Monday, 10 August 2020

A MOST BEFUDDLING THING!

In 2014, I caught up with my friends Richard M Sherman and his wife, Elisabeth, when they were in London. I took the opportunity to grab an interview with him for a programme I was making celebrating the 50th anniversary of Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, for which Richard, with his brother Robert, wrote the song score.


I took with me one of my long-treasured possessions, the 1963 Disney film-tie-in paperback edition of T H White's The Sword in the Stone, for which Dick and Bob had also composed the songs.

 

 

To be honest, fifty years earlier, I had ONLY bought the book because I'd recently seen 'the film of the book' and this copy had Disney characters on the front cover!

 

But – and it's a BIG 'but' – happenstance is a tricksy wench and sometimes (to quote one of Dick and Bob's songs) we can find life a 'most befuddling thing'. 

 

I got past the cover and actually read the book! The result: I was so totally captivated by White's fantastical writing and unique style that I immediately dashed off to the library and borrowed his full Arthurian epic, The Once and Future King, a book that started me on what was to prove a long journey...


Many years later – and for many long years – I tried to convince the BBC to let me make a radio dramatisation of White's wonderful comical-tragical-historical-romance and, in 2014, after interminable negotiations with Disney and the estates of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (who had turned White's book into the musical, Camelot), I finally succeeded in achieving that ambition with a six one-hour serialisation starring Paul Reddy as Arthur and the David Warner as the very embodiment of White's Merlyn. 

 

And so, you see, Richard's apt inscription, added to the book that day, perfectly sums up the wonderful, often long-term, fortuosity with which coincidence and connectivity can sometimes generously reward us! 

 

 

 

Thursday, 6 August 2020

A POPPINS PUZZLER

I have an extensive collection of literary, theatrical and cinematic autographs – mostly in books, or on artwork and photographs, but I do have some autographed items that don’t quite belong on the bookshelf or fit in the photo album. 

 

Here’s one such recently acquired treasure…

 

A copy of the 1973 reissued original cast soundtrack LP recording of Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins, signed by its four stars: Julie Andrews (the ‘practically-perfect’ Miss Poppins), Dick Van Dyke (the beloved ‘Cockney’ chimney sweep, Bert), David Tomlinson and Glynis Johns (Mr. and Mrs. Banks) and Karen Dotrice (their daughter, Jane).


The album's cover-art was also used on posters and while it is – for those of us of a certain age – very much part of the film’s historic iconography, it remains something of a marketing puzzle.

 

As I noted in a recent blog post, the Broadway-marquee-style neon-lit lettering is curiously out-of-step-in-time with the film’s Edwardian setting and wildly at odds with the art and lettering used on more family-child-oriented releases such as these…





As for the central image of Dick and Julie dancing, this is – in the case of the very-proper Mary Poppins – a very uncharacteristic image!


 

Mary Poppins showing all that leg? No! That just isn’t right – and certainly not proper!

 

As can be seen from the still film image used on this record of Duke Ellington's interpretations of the Mary Poppins score (one of the best Poppins 'spin-offs' and P.L. Travers' personal favourite), our heroine wore black stockings NOT flesh-coloured tights! Nor was she sporting red, high-heeled shoes!



So, what can we deduce from this shameless, hussy-like behaviour?

 

Discussing this mystery with Richard Holliss, my friend and fellow Disney historian, Richard offered what is, I believe, the definitive answer in that, following Mary Poppins’ hugely successful debut, the Disney Studio were anxious to reclassify the film as being in the mould of a mainstream Broadway-cum-Hollywood film musical rather than another kiddie offering from the Mouse Factory.

 

And, as Richard suggests, there is one particular show-become-film that offered the perfect a prototype: the 1957 Broadway smash-hit, West Side Story ­– with its accent on youthfulness and energised dance – and the subsequent, and equally successful, movie version made in 1961 –– just three years before Mary Poppins flew onto the screen.

 



Yes... I see what Richard means...




Tuesday, 14 July 2020

GUESS WHO'S POPPED UP? –– SEÑOR COLUMBUS


Another fragment of childhood regained!

For my eleventh birthday, sixty years ago, our next door neighbour, Miss Turner (to me, ‘Aunty Phyl’) gave me one of the best-ever presents of my childhood: a copy of Christopher Columbus + Genuensis + Santa Maria (Westminster Books, 1960).

A gigantic book (well, to a youngster, 13” x 9” inches was pretty big!) on heavy board with cloth hinges, it had a moveable ship’s steering wheel on the front cover revealing, as you turned it, a map of the world at the time of Columbus’ celebrated voyage of 1492.


Inside were illustrations and an eight-page history lesson…


And then, if you opened the final fold in the book –– Ta-da!! –– up popped a spectacular tableau of Columbus’ fleet: The Santa Maria (with rigging – of a sort!), The Pinta and The Nina.


It was the most exciting book I’d ever seen! I loved pop-ups and this was, without doubt, the most decidedly pop-upiest pop-up!

Several years on, I came home from school to find that my ever-generous Mother (eager to encourage her fanciful son to “put away childish things”) had given away my beloved book to a worthless cousin and that was farewell to Columbus!

But now I have regained this treasure – well, not exactly because this is just a 1992 reprint, first editions now selling (in various states of repair) for several hundred pounds each! (“Please note that, Mother – if you can hear me – you gave away several hundred pounds!”) Otherwise it's just as I remember it, although I note the text has been revised and, I think, undergone a degree political correction!

Having (in a manner of speaking) got the book back, it has set me off on a trail to discover more about the creator this wonderful book. His signature was on the front cover, although I doubt I even noticed it as a kid –– Kubašta...

As I now know, Vojtěch Kubašta (1914-1992), was a Czech architect and artist. Born in Vienna and growing up in Prague, Vojtěch showed early artistic promise and although his ambition was to be an artist, his father wanted him to study law. When the young man continued to pursue his interest in art, his father eventually compromised by agreeing that Vojtěch could train as an architect.


Kubašta studied at Polytech University in Prague, graduating in 1938 with a degree in architecture and civil engineering, although within two years he was working as a commercial artist. In 1948 the communist Czech government nationalised the publishing industry and Kubašta created three-dimensional advertising materials for Czech exports. 

His first pop-up book, Little Red Riding Hood, was published in 1956 by to the Prague-based, state-owned publishing house, ARTIA. Many other fairy-tale, nursery-rhyme and children’s classics titles followed (some 200 translated into almost 40 languages) including Snow White, The Flying Trunk, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland and many others well as a number of Christmas nativity scenes and especially elaborate pop-ups featuring tableau such as Noah’s Ark, circus and jungle scenes and books devoted to Marco Polo and (my volume) Christopher Columbus. 

In the 1960s he created uncredited art for pop-ups of Disney films such as Bambi, 101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book and The Aristocats – several of which I also once owned.

It is way too late in life now to start collecting the work of Vojtěch Kubašta, but I'm very happy to have Columbus home again from the sea and I'm content to  check out online the many other examples of his fantastical work – of which these are but a sample…





 

 

Friday, 10 July 2020

PRIDE OF LIONS




‘They picked the golden flowers. The flowers that flooded the world, dripped off lawns onto brick streets, tapped softly at crustal cellar windows and agitated themselves so that on all sides lay the dazzle and glitter of molten sun.

“Every year,” said Grandfather, “they run amuck; I let them. Pride of lions in the yard. Stare, and they burn a hole in your retina. A common flower, a weed that no one sees, yes. But for us a noble things, the dandelion.’

So, plucked carefully, in sacks, the dandelions were carried below. The cellar dark glowed with their arrival. The wine press stood open, cold. A rush of flowers warmed it. The press, replaced, it’s screw rotated, twirled by Grandfather, squeezed gently on the crop.

“There … so …”

The golden tide, the essence of this fine fair month ran, then gushed from the spout below, to be crocked, skimmed of ferment, and bottled in clean ketchup shakers, then ranked in sparkling rows in cellar gloom.

Dandelion wine.

The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered…’


– Ray Bradbury DANDELION WINE

Monday, 6 July 2020

PRACTICALLY PERFECT

A nice addition to my Walt Disney Disney/Mary Poppins collection: the programme – in near mint condition – from the film's World Premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood fifty-six years ago on 27 August 1964. 

Here's the programme's cover with the iconic (uncredited) art by Disney studio artist Paul Wenzel that was also memorably featured on the early Poppins posters and the LP soundtrack recording.  


Although I don't think I was conscious of it back in 1964, I'm intrigued by the use of the 'neon marquee-light-bulb' lettering that suggests 'theatre' and 'musical' yet doesn't quite fit with the film's Edwardian setting.

As for the likenesses themselves, Wenzel's artwork is stunning, although I wonder whether, at the time of painting, the studio had still to finalise Julie's Poppins wig since the colour and styling are very obviously 'Julie' and not 'Mary'.

Here is Paul Wenzel's original artist's 'rough' for the double-portrait: bought in auction in December 2018 – not by me! –  for $5,520!


Below is a small selection of the interior pages, beginning with one focusing on the collaboration between Mr. Disney and Mrs. Travers...

Click image to enlarge

I do wonder what P.L.T. thought when she read: "Mrs Travers was invited to Burbank for story conferences. Elated with the treatment her beloved heroine was receiving, the authoress signed the formal contracts"   

ELATED? I'm not so sure about that!

 Click all images to enlarge






POST-SCRIPT
(One Day Later...)

I couldn't have guessed that posting details on Facebook of my having acquired this delightful collectable was just the beginning of a story...  

After posting these images, my Facebook friend and noted Poppins collector Mat Plendl posted the following images of an early Poppins LP and a Songbook featuring photographs of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke that obviously provided a significant part of the inspiration for Paul Wenzel's now iconic illustration...


Images courtesy of Mat Plendl

Mat commented: 
"Dick Sherman told me, years ago, that this was the first run (maybe a test?), and that Walt thought it looked too much like a kids' thing and so they decided to give it a more grown-up, Broadway look. Plus, this photo of Julie is none too flattering. Very nearly impossible to find (along with a songbook with similar cover sold at Disneyland for a short time), a few escaped out to radio stations but they only appear on super-rare occasions, usually when a collector has died!"  

POST-POSTSCRIPT
(Later the Same Day...)
And still the story continues! 

Another Facebook friend, Chris Tassin, adds:
"Great to see the rare early pressings! A couple of years ago, I found the actual photos of Julie and Dick used as reference for the illustration."


Images courtesy of Chris Tassin

So there's the final link! It's now clear why Julie's hair bears no resemblance to her 'Poppins' look and it also shows that Paul Wenzel was a truly gifted illustrator! 

Many thanks to Mat Plendl and Chris Tassin for helping to solve what has been (for me) a 56-year-long mystery!

Saturday, 4 July 2020

PEANUTS IN WONDERLAND

Across the years, Charles M. Schulz turned to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland for inspiration featuring Snoopy in the fantastical personification of the –– Cheshire Beagle!

Especially for Alice's Day 2020, here's a selection...


 






Alice herself made an appearance once accompanied by (or represented by) the Hatter-Beagle...



All cartoons (c) Peanuts Worldwide LLC

WONDERLAND'S INDEPENDENCE DAY

One hundred and fifty-eight years ago, today, the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and an Oxford colleague, the Reverend Robinson Duckworth, took the three daughters of the Dean of Christ Church – Lorina, Alice and Edith Liddell – on a boating trip.

As they rowed along on that 'golden afternoon', Dodgson improvised a fantasy about the curious adventures of a little girl named (like one of the girls on the trip) 'Alice', who followed a White Rabbit in a waistcoat with a watch down a rabbit-hole and found herself in a true land of wonders...

At Alice’s request, Dodgson wrote out the story – first calling it Alice’s Adventures Under Ground – and added his own distinctively idiosyncratic illustrations.



By 1865, it had grown (like someone who had nibbled an EAT ME cake) into Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and was published under the authorship of 'Lewis Carroll' with illustrations by the legendary Punch cartoonist, Sir John Tenniel.


The book was made Mr Dodgson’s alter ego one of the most famous men in Victorian England. It also revolutionised children’s literature by abandoning, at a stroke, the long and piously-held tradition of moral-and-improving tales for the young in favour of zany, witty nonsense that had no underlying message other than fun...

Across the succeeding years, Alice has been endlessly reinterpreted by illustrators and filmmakers...

Mervyn Peake (1946)

Tove Jansson (1966)

Salvador Dali (1969)

 Ralph Steadman (1973)

 Walt Disney (1951)

Walt Disney & Tim Burton (2010)

July the 4th is also, of course, American Independence Day and – apart from over fifty years of Disney influence – it is interesting to note how many true literary successors to Lewis Carroll have sprung up in America, among them: L Frank Baum, James Thurber, Ogden Nash and Maurice Sendak.

But then perhaps this shouldn’t really surprise us, since the Americans have always shown themselves to be far greater lovers and defenders of Wonderland (and Looking-glass World) than the English have ever been…

Maybe there are reasons for this affinity between the American sensibility and Carroll’s nonsense realm: for one thing, Alice is a highly independent and self-determining individual (a truly revolutionary notion for a child’s book of the 1800s); for another, the Wonderlanders with whom she mixes are a wildly disparate conglomeration of diverse species – animals, humans, animals-dressed-as-humans and humans-with-animal-masks – all of whom (for the most part) rub along together but who are, together, fiercely territorial!


I find it fascinating – and humbling – that, in 1948 (by which time the original manuscript of
Alice’s Adventures Under Ground
had been sold and was in the possession of an American collector), a group of US well-wishers, led by the Librarian of Congress, should have started a fund to raise the considerable sum of money required to buy back the manuscript and send it home to us!



That first foray into Carroll's underground wonderworld now resides in the British Library and maybe we should remember the American act of selfless generosity which made that possible the next time we look at, say, the Elgin Marbles…

Meanwhile, time to raise a cup of tea and join in the toast-----

Happy 158th Birthday, Alice!

Happy 244th Birthday, America!


This blog post is a edited reprint of a post from 2007