Sunday, September 15, 2013

Get Smart: A Childhood taste I haven't outgrown

Agents 86 and 99 in Get Smart

It’s easy to get nostalgic while thinking about your childhood, remembering things as they seemed to be or recalling your childhood tastes.  I’ve been watching reruns since a kid.  Before I was old enough to realize it, I preferred the “old stuff.” As a kid, even the oldest reruns are new and exciting. My favorites were I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show, The A-Team, The Rockford Files…and Get Smart. These are some of the childhood tastes I have not outgrown.

Even as an adult, sometimes you just want simple silly fun.  For that I turn to Get Smart—the 1960s spy show satirizing Bond-like spy movies. It came complete with elaborate gadgetry, excessive secrecy and caricaturized villains. Everything was exaggerated to the hilarious.
I love just how 1960s it is.  Everything in the show, from the cars to the fashion to the colors, is classic and stylish 1960s.  Most of it has remained appealing without becoming dated to the point of kitsch. Agent 99's wardrobe (often completed with the typical spy's overcoat) is a good example.

Don Adams and Barbara Feldon as Agents 86 and 99
The show chronicles the top secret cases of Agent 86 Maxwell Smart, “the world’s most well known secret agent,” as he defends America and all that is “good and niceness.” He works most closely with Agent 99 (her identity remains a secret), and together they are the two top spies in the business.

It is a family show, in the classic sense of the term, as it provides cartoon-like slapstick and sight gags for the children and satire and wordplay for the parents. It’s comforting and greatly enjoyable to watch an episode and again experience that old familiar brand of laughter.  It’s filled with reoccurring jokes and gags that don’t grow tiresome thanks to a tweaks in the writing or variations in the delivery. It’s amazing how constant the laughs can be and the how reliable the fun is from a simple situation (a clumsy spy saving the world)—very much like I Love Lucy.
The Cone of Silence, CONTROL's most malfunctioning gadget, as seen in the pilot--the only black-and-white episode.
Get Smart fans each have their own favorite reoccurring joke, and my favorite is the old “missed it by that much” joke. The joke usually occurs at the climax of an action sequence when someone (usually an evil agent) either falls/jumps or is pushed out the window of a tall building. As the onlookers gasp in fright Smart reminds them of the swimming pool just outside the window. He then looks out the window, makes a sad “yuck” face and holding out two fingers tells the others “missed it by that much.”

I also enjoy the way Smart and 99 interact with each other. Their chemistry is energetic and accommodating.  It shows like best friends pretending together. It’s reminiscent of childhood play-acting.  The show itself could be viewed as the imaginings of a boy and girl at play together.  He imputes the action while she creates the dialogue and relationship.  They are equally happy and confident in they’re jointly created and understood existence.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Great Romantic Train Era

Part of having an interest in past styles, customs and cultures is that I’ve missed enjoying these things in their own time.  Unfortunately I have missed the great romantic train era of the early twentieth century. My modern day experiences have limited me to minutes-long metro link and subway trips—hardly the height of glamorous train travel.

There once was a time when the railways were the major and preferred mode of cross-country travel (international travel in Europe).  It seems to have been the happy medium of commuting.  It was faster, smoother and more comfortable over great distances than automobiles, yet unlike flight it did not distance you from the passing points of interest and scenic landscapes.  You could still sightsee as you cross-country as you were swiftly slipping through the country rather than leap-frogging it.  It was cross-country traveling at its most luxurious.  It was dining cars and sky cabins. It was sleeper births and lounge cars.

Union Pacific Streamliner

I also like ingenuity of the old time technology and engineering that engulfs the railway systems.  The finest passenger trains were powered by steam locomotives that were monuments to size, strength and power decked out in lustrous Art-Deco, aerodynamic styles of the day. The bridges, tunnels and train stations were all wondrous feats of architecture and engineering injected into the everyday lives of generations of commuters.  The bridges ranged from elegant to stout. The stations ranged from simple ticket booth and overhang to giant and elaborate caverns with magnificent interiors. 

The track itself made its way through the landscape in graceful, sweeping curves.  The train can be a wonderful compliment to beautiful scenery it traverses.  I think a train and track is the perfect accent to alpine pass.
20th Century Limited of the New York Central Railroad

Penn Station, NewYork
Redlands, Calif. Santa Fe train station

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Few More Things Automobiles Have Lost Over Time Part II

There was a time when the beauty of a car was one of its most prized attributes. Cars were sleek and stylish.  The early twentieth century was a highpoint for the automobile, and during that time auto makers made sure to compliment their innovative, elegant designs in stunning multi-colored beauty.  The 1950s, in particular, were the time of two- and sometimes tri-tone color schemes as the sleek and shapely bodylines of the designs provided fine boundaries for colors to meet and mash.
            The colors were vibrant and varied, and they were thrown together to create a great assortment of diverse color schemes. Bright colors were matched with black for dramatic flash.  Matching shades of a single hue made for class and elegance.  Most any color could be matched with white. One of the most striking combinations was the popular black-and-red color scheme that screams 1950s Americana. Another one of my favorites of the chrome-and-fins era was the gorgeous charcoal-and-coral scheme offered on 1955 Chevy’s.
            Cars don’t come from the factory with rich colors like that anymore—they haven’t the shape for it.  The majority of today’s cars are monochromatic and formless blobs, melting Jellybeans idly oozing their way down the road.  Older cars are finely sculpted pieces of kinetic art.  They are low, long and wide not for improved handling but for a graceful and gliding appearance as they move down the road.  And like a fine painting these pieces of rolling art exhibit a deliberate and stimulating use of color.

Wraparound or panoramic windows are another styling cue unique to the 1950s.  These windshields turned the corners of the cars with elegantly curved glass which was not only stylish but pushed the pillars to less visually restrictive positions. When paired with the thin front pillars of the day and the hardtops that had no center pillar, the wraparound windshield helped provide unobstructed visibility and a spacious open-air feel.  I especially like the inwardly angled shape achieved when a wraparound windshield was paired with a wraparound rear window like on the 1958 Chevy Impala. Another one of my favorite designs of the 1960s is the elegant sweptback styling Pontiac achieved by pairing a wraparound windshield with a beautifully curved ultra-thin rear pillar.

I don’t believe there has been a truly beautiful steering wheel since the standardization of the airbag. Airbags ruined the steering wheel with their rubbery bulkiness. Before airbags steering wheels had far greater potential for alluring design. They were thin yet over-sized.  They could be flashy chrome and color or they could be wood and brass. The use of a chrome horn-ring made for an elegant and popular circle-within-a-circle affect. There were also cars like 1960s Pontiacs and Chryslers that used translucent steering wheels that placed the Sun’s radiance in the hands of the driver. 
1918 Oldsmobile
1934 Packard
1934 Cadillac V-16 with banjo style spokes.
1950 Oldsmobile 88 with gull wing (slightly bent) top spokes.
Notice the wonderful combination of polished chrome and brushed steel.
1947 Buick Super 8
1966 Oldsmobile Toronado
1956 Mercury Montclair
Porsche with a lovely use of chrome and wood.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Ernie Pyle: Classic reporting

Lately, I’ve been revisiting one of my favorite authors Ernie Pyle. While Pyle is most notably remembered as the great WWII correspondent I’ve been recently reading the work of his pre-war roving reporting days.

The articles have widely varying subjects as Pyle traveled the expanses of the North American continent searching out what most interested him.  Through his writing he always manages to make those points that interest him a deep interest of mine.    

Pyle couldn’t have written these articles at any other time.  It’s the time of the Greatest Generation; much of what characterizes America was witnessed and discovered by Pyle on his roaming of America.  He visited and conversed with Gold Rush prospectors in the Yukon, visited the Leaper colony in Hawaii, witnessed the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression, saw the Mid West eaten barren by locusts, interviewed George Washington Carver, and much more. 

But of all these places and their circumstances I always get the sense that what interested Pyle the most was the people. I love his descriptions of people: their appearance, the way they move, the way they talk, and what they say. 

There’s the particularly jolly priest he met at the leaper colony: “When he talked he talked all over; it took a least six square feet for Father Peter to talk in. He jumped, struck attitudes, and laughed loudly and frequently.”

There’s also Josie Pearl a prospector in Nevada who made and lost multiple fortunes hunting for silver and gold: “Her dress was calico, with an apron over it; on her head was a farmer’s straw hat, on her feet a mismatched pair of men’s boots, and on her left hand and wrist—$6,000 worth of diamonds…She was what I like to think of as the Old West—one day worth $100,000 dollars, the next day flat broke, cooking in a mining camp at $30 a month.”

Pyle writes of the America and the Americans of another time.

Below is a previously written post dealing with Pyle’s contributions as a war correspondent during WWII.

Ernie Pyle: "War makes strange giant creatures out of us little routine men who inhabit the Earth."

Ernie Pyle (center, passing cigarettes) with infantry men.

I wanted to share a bit about a ‘hero’ of mine (for lack of better words).  I am a student of journalism and love the work and character of Ernie Pyle.  Ernie Pyle was a journalist most influential in his coverage of the front lines of World War II. 
            Pyle started as a roving reporter traveling and writing to his readers sharing his experiences abroad.  Pyle was also an aviation reporter in the early days of flight.
            The reason Pyle was so loved by his readers was the personal approach he took in his reporting and interviewing.  He was soft spoken and a great listener and his interviewees very easily opened up to him.  In his personal style of writing he set his readers in the same place and experience he was witnessing himself.  His vivid, intimate reporting style found its highest purpose in war corresponding. 
            With the war taking place overseas many families were sending their sons, brothers and husbands to far away places and wanted to feel connected to them.  Pyle provided that connection. 
            Pyle’s reporting was more intimate and more focused on the daily lives of the troops than it was on the victories, movements and generals.  He would often comment on the strangeness of war.  Those back in the U.S. needed that connection to there loved ones.
            While reporting on the war Pyle lived and traveled with the troops on the front lines.  Pyle and the troops developed a affectionate relationship for each other.
            Reporting on the front lines has its risks and after doing tours in Italy, Africa and all over Europe Pyle went on to report on the war in the Pacific and was killed by a Japanese machine gun bullet that went through his helmet.  At his death Pyle was so loved by the American public that it is felt by many that his death overshadowed the death of President Roosevelt just six days before.
            You must read his work.  Here are some samples:


Thursday, September 15, 2011

the classic and stylish station wagon

I feel station wagons have fallen decidedly out of fashion in past five to ten years. Station wagons seem to get shunned by society. They are turned away as drab, unexciting implements that have long been obsolete. They were first replaced by minivans, then sport utility vehicles and more recently crossovers.  For the new models that closely resemble the classic station wagon the automakers create new terminology, such as sport utility and crossover, anything so long as they evade the stigma of the station wagon.

It seems the station wagon is the relic of another time; maybe a better time.  It’s a shame station wagons are not more fully embraced today, because in their hay day they were truly something special and important to the American family, and yes, even exciting.  Since they were largely a product of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the glory days of the American automobile, they were highly stylish.
1950 Buick Estate Woody
1967 Pontiac
It was a time when bigger was clearly better--making low, wide and long the current vogue in auto design. The station wagon was in excellent taste. Its three rows a seating and cargo space gave purpose to the long sweeping lines so in style.   As kid, my grandpa still drove an old station wagon and that last bench facing rearward was always the best part of riding with him.

1957 Oldsmobile 88 wagon
1960 Buick LeSabre Estate Wagon

Another ‘50s element that added to the beauty of American station wagons was the unrestricted, open-air feel that was so important to create a pleasant driving experience for car owns.  This meant big wraparound windows, razor thin pillars, deleted pillars (hardtops) and vista windows in the roof all used to create an open glasshouse canopy.  American families wanted to be able to pile into the family car for a road trip and have a great view of all they passed.  Families were crisscrossing the nation in rolling works of art.

Then in the ‘60s it was a time of unrestricted high performance.  Cars were offered with huge lists of engine options running from the mundane economy engines to the probably-shouldn’t-be-street-legal, don’t-tell-my-insurance-agent engines.  So, there were the high performance station wagons.  Chevy Nomads (extra-stylish two-door station wagons) were given the now legendary Chevy small-block V-8.

1957 Chevy Nomad
The Oldsmobile 4-4-2 station wagon was probably the greatest and most outrageous of the high performance wagons. It was offered with the vista roof and the Hurst hi-po package which included: 455 cubic inch big-block V8, fiberglass ram air hood, heavy duty suspension, disc brakes, duel mode tailgate (swings down and swings sideways) and power everything.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Burns and Allen Show

"If I say the right thing, please excuse me." Gracie Allen
Being a fan of old things I love classic television, and one of my favorites is The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show starring the greatest husband and wife comedy team. Burns played straight man to Allen’s dizzy dame. They started in vaudeville, became hits; moved to radio, became hits there; and then moved to television to become hits all over again.

George playing straight to Grace's "illogical logic."

The Burns and Allen Show has lots of appeal for modern television audiences. It was quite advanced for its day and it remains freshly unique from modern television trends. George’s character had the power to walk through the fourth wall to directly converse with and comment to the “live” audience. For fans of The Office this will feel similar to Jim Halpert’s sly smirks and stares, but it works out very differently.

In the Burns and Allen Show it allows George to step out of scene to monologue (with impeccable timing famously punctuated by his cigar) and occasionally manipulate plot towards a more entertaining ends.

The show’s unique stage set aids George’s comical flaunting of the fourth wall. It consists of two homes with partially-built walls (including front doors) facing the audience—unlike other shows which have no fourth wall and the ends of the joining walls are hidden to disguise the wall’s absence. George could walk through the walls to eavesdrop on Gracie’s scheming, keeping him ahead of his co-characters’ actions (although not always).

Gracie brings home a trimmed Christmas tree

But the most drawing feature of the Burns and Allen Show is Gracie’s lovably confused character with her loopy conversations and silly schemes. George Burns once described her character as “the American poster child of confusion and misunderstanding.” The real genius of the character is that, for Gracie, it is never really Gracie who is confused but those around her, and it is up to her to patiently set them straight. To do that she uses her unique brand of “illogical logic”--the things she says always have the strictest appearance of being logical.
"I was so surprised at being born that I didn't speak for a year and a half." Gracie Allen
Gracie’s character is very charming, loving and sweet. Her mix-ups frequently involve her earnest attempts to help her friends, and nearly everyone is a friend. Unlike Lucy Ricardo in I Love Lucy, Gracie is rarely driven by selfish and self-serving motives.

Those closest to her learn to wade through the misunderstandings and George encourages it (after all, this is how he makes his living as a comedian). Strangers become confused beyond natural sense often leaving their hats while fleeing Gracie’s presence. She then thoughtfully stores the forgotten hats after labeling them with names and personal descriptions (one of my favorite running gags of the show). George keeps a bottle of aspirin on the coffee table, for guests. When someone attempts to ask George why he stays with such a … he cuts them short, answering: “I happen to love her, that’s why.”

The show’s a blast of old-time charm, spiraling dialogue, innovative formatting, clever narration, and ambiguous boundaries that could only be made in the earliest days of television. In those early days television was new and the rules were not yet made.

Much like in early film and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, when rules and trends are unmade or unknown it allows creative talent to use fresh ideas and styles that are independent from the influence of previous trends and practices.  The result is an exciting and lasting originality.

A few samples:

Gracie's Checking Account- This is a very funny episode early in the series. It runs 30 minutes.
Lamb Chops- This is an eight minute film of one of their vaudeville routines. 

*Orson Welles had complete creative control and a very limited understanding of film-making when he made Citizen Kane, his first film. He had a strong theater and radio background.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Colt 1911 100th Anniversary

Colt M1911 as made today 100 years later

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Colt M1911 semi-automatic pistol which famously and reliably served American armed forces for so many decades. Not being a collector or shooter myself, I am familiar with the 1911 from war films, documentaries and the history books. It served and defended America and its soldiers in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and the War in Iraq.

M1911 in combat during WWII

Intentionally designed, by John Moses Browning, as a military side arm it was first adopted by the United States Army as the standard issue March 29, 1911. The .45 caliber pistol was soon the standard issue for all branches of the U.S. military, and it quickly gained a reputation as the greatest combat pistol ever made.

Most amazing is not the anniversary of its design but that 2011 also marks 100 years of continued use, and the pistol is still regarded as one of the finest semi-auto fire arms available.

It has not been the standard issue for the U.S. military since 1985 when it was replaced partially due to NATO’s desire to share standardized ammunition between nations. This meant either the U.S. changes from its .45 cal or the majority of the other NATO nations change from their 9mm. January 1985 the United States moved to the Beretta 9mm still used today; although, the 1911 is still used by Special Forces groups, Marines and various police departments. Many feel the United States moved to an inferior weapon and cartridge when it withdrew the M1911 as standard military sidearm.

I cannot help but wonder in amazement: What would it be like to be the creator of a revolutionary and lasting design like the 1911? I am respectfully in awe of John M. Browning’s genius. Browning’s creation remains as not only a viable and reliable design but one that is still highly desirable and elite in its field, 100 years later.  Even more amazing is that this is not Brownings only such acheivement.  His Browning M2 .50 cal machine gun which has seen vast military service on tripods, on armored vehicles, on warships, in aircraft and as a sniper rifle is also approaching 100 years of service.

John Moses Browning with M1917 machine gun

So many other technologies have come and gone since then; so many other designs have been improved upon and advanced over and over again in the last 100 years. Not Browning’s Colt .45. It has changed so very little and has rarely been improved upon. In 1911 America was still a horse culture.  Aviation was still in its infancy, and the planes were made of wood and cloth. The majority of American homes still lacked running water. It would be several more years before Charlie Chaplin would begin to make films—10 to 15 minute silents. America only had 46 states.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Silver currency

Walking Liberty Half Dollar designed by Adolph A. Weinman
Remember when our money used to mean something; when it was real because it was silver. I often wish I lived in the time of silver currency. It’s always been a dream of mine to pay for something with a stack of silver dollars. Paying with a stack of copper-sandwich quarters just does not have the same charm as the heavy-clinking, bright-white shining cartwheels of times past.

Silver in any coinage is brilliant and beautiful, but I feel the dollar and half dollar (the two coinages we no longer used) were the finest examples. The faces are large enough to allow the silver coin bring real beauty into the everyday lives of American consumers, as it was a fine canvas for artists.

My favorite may be the Peace Dollar designed by Anthony de Francisci, and minted 1921-28, 1934-35. It was originally an expression of the joy following the end of WWI and the hope for continued peace. Unfortunately the peace following WWI was not lasting and mintage ceased. On the face is an elegant portrait of a radiant, crowned Lady Liberty with a breeze running through her hair (possibly the finest portrait put on a coin). The reverse shows the American Eagle holding an olive branch and guarding the rock of Peace.  The text is done in the art-deco style of the times.

The coin designs were more inspired in the age of silver. The silver held Liberty personified, glorious eagles, symbolism and national hopes and values. During the State Quarter program they removed the standing eagle to replace it with ten years of state mottoes, maps and commercial objects.

Another aspect of silver currency that fascinates me is that should all that silver become too heavy for daily carrying you were given silver certificates. Unlike today, these bills didn’t merely represent a monetary value, they held the place of that value in silver. Turn one into a bank and it was their responsibility to give that value in silver. The old silver certificates were also very beautiful and inspired, and sometimes controversial.

1896 $2 silver certificate
1896 $1 silver certificate
1896 $5 silver certificate
1899 $5 silver certificate
1923 $5: "five silver dollars payable to the bearer on demand"

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


The Western is a movie genre that had its golden age decades ago, and today the genre holds an “old movie” image. Westerns are still made today (and we have some fine, recent Westerns), but they are made only occasionally. Generally, if you are watching a Western it is the product of an older generation—made to suit the styles and interests of that time.

Still from Stagecoach (1939)

The classic Western, once a prolific genre for film and television, has much to offer. Most of all, they’re exciting. Westerns are full of horse chases, gun fights, heroes, villains and thrilling stunts. They are filled with beautifully-filmed scenic wildernesses such as Monument Valley in John Ford’s films Stagecoach and The Searchers (a rarity: a truly beautiful color film).

Scenic still from The Searchers (1956) starring John Wayne
 Historically, the Western genre is also filled with exciting, epic musical scores and theme songs. High Noon; The Magnificent Seven (my favorite shoot-em up); Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (my favorite spaghetti western) are all fine examples of excellent and unforgettable movie scores.

John Ford's The Searchers (1956): Every frame a masterpiece

But most importantly, Westerns are uniquely and characteristically American. They are set in the American West, they depict moments in American history and they deal with American themes and concerns. Even The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a spaghetti Western made in Italy by Italians, is set in the American West during the Civil War.

I often prefer the classic Westerns because they are more likely instilled with the American brand of optimism. Dark themes, desperate times and violent acts all occur in the films, but the optimistic drive to create prosperity and security out of cruel lawlessness and order out of dangerous frontier is always present in the Old West.

In classic Westerns the liberty and security of town populations are often threatened and oppressed by cruelty and lawlessness as the film centers on its protagonist finding the courage and ability to defend against such enemies. And the good guy always wins. The modern movie watcher might call this cliché and unrealistic but during the golden age you hoped for, fought for and expected the good and righteous to win out. It’s a refreshing difference from today’s overly pessimistic frame of mind.

High Noon (1952) starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly occurs in real time, and the ever-present clock is used as a highly effective device to build suspense for the shootout 
 I would like to also mention The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as yet another fine classic western.  This noirish Western stars John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart as two conflicting protagonists and Lee Marvin as a most vicious villian.