In closing, then, The Return of the King will stand the test of time because it was planned, executed, and finally made by people who took a leap of faith. Already they're saying that Hollywood will never again be inhabited by such people. Blame the corporate fools who now control the studios. Only a new generation of young filmmakers will be able to make that leap of faith now. And should they decide to follow in Peter Jackson's footsteps, so much the better. 'Nuff said.
The (real) truth about Scorch
It's only now, after recently re-discovering the comedy stylings of puppet master Ronn Lucas, that I have begun re-embracing Ronn's most popular regular character, Scorch the Teenage Dragon. Scorch's origins, per Ronn's website are as follows:
Scorch was developed by Ronn in 1983, while he was driving to a comedy gig in San Francisco. At the time, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was playing the Cow Palace, and had as its main attraction something called "The Living Unicorn." This fascinated Ronn; and he soon thought: what if mythological beings from the past could interact with the mortals of today's world? In that light, the character of Scorch the Teenage Dragon was born. Eventually, Scorch and Ronn became top draws in comedy clubs across the U.S. --- until the late 1980's when Ronn was approached by an executive with Britain's Thames Television who soon suggested the idea for a weekly variety show, to be hosted by Ronn, with Scorch as the main star.
"The Ronn Lucas Show Starring Scorch" ran for 5 seasons on Thames before the British Government bought out the licensing agreements for all of the nation's ITV networks. By 1990, this move effectively put Thames out of business, forcing Ronn and Scorch back to the States. In 1991, writer/producer Allan Katz, in partnership with executive producers Haim Saban and Shuki Levy, and production legend Edgar J. Scherick, did a development deal with Ronn and Scorch. They loved the dragon; but they considered the human to be a little on the so-so side. Wasting no time, they licensed the rights for Scorch to CBS, and the storyline for a series was soon put into the planning stages. The resulting sitcom, entitled simply "Scorch," aired on CBS from February 28th to March 13th, 1992, shortly after the 1992 Winter Olympics.
In the story, Scorch goes to bed on the night of September 19th, 1892, only to reawaken a century later. The night is dismal, but Scorch decides it's a perfect night for flying. Wrong. The dragon is soon struck by lightning while hovering over New Haven, Connecticut; his crash landing marks his introduction to the Stevens family. Brian, the family patriarch (portrayed by Jonathan Walker), is constantly on the move while seeking a job; his recent divorce has seriously impacted the life patterns of Brian's 13-year-old daughter Jessica (Rhea Silver-Smith). Taking pity on their dragon discovery, Brian and Jessica decide to keep Scorch. Next morning, Brian is interviewed by Jack Fletcher (Todd Susman), general manager at WWEN-TV. Seems they're looking for a guy to do the weather for their afternoon news thing, 'New Haven at Noon.' At first, Brian fails to land the job, but leave it to Scorch to save the day. Jack quickly assumes that Brian is in fact a ventriloquist, and that Scorch is his dummy --- and before long, the two are immediately hired to join 'New Haven at Noon' anchors Allison King (Brenda Strong) and Howard Gurman (John O'Hurley, pre-"Seinfeld").
For a 1300-year-old dragon, Scorch doesn't look a day over 12 (give or take an aeon). Alas, Ronn never got credit for his contribution to the show; and, per Variety's not-so-rave review, the plot too closely resembled that of NBC's already popular "ALF," which itself was about to be cancelled. After airing the last of the six episodes they'd originally ordered, CBS pulled the plug on the Scorch project. Wimps!
I would love to see the full six episodes on DVD, if at all possible: it occurs to me that Ronn and Scorch have the full potential to appeal to the kids (the sitcom's apparent target audience); unfortunately, the combination gimmick idea --- that of cashing in on the science fiction element combined with rehashing the basic elements of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"'s WJM-TV newsroom sequences --- are somewhat unfavorable, at least in terms of both conception and execution. Still, the largely unknown cast plays off Ronn and Scorch with hilarious imagination; more, Scorch himself provides each of the show's six episodes with a jolly, wisecracking languor --- the type you don't get on a sitcom in this day and age.
Today, Ronn Lucas lives and performs in Las Vegas, where he shares his life with Scorch; his first puppet star, Buffalo Billy; the Harley-loving punk puppet Chuck Roast --- and many, many fans. One such fan, London-based Debbie Quince, has created her own website which, like Ronn's own pages, preserves the memory of both of Scorch's TV series, American and British versions .... along with the latest info regarding this legendary dragon ..... a dragon whose story is only now beginning to re-surface. I just hope somebody takes a chance on Ronn Lucas and his puppet pals and decides to let them (and especially Scorch) return to the limelight soon.
Scorch, The Movie? Hey, it could happen!
The Hobbit (1977)
From One Who Really Understands
Since I last posted a missive here in this Internet Movie Database concerning the Arthur Rankin, Jr./Jules Bass Production "The Hobbit," I've heard a few rude and rather ignorant comments about the film. As I read every horrible commentary, I began to realize that the comments being posted here were from pre-teens who have not really appreciated the finer points of what Rankin/Bass had to do over the two years it took them to bring The Hobbit to television.
Furthermore, since I happen to have been one of the first who actually saw the film when it was first broadcast in November 1977 on NBC, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving of that year, I figured you young whipper-snappers needed a lesson in learning how to appreciate a great adaptation of a good work. So, without going over the finer points of the story, let me make a few things perfectly clear about "The Hobbit":
First of all, Warner Bros. controls only the North American home video rights to certain Rankin/Bass properties. There is a wonderful book and website created by a dear friend of mine, Rick Goldschmidt. Both book and website share the same title: "The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass." As for "The Hobbit" itself, Romeo Muller's teleplay presented a rare element of drama that a lot of you youngsters weren't able to figure out. That's what earned the film its 1977 Peabody Award; moreover, with "The Hobbit" and its 1980 follow-up "The Return of the King," Rankin/Bass not only introduced first-timers such as myself to the realm of Tolkien's Middle-earth, they pioneered an aspect of animation that no other production entity, including Disney, has ever seriously pursued since: the "dramatic animated television special."
I find it insulting that our various negative reviewers were not deeply moved by the closing moments of the film, as a badly-injured Thorin dies, with Bilbo and Gandalf powerless to stop it. Put yourselves in Romeo Muller's shoes, and then ask yourselves: Normally when you write a teleplay for the Rankin/Bass specials, there's usually a happy ending. This is not your typical Rankin/Bass special --- because here, you're dealing with a character who will die toward the end of the story. How do you, as a writer for an animated film, seriously convey the concept of death? This was not an easy task, not even for the man who wrote Rudolph and Frosty (and who, of course, gave happy endings to both television adaptations).
Now, I don't wanna get off on a rant here, but it's obvious that in an era where computer-generated imagery is rapidly becoming the norm in the animation industry, the kids will more than likely embrace characters that are more 3-D in terms of physical origin and less 2-D in terms of conception and execution. That "The Hobbit" was fiercely the latter, and apparently wore such burdens proudly on its shoulder, need not make a difference to any you young'uns reading this. Respecting the classic dramatic animation made by an old-school team like Rankin/Bass should be required curriculum in places like UCLA Film School and USC School of Cinema --- or even in schools located in the areas of those who were amongst our hostile Hobbit reviewers.
So I would advise them to visit the RankinBass.com website created by Rick Goldschmidt before they dare make any false judgements about what Arthur and Jules accomplished over their three-decade-long partnership. As Rick writes in the Foreword to his book, much that has been written over the years about Rankin/Bass is usually incorrect; Rick has done a masterful over the intervening 7 years doing what, I must admit, I myself had wanted to do after I'd seen "The Hobbit" --- namely, set the record straight about the Rankin/Bass story. To make a long point short, kids: you need to pay more attention to the work done on "The Hobbit" before you make any foolish assessments.
Oh boy! I've probably gone over my one-thousand word limit here, but I hope that what I've said will sink in. If it doesn't, the chances are that we loyal Rankin/Bass fans have lost an indifferent generation of youngsters for no good reason --- and frankly, I'm not exactly in the mood to have that happen! I trust that no one out there has a problem with that; because otherwise, there are one or two Orcs out there who just emerged a while ago from the depths of the Misty Mountains, and would like to have a word with you..........