Tuesday, July 15, 2014

L.A. TELEVISION OF THE 70s: A COMPLETE FILM EDUCATION


(The below post was originally published in 2007, shortly after I began this never-ending experiment in blogdom. I forgot all about it until recently, when somebody I didn't know e-mailed me thanking me for having written this piece which brought back so many memories etc. etc. I went back in the archives and found, somewhat remarkably, that people had been posting comments on it for a period of six years. Obviously the subject--old movies on old LA TV stations--seems to be one that elicits nostalgic interest from those of us who grew up in LA in the seventies. So I'm reposting it...largely because I'm too lazy to write a new post. KMA.)

As I found out while growing up, one could get a remarkably full film education by watching local 1970's LA television on a black and white Zenith--while being interrupted by Cal Worthington and his dog spot every ten (five?) minutes. Indeed, I find it astonishing that I was able to acquire as broad a background as I did in movies of the past (twenties, thirties, forties) while growing up in a non-digital universe. There wasn't cable yet (Z channel happened around '75, but showed only new movies at the time) and our first VCR didn't arrive until the summer of '78.

 Revival theaters were around, of course, and we occasionally went to the Vagabond Theater on Wilshire Blvd. where, one stunning night, Rita Hayworth herself Norma Desmondishly dropped in--heavily accompanied of course--to take a gander at her younger self in "Gilda". (Was she already deep into Alzheimers? Did her companions hope that seeing her old movie would spark something?) Also the Tiffany Theater on Sunset was then a revival house--it hosted the first 3D festival that I remember attending. The Vista, in Silverlake, was somehow not on our radar (too gay, perhaps?) and the New Beverly, if I'm not mistaken, was much more foreign-artsy-indie fare-ish, which I didn't get into until teenager-hood. Indeed, most of my old movie education happend via the black-and-white Zenith in my parents bedroom. In LA in the 70's, there were plenty local tv stations showing old movies--albeit of execrable print quality and mercilessly chopped up and shortened for commercials.

Cheif among them were the Ben Hunter Movie Matinee on KTTV (Ch. 11) every weekday at noon. I spent most of my summers indoors, in the air-conditioning, watching this program which was simply a different movie every day--but hosted, for some reason, by the smiling dude on the right. He smoked, drank coffee and even did a little call-you-at-home gimmick called, I think, Hunter's College of Obscure Knowlege. The KTTV library was largely MGM movies and they also had a Saturday afternoon movie which was repeated that same evening at 11PM or so. This was important because I remember the odd effect of seeing a movie in the afternoon and watching it again so close to its first viewing and being able to anticipate not just the plot but the camera angles and the cutting. My first film school? Probably. Ben Hunter's set also sticks in my mind--a faux-wood paneled den with bookshelves, leather "easy chair" and couch, none of which ever convinced me that we were anywhere but in a cheesy television studio. He interviewed people occasionally (who were they?) and use to end the show with a Laurel&Hardy short. (For a fascinating glimpse of LA TV commercials back in the day--including Ben Hunter pitching a Home Loan company--see the first video posted below.)

Then there was KTLA, Channel 5, home of Tom Hatten (and his fake projector) as well the 8PM Channel 5 movie club. This was largely the Paramount film library--or the "MCA" library as it was known thanks to a fit of house-cleaning in the early sixties, when Paramount stupidly sold all there pre-WW2 movies to MCA for a pittance who promptly slapped their logo on the beginning of all the best movies Paramount ever made--Marx Brothers, Mae West, W.C. Fields etc. Comedy wise, at KTLA the Hope-Crosby axis crossed with the Goldwyn Danny Kaye movies. (In fact, I think I remember a KTLA weekend afternoon movie program called "Goldwyn Theater.") I very definately remember seeing my first Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges movies on the Channel 5 movie club--though I rarely was able to stay awake for the ten pm finish. In fact, I didn't see the ending to "The Lost Weekend" until the early 1990s, when I saw it projected at Film Forum. (For a 1989 look at Tom Hatten in all his glory, see the second video posted below).

And KHJ, Channel 9, had "Million Dollar Movie". Which frankly was not usually as good as its competition on KTLA, though they did play the "Tara Theme" ("My Own True Love") at the beginning. Indeed, I can't remember what studios films turned up on Million Dollar Movie. But for a very nice view of some 1970s commercials that interrupt a showing on KHJ of "What's New Pussycat" see the third video posted below.

The loser station was KCOP, Channel 13, who were stuck with the Universal Library. In other words, Ma and Pa Kettle, Francis the Talking Mule, and dramatic fare like "Mississippi Gambler", starring the charisma-free  pre-'Music Man' Robert Preston. And Abbott and Costello, of course, but I seem to remember their movies programmed on weekend mornings. Early on I figured out to avoid the A&C movies where Bud had a pencil-thin moustache and spoke an octave deeper than usual--the unfortunate post 1949 crop.

Finally: KBSC, Channel 52 from Corona, of blessed memory. This strange indie station somehow controlled the Three Stooges and Our Gang--or "Little Rascals" as they were re-dubbed in their television years--movies as well as an outstanding selection of Warner Brothers 30's movies which aired weeknights at 8 PM under the banner "Hollywood Movie Classics." This was where I caught early Busby Berkeley, James Cagney/Pat O'Brien, the pre-Bowery Boys "Dead End Kids" and a pile of John Garfield/George Raft/Bette Davis/Ida Lupino stuff. Weirdly, they also showed Speed Racer as well as some very sexy women's Roller Derby on Saturday nights. All of it, I believe, uninterrupted. (Or was it? I can't remember Channel 52 having any commericials--was it a case of it being simply too obscure a station to attract any advertisers?) For a very nice 'tribute video' to KBSC, see the last video posted below.

Actually, the one commercial I remember on Channel 52 was an ad for Larry Fine's (of the Stooges) autobiography, "A Stroke Of Luck." They filmed Larry at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills and, after plugging his book, he invited any kids who were watching to come out and say hi. One long forgotten day, in 1974, my sister took me out there to meet him. But that's for another time...






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Sunday, July 6, 2014

ORSON WELLES: THE DEPRESSIVE YEARS

The setting is a Paris hotel room in 1960. What better place to find Orson Welles during this dark period of his expatriation? His comeback film,"Touch Of Evil",  had already vanished from the radar after being dumped into wide release without a press screening and having proven to be another "disappointment" for the former prodigy. The future looked gloomy. And Welles--though he does his best to remain magnetic and charming in this interview--is clearly depressed. Indeed he is very very far from  the man who later became a folk hero to the young, underground cinema freaks of the seventies. This isn't the Merv-guesting, Kermit-goofing, Dino-roasting, Jaglom-palling, Bogdanovich-raconteuring, Ma Maison-dining sage of the seventies and early eighties. That Orson was a good deal lighter in spirit and--although always wearing his 'legend' like a burdensome cape into which he might retreat at any given moment--he was somewhat more resigned in a gently philisophical way. Here, though, we see the middle-period Orson--the Welles of the frightful explosion upon re-meeting his old friend John Houseman (a few years earlier, yes, but you can picture the famous eruption coming out of this Welles--"For twenty years you've been doing everything you can to destroy me!" etc. See Thomson's "Rosebud" or Houseman's "Run-Through" or even Leaming's fawning and silly OW bio to read the complete encounter). Indeed everything about this Orson is somehow in the middle. He is exactly middle aged--forty five years old--and appears to be middle-weight (double his youthful size but shy about one hundred pounds of his magnificent blubber peak, circa late seventies). Most importantly, he is in the middle of his journey and as such has not yet settled upon the best way to play out the legend. Striking the right balance between grandiosity and sadness--without descending into self-pity--would come about ten years later. Frankly, the Welles I see in this interview is depressed, ponderous, suspicious and not a little paranoid. Would you finance this man's film?

He shamefully lets the interviewers misstatement that he wrote "Citizen Kane" by himself stand--his silence is gloomy and forbidding and an absolute slap in Herman J. Mankiewicz's dead face--and he turns on the interviewer when he discusses Chaplin and picks up on Welles own suggestion that perhaps the clown was not really his own best director. Welles, who made the point to begin with, Nixon-ishly shifts into paranoia mode and suggests that he's trying to get him to admit that he isn't his own best director..."and I'm not going to do that, I get so few chances to direct as it is". In this moment you see how dangerously Welles could turn on an innocent and credit his own dark scenarios to others--is it any wonder that the multiple explinations for who was to blame for the re-cutting of "Magnificent Ambersons" have never settled the basic question of why Welles didn't simply come back home to save his second masterpiece?

In "Rosebud", Thomson argues that the dark, middle-period Welles was the least attractive and least successful phase of his ever-evolving persona--that it made him seem 'florid' and 'out of date'--and that redemption and spiritual freedom came when Welles was brutally and publicly attacked by Pauline Kael, in her essay "Raising Kane". Thomson's thesis is that Welles--though he never gave up acting hurt by Kael's attack--was secretly relieved not to have to carry the burden of "greatness" and "profundity" that he'd worn since his youth...and that the lighter and easier-going Welles--the man I first saw on Merv and last saw in Jaglom's "Someone To Love"--is perhaps the man he'd always secretly yearned to be...a charmer and a bewitcher who preferred magic over reality and who had a bigger heart than even he knew (it must have been pretty big to have carried him along for seventy years). There is much in the below interview, though, that is wonderful--he begins to rehearse the "directing is the most over-rated profession ever invented" stuff that he pulled on Bogdanovich a few years later (see PB's indispensible "This Is Orson Welles") and he's quite delightful in his insistence that he would always choose to hire a friend over the right person for the role...which ties into his theory that he really isn't all that interested in art and isn't a true professional. "I'm an adventurer" he intones gravely and not altogether sincerely. I wonder if "Touch Of Evil" and its non-success is on his mind at this moment--he was, after all, given a mighty good chance by a Hollywood studio just two years earlier and somehow--despite the magnificent result--it hadn't worked out.

Or maybe this is Welles before he came to his own conclusion that he was, in fact, always a true independent...that it wasn't the fact that Hollywood didn't "give him the same contract" again as it did on "Kane" (as he bemoans here) so much that he was never cut out to be beholden to a larger group or to be subject to a final opinion that wasn't his own. Welles at his most successful is Welles at his free and easiest and in this way he resembles nothing so much as a classic 19th century actor-manager...picking the plays, assigning the parts, staging the show, running the whole thing and getting his troupe out of town before the sheriff catches up. That's the Welles of the 30's--the Mercury years--and that's the Welles of the later sixties and seventies, the years of the self-financed projects. (And the RKO years, of course--but let's face it, that "contract" was an anomaly and one can't hope for mistakes like that--no matter how brilliant--to be repeated). It's also the Welles of "F For Fake"--my third favorite Welles film which I implore anyone who hasn't seen to quickly find a copy of and watch. Shot in 1974, "F For Fake" is Welles at his most charming and slyly philisophical. The Welles from this period, unlike the Welles seen below, has grace and magic to spare. It is this later, gentler Orson--the goo-ier, in touch with his inner-child Orson--who made "The Other Side Of The Wind" which, from the fragments I've seen, looms (just out of reach) as, if not his masterpiece, his one truly and profoundly personal work.

Click here for the full fifty-three minute interview. Below is an excerpt.



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Monday, June 23, 2014

'THE STOLEN JOOLS': A TUBERCULAR PRODUCTION?

Long thought to be lost (and in some quarters even thought to have never existed),  "The Stolen Jools" was an all-star short comedy shot in 1931 by the National Vaudeville Artists (NVA) as part of their "relief work" for the American Tuberculosis Society. It stars...everybody, more or less, in a sincerely puzzling tale of Norma Shearer's jewels having been stolen and the quasi-investigation that follows--though that makes it sound like there is something resembling a plot line which I assure you there isn't. Really it is just an excuse to get all of the big Hollywood stars of the day on screen--sometimes for mere seconds--in blackout sketches designed to aid a good cause. The film was then shown in theaters across the country, accompanied by a live speaker from the NVA asking for donations to help cure tuberculosis. Since the film has nothing to do with anything medical, it's hard to compute quite how this convinced audience members--at the pit of the depression--to part with a few bucks (nickels? pennies?) to cure a disease that at that time didn't seem to be anywhere near being stamped out. Perhaps the dizzying presence of so many stars--Gary Cooper, Norma Shearer, Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Dix, Wallace Beery, Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, Joan Crawford, Jack Oakie and tons of others--all thrown together in a film that makes no sense and runs under twenty minutes was meant to daze and confuse the audience who, grateful that it was over, would pay for the privelege of not seeing it again. (In this way "The Stolen Jools" is a bit like the old joke about giving the sax player on the subway ten dollars--to not play.) Indeed, watching "The Stolen Jools" is reminiscent of nothing quite so much as the nightmare you might have after channel surfing through a bunch of old movies while eating a large cheese and pepperoni pizza (with plenty of cheap beer) at two am. One minute Wallace Beery is there, the next Laurel and Hardy, the next Loretta Young...all of them having little to do but being somehow connected.

Actually, I'm being hard on the poor thing. "The Stolen Jools" is certainly worth watching--primarily as an artifact of its time, as a piece of Hollywood archeology if you will. And it's plotlessness is no big deal--it's a sketch comedy one way or the other. What's curious to me, though, are the jokes that no longer make sense. A good many of the blackouts end on lines that are clearly timed to be punchlines--and which, in their day, might well have provoked belly laughs--but which now simply seem like premature fade-outs before the actual punchline has landed. In this sense, the film reminds me of a joke book that a friend of mine once gave me that dates from 1904. While there were certain old jokes in the book that still made sense, I was surprised at the number of jokes that merely seemed incoherent--as if translated (lamely) from another language. Humor, it turns out, does have an expiration date. A goodly amount of "The Stolen Jools" serves as ample proof of this fact.

Since both vaudeville and tuberculosis have, for the most part, disappeared from American life, the film raises a number of enigmatic questions none of which, I'm sorry to say, I can answer; why, for instance, was the NVA particularly interested in tuberculosis? Was the disease particularly prevalent among vaudevillians? Was tuberculosis suspected to be linked to the generally poor conditions the performers lived and worked in? And how about all that asbestos they were regularly exposed to in the theaters in which they toiled?

Also curious is the fact that the film was made "in association with Chesterfield Cigarettes". This is particularly intriguing as it's hard, at this distance, to know truly how much people knew about the connection between cigarettes and lung disease. I know the prevailing wisdom is that "people didn't know smoking was bad for them" but a cursory glance at any period magazine's cigarette advertising disproves this assumption--many cigarette ads claimed that their product was "easier on the throat" or less "cough-filled" than a rival cigarette, so it's clear that at the time the film was made there was some sort of recognition in the air about smokings harmfulness. If that's the case, was Chesterfield's participation in the making of "The Stolen Jools" an early, guilty sop intended to show "concern" on Chesterfield's part about their poisonous (and highly profitable) product? If so, this pre-dates big tobacco's recent efforts at "educating" youth about smoking by a cool seventy or so years...and gives truth to the adage that, as far as con-games go, there truly is nothing new under the sun.

"The Stolen Jools" was rediscovered in 1972 in Britain, where it had been released in 1932 as "The Slippery Pearls," one of the Masquers Club comedy series for RKO. Subsequently a U.S. print was discovered (not sure by whom or how) and eventually the film's true title, origin and purpose were at last known. Look out for some very interesting (and brief) tid-bits: a view of a studio lot (RKO perhaps?) with Richard Dix leaving a soundstage; Joan Crawford camping it up with Billy Haines--who seems absolutely one-hundred percent comfortable being totally out of the closet; Norma Shearer (to the right) looking a good deal dishier than she did after marrying Thalberg and becoming MGM's reigning "ice-queen"; a fine glimpse of the great Wheeler and Woolsey; a quite funny section with Gene Palette, Skeets Gallagher and Stu Erwin as newsmen--featuring Gary Cooper; and strangest of all Barbara Stanwyck and her then husband, vaudeville star Frank Fay--a ghost of the gay white way if ever there was one--in a truly weird bit in which Stanwyck recites poem she wrote...and is then, per Fay's request, taken outside and shot (!). Fay was a notoriously evil drunk who was intensely disliked by all of Hollywood--Stanwyck shook him fairly early on, after he threw their adopted baby into the swimming pool in a drunken rage. Many years later, after two decades of obscurity, Fay starred on Broadway in the original production of "Harvey" and once again earned everyone's enmity by associating himself--per his newly reclaimed celebrity--with a fascistic "America First" group. One of the jokes around Hollywood (recounted in Milton Berle's autobiography) at the time "The Stolen Jools" was made was: "Who's got the biggest prick in town?" Answer: "Mrs. Frank Fay."




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Monday, June 16, 2014

PUSSYCATS OF THE SUNSET STRIP: TUESDAY WELD


For years, Tuesday Weld was a major pain in the ass pussycat of the Sunset Strip, pissing off directors, gossip columnists, movie executives, turning down Warren Beatty's offer to star in "Bonnie and Clyde", having nervous breakdowns, drinking heavily, and claiming that she finally felt free because her mother died--when her mother was, in fact, alive and making an iffy living as a baby sitter to newlyweds John Astin and Patty Duke. (Mom was understandably annoyed when she heard that her famous daughter had declared her dead. At least she could have stood her the cost of the burial). By then, though, nobody thought it odd that Tuesday Weld had made up such a thing. By the early seventies, nutty Tuesday was already an old story.

Back in 1959, Danny Kaye, with whom she appeared in "The Five Pennies" said, "Tuesday Weld is fifteen going on twenty-seven". God knows what prompted this assertion but one can only imagine. This was after she had shot to nationwide stardom on TV's "Affairs of Dobie Gillis" which came about as a result of modeling work that her mother had been forcing her--er, encouraging her--to do since she was a kid, after her wealthy father passed away and somehow left the family with nothing. (His name, by the way, was Lathrop Motley Weld--a name that could only have been portrayed by Rudy Vallee in an unmade Preston Sturges movie). You see, everything about Tuesday Weld is written IN CAPITALS--and ITALICIZED. When she burst on the scene, the by-then decrepit Louella Parsons was astonished enough at Tuesday's free-living shenanigans to proclaim "Miss Weld is not a very good representative of the motion picture industry." (Presumably, Louella then flung her pince nez into her soup, crushed her cigarette out in the soft-boiled eggs, gulped her third Manhattan of the morning and ordered her secretary to get "that lovely young George Reeves on the telephone"--two years after he'd leapt out of the window). When things started going wrong with Tuesday in the late sixties, it wasn't enough for her to get divorced or turn down the string of big parts she was offered; her house also burned down. She just had that kind of--pardon the term--energy.

But, like other beautiful pain in the asses--Monroe comes to mind--she was worth (or almost worth) the trouble. Critically underrated as an actress and almost hypnotically watchable, Tuesday Weld may have lost out on the roles that would have defined her as one of the screen greats--"Lolita", the above mentioned "Bonnie and Clyde", "Rosemary's Baby", "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice"--but the many crap movies that she enlivened nonetheless showcased her quirky and deceptively deep talents to their singular advantage. And there were a few good ones along the way--"Pretty Poison", the great cult favorite which typically Tuesday detested (she said that the director, Noel Black, would ruin her day merely by saying "Good Morning") as well as "Cincinatti Kid" with Steve McQueen and the adaptation of Joan Didion's novel "Play It As It Lays", for which she won the best actress award at the Venice Film Festival. Later in the seventies, she was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for "Looking For Mr. Goodbar"--now there's a seventies title that ought to be exhumed. One gets the idea with Tuesday--later married to Dudley Moore and later still married to violinist Pinchus Zuckerman--that a very restless spirit was unable or unwilling to land in a spot long enough, or secure enough, to flourish. And that perhaps even the notion of "flourishing" was anathema to the restless Tuesday.

Now in her early seventies and divorced from Zuckerman, Tuesday is out there somewhere perhaps enjoying the relative anonymity she now possesses. I'd love to know where she is, how she is, and what she spends her days doing. I have a feeling she's a hell of a lot more interesting than just any other run-of-the-mill pussycat. Below is the infamous "12 Cashmere Sweaters" clip from George Axelrod's very Sunset Strippy mid-sixties comedy, "Lord Love A Duck". Ai, yi, yi...





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Thursday, June 12, 2014

DUKE ELLINGTON MEETS CINERAMA?


Below I've posted an extraordinary piece of filmmaking from 1935. It runs just under ten minutes but is well worth your time.

"Symphony In Black" is a short film featuring Duke Ellington and his band, with guest appeareances by Billie Holiday and Scatman Crothers, believe it or not. (Holiday sounds like herself but is otherwise unrecognizable from her later self--here she's young, plump and healthy looking. Crothers, later to become famous for his recurring role on "Chico And The Man" is twenty-five years old here and quite the dude. He's not credited, but he plays Billie's two-timing boyfriend.) There is no dialogue--it is a purely visual representation of an early extended work by Ellington which is in five short parts. If you run out of patience (which I hope wont be the case) or have to abort due to a previously scheduled event, skip to the last two minutes, the section called "Harlem Rhythm." The specialty dancer in this sequence is the great Earl "Snake Hips" Tucker. The elaborate super-impositions are still quite a thrill to watch--I wonder if there's a really proper, cleaned-up print of this film around? Being a Paramount release, one might suspect that the original negative might have been preserved.

What has this to do with Cinerama? Well: the film was directed (and I mean DIRECTED) by somebody named Fred Waller. IMDB research shows Mr. Waller to have been something of tech geek--in the twenties he was a cinematographer and designed miniatures and title sequences. In the thirties, he directed a series of musical short films for Paramount (of which this was one) all of which feature his trademark, high-style art moderne visual treatment. His real work, though, was in the development of a wide-screen projection process which led to his eleven-projector system "VITARAMA" which debuted at the 1939 New York Worlds Fair. Developed with Merian C. Cooper (another film scientist and co-creator of "King Kong"), this was the direct precursor of Cinerama, which finally premiered in 1953 at the above pictured theater on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, California. Fred Waller died one year later in 1954, aged sixty-eight. A fascinating and, as far as I can tell, largely forgotten figure.




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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

PUSSYCATS OF THE SUNSET STRIP: MEET JOI LANSING

The other day, while watching Orson Welles astoundingly good "Fountain Of Youth" television pilot, I became fixated on the female lead, the mysterious Joi Lansing. Looking her up on the internet I found that I'd written about her when this blog first came into existence. So impressed was I with my own piece that I've decided to re-post it. Joi deserves no less. Supposedly, when Welles was interviewing actresses for the pilot, he came out into the reception room, got a look at Lansing and said to his assistant: "Where did she come from? Send the other girls away."

But "The Fountain Of Youth" was, alas, her only truly notable credit. Indeed her filmography is distinguished by the sheer volume of undistinguished films she appeared in. Nonetheless, nobody who has seen Joi Lansing in any of the number of execrable movies she was consigned by fate to have appeared in can quite forget her. The va-voom factor, of course, is inescapable. But there was something oddly innocent about her that makes her special--a little "why are they all looking at me like that, I'm just a little girl from Salt Lake City" about her that seeps through even in the most atrocious of settings--"Hillbilly's In A Haunted House" anyone?

Joi was a sort of Rat Pack mascot--she supposedly had an on/off affair with Sinatra (which depresses me for some reason) and turns up in "Marriage On the Rocks" (and that's one of her A-list credits). She was always, for some reason, struggling with second-hand goods, hand-me-down roles in B and C and worse flicks which she dressed up with her mere presence--if you can call anything about her "mere". I have to assume that more than once she asked herself "Why Kim Novak and not me?" Novak, of course, got all the best possible breaks and remains, for my money, unmemorable in the extreme--except perhaps for "Vertigo." (What about Joi Lansing as 'Madeleine/Judy''? And was she, in fact, the ice-cold blonde that Hitch should have bet on, instead of Tippi Hedren?) After years of steadily working but never coming up big-time, Lansing apparently developed a nightclub act that she did quite well with. After a series of confusing marriages and multiple dating escapades (see the above link--Georgie Jessel?) she became friends with a woman named Rachel Hunter. So close were they that they were like "sisters." So why not change Rachel's last name to "Lansing". Which she did. From then on, Joi and Rachel Lansing lived together in various homes in California--I'm sorry, but what does this sound like to you? Well, why not? Men probably caused Joi enough grief in her short life. Joi developed breast cancer in her early forties and died in 1972, age 43. Rachel was at her side. They'd been living together in Marina Del Rey, as well as in Palm Springs, in a house owned by Joi's ex-husband.

Below is a Scopitone short of "Trapped In the Web Of Love." Scopitone was another, more successful, jukebox industry pre-MTV attempt to marry hit songs and visuals. But many more Scopitones were made and they seem to have been preserved on DVD's, in all their mid-sixties, Sunset Strippish-glory.




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Friday, May 30, 2014

VITAPHONE OF IT ALL PART DEUX: THE GUS ARNHEIM DANCE PARTY

Here's a very early Vitaphone short--1927--of popular bandleader Gus Arnheim and his Ambassador Hotel Orchestra. As with the short I posted the other day, you again are simply in the environment of the 1920s, as all cinematic technique is eschewed and the band is captured, impassively, as it would be seen in a hotel ballroom. I find this stuff mesmerizing and I must not be the only one since a great organization called The Vitaphone Project has made it their mission to restore these one-of-a-kind short films, which are virtually a visual history of vaudeville and popular live entertainment of the period. Click here for a history of Vitaphone and how their early sound/film system worked. It's quite unbelievable as the sound existed on a disc separate from the film. The recording playback device was attached to the projector, which somehow synced up the mute film with the record. Oy. For many years the films, thought to be worthless, were scattered to the wind and it's been the Vitaphone Projects mission to find the discs and the films that go with them (they usually wound up in different places through the years) and reunite them.

The band features, among other things, a guitar and a banjo as well as three reed players who--surprise!--jump up toward the end and form a snappy singing trio. Arnheim presides at the piano and remains wordless, taking two bows and letting the music speak for itself. I've not been able to find the names of any of the players which, in a sense, makes this film something of a ghost story; who were these men, where did they come from, how did they get hired and where did they wind up? It's just another trippy aspect of these shorts...could any of them have predicted, on the day this film was shot eighty-seven years ago, that there would be visual proof of their existences beyond whatever snapshots their family members (assuming they had any--they were musicians, after all) might have saved? And that we'd be watching it on something called a computer?

Arnheim, it turns out, wrote the popular hit song "I Cried For You" which Judy Garland sang in one of those "Babes In/On..." movies with Mickey Rooney. Surprisingly (to me), the song turns out to have been written in the early 20s, though its bigtime era was the late thirties/early forties. If you go to this site, somebody has posted a bunch of very clean recordings of Arnheim's orchestra, apparently having cleaned up the audio using a special feature on Goldwave, which takes old vinyl and tape recordings and enables noise reduction of buzz, hiss, crackles and clicks that usually mar these old records.




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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

THE VITAPHONE OF IT ALL

Having grown truly ill of seeing Arnold riding a chariot through Manhattan whenever my blog (which is my homepage) comes up...(well, it has to be somebody's homepage...) I've decided to end my self-imposed week long blogging and tweeting silence. I wish I could say that the silence was a self-enforced experiment in living off-line for awhile but it wouldn't be true. I was consumed with work--a rare enough event to be taken seriously. Also I was bored.

I've always dug the Vitaphone shorts which were mostly shot in New York (Brooklyn to be exact) at the dawn of the sound era--1928 are the earliest I believe--and moving into the mid-thirties or so. They are nothing but recordings of popular stage acts of the time--shot primitively with two or three cameras which were enclosed in enormous, immovable sound-proof booths. (This leads to some hilarious early camerawork which you'll see in the short I posted below). But its this very rawness that makes the shorts so mesmerizing. You are literally sitting in the audience at a Vaudeville house and watching an act. A complete time-capsule, with no story or normal film technique to get in the way. The one I've posted is Red Nichols and his Five Pennies and features, in addition to Nichols, the legendary Eddie Condon on banjo and vocals (and what a vocalist! Oye...) and PeeWee Russell on clarinet. I can't identify the other musicians but there is some web-based disinformation that I can refute. It is not Gene Krupa on drums as some say. Nor is it Frank Teschmacher on Clarinet. Enjoy the ghostly experience of going back to 1929, heading into an "air-cooled" (actually a block of ice and fans blowing on it through vents) Vaudeville theater in midtown Manhattan on a hot summer day and enjoying one of the many acts you could then see, before Vaudeville disappeared completely...



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Monday, May 19, 2014

HERCULES IN NEW YORK MEETS CENTRAL PARK CONSERVANCY?

Arnold Schwarzenegger's much reviled motion picture debut, "Hercules In New York", was filmed on location in 'Fun City' (as it was then being touted in an ill-fated civic-pride campaign) in 1969. Ludicrous and amateurish on all counts, the film was directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman who somehow managed to survive its wreckage (it was apparently his debut as well) to go onto a prolific career as a director in television.

There are many articles out there detailing the absurdities of this cinematic treasure so I wont go into the gory detail. (To be honest, I've never made it through the whole thing.) But the part of the film that anyone who loves seeing New York City on film will truly savior is, without a doubt. the chariot chase that progresses from midtown, heading north on Sixth Avenue (past Radio City) and into Central Park. The park is decimated by the stunt car a work, which digs deep holes into what appears to be the Sheep's Meadow. I say 'appears' not because I'm hazy on my CP geography (I'm not...in fact, I know the park backwards...so there) but because it is almost unrecognizable in contrast with its current state of ultra-sleek, super-planted, 'stay-off-the-lawn' perfection. Actually, many New Yorkers have come to regard the park as having grown progressively less charming due to its prissy-clean state. To those naysayers I would say: watch this and enjoy a look at a forgotten city, one where they'd issue a permit to shoot anything anywhere as long as the right payoffs were made...and one in which there was no such thing as the Central Park Conservancy to prevent shredding the crown jewel of Manhattan in the name of popular entertainment.



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Saturday, May 17, 2014

DIRECTOR'S THEATER: GREGORY LA CAVA


Directing is a painful existence. The making of a movie is a torturous marathon sprint. The creative arguments never cease. If everything works out in the end others claim all the credit. If it doesn't, you get all the blame. Years later all of the crap is forgotten and only the film remains. And let's face it, most films don't age well. You're lucky if you get one that outlasts you. Two and your a legend. Three and you're John Ford.

So, Cookie. Let's talk about Gregory La Cava. First, however, click here to read a fine article by Gary Morris about this shamefully neglected filmmaker.  While "My Man Godfrey" remains his most famous film--the "one"--several others are equally interesting and still freshly entertaining. La Cava seemed to be an early exponent of improvisatory work with actors--though at this distance its hard to say how much his finished films deviated from their screenplays. Certainly the best of his work always came as a result of working with a strong script--"Stage Door", my favorite of his films, came from the sturdy carpentry shop of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber (who also concocted "Dinner At Eight"). Let's whet the appetite with a look at the trailer of "Stage Door" (the movie, by the way, is posted on in full on youtube).



Having set the period and hopefully created a modicum of enthusiasm for the subject, lets examine what little there is about La Cava in print and see what we can learn about him. First up, Frank Capra:

"The meteor, Gregory La Cava, was an extreme proponent of inventing scenes on the set. Blessed with a brilliant, fertile mind and a flashing wit, he claimed he could make pictures without scripts. But without scripts the studio heads could make no accurate budgets, schedules, or time allowances for actors commitments. Shooting off the cuff, executives said, was reckless gambling...He stuck to his off-the-cuff guns. Result: fewer and fewer film assignments for him--then none. The flashing rocket of his wit was denied a launching pad because he wouldn't, or couldn't conform. So he mixed his exotic fuels with more mundane spirits and brooded himself into oblivion--his rebel colors still flying. La Cava was a man out of his time--a precursor of the "new wave" directors of Europe. Pity he didn't live long enough to lead them.

Frank Capra, "The Name Above The Title"

Capra's thumbnail history of his fellow filmmaker gives us two important pieces of information: that La Cava did indeed invent whole scenes on the set; and that he was a drunk. (His friendship with W.C. Fields might have similarly led us to this conclusion). Capra's correct about La Cava's sparse output--after he peaked with "Godfrey" and "Stage Door" he made only three more films, none of them successful. These were "Lady In A Jam", "Fifth Avenue Girl" and "Living In A Big Way". I have a feeling that whatever looseness developed on the sets of the more tightly scripted "Godfrey" and "Stage Door" may have gone to his head--director's who don't write do seem to require ownership over the screenplays they bring to life--especially if the movies are successful. (Altman was notoriously bad at crediting the fine writers he worked with for having much to do with his films).

Our next account of La Cava is an eye-witness one, from the sound engineer (and later director) Edward L. Bernds. (I had the privilege of knowing Ed while growing up and plan to write about him at greater length...unless, of course, I keep procrastinating). Bernds worked with La Cava on a 1935 Columbia movie called "She Married Her Boss". His feelings toward his boss are ambivalent; clearly he was fascinated by him, but also frustrated (a not uncommon feeling toward La Cava). In his memoir, "Mr. Bernds Goes To Hollywood", he makes extensive reference to a journal he kept while on the set.

"Some of La Cava's instructions to his cast members seemed strange..."Keep it filled up with business. No story value here except to show relationship of woman serving man. Keep it glib. Don't let anything stand out--the story value will seep through the scene as a hole." Something seeped through: the scene betwween (Claudette) Colbert and Melvyn Douglas was fast, sharp and amusing. Later, La Cava to his players: "I liked the easy way you played the scene. Throw it away: don't think of anything but glibness and ease." Diary, June 14, La Cava: "Do what you feel--then your reflexes are handling you, which is the theory of it". Diary, July 1: "Lines don't matter. Words don't matter, except sense and feeling--the thing is to get the essence of them-what is said doesn't matter!!"...I recall thinking that if what is said didn't matter, why bother to speak? Shoot a couple of close-ups of actors staring at one another and allow the essence of the scene to ripple and sseep through. La Cava's instructions did seem to be up in the clouds sometwhere. The term "double-talk" was not known in 1935--if it had been, I probably would have used it."

Well, I'm not sure about the "words don't matter" bit, but I think La Cava was onto something that might not have been easy to grasp; his instructions seem all about relaxation, about not thinking while doing--a very Zennish kind of approach for a mid-thirties screwball comedy director. Is this what gives the performances in his films there slightly ducky, warm and charming qualities?  I'll quote a bit from the above mentioned article by Morris:

" In Stage Door, she (Andrea Leeds) said, "Gregory La Cava had all of us girls in the movie come to the studio for two weeks before the shooting started and live as though we were in the lodging house itself. He rewrote scenes from day to day to get the feeling of a bunch of girls together — as spontaneous as possible. He would talk to each of us like a lifelong friend. That gave us a feeling of intimacy." Others on the set of Stage Door said he had a secretary eavesdropping on the girls and writing down their comments, some of which he incorporated into the film. La Cava's careful work with Katharine Hepburn on this film rescued her from the dreaded status of "box-office poison," and Ginger Rogers, not always charitable in her comments on those she worked with, labeled him "masterful."

Producer Pandro Berman, who worked on many of La Cava's films, talked about the chaos that existed on the director's sets. "He amazed me, and I gave him complete freedom. I went through a terrible ordeal on the picture [Stage Door], not knowing where we were going, what we were doing tomorrow, how the script would turn out. The picture aged me a hundred years every day we worked. Every single person on our boards here and in New York wanted me to fire Greg. It was pure hell!"

In spite of which the film turned out beautifully. So why didn't it ever work out for La Cava again? Ralph Bellamy, in an interview I'll post soon (it's mostly about Leo McCarey) refers to the 1942 "Lady In A Jam" disparigingly--unfavorably comparing La Cava's attempts at working without a script to McCarey's on "The Awful Truth". Perhaps the boozing had already gotten the better of him. I wonder if anyone ever spoke to Gene Kelly about "Living In A Big Way", the 1947 curio that ended La Cava's career (and almost Kelly's as well). Whatever. La Cava did his thing, left behind two terrific films (one a certified classic) and a handful of other movies of more than moderate interest and skill. If I were offered the ability to sign up for just such a summation of my own work-life on this earth, I'd grab the pen and mark a big fat frigging X.






Tuesday, May 13, 2014

FAT AND GREASY

Here are two versions of one of Fats Waller's weirdest songs, "Fat And Greasy". The first is my preferred version, as it's clear that Fats is drunk during the performance. In the second you can actually make out the very funny, somewhat appalling lyrics. Dig:





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Friday, May 9, 2014

'KING OF BURLESQUE'


When I was growing up my first musical hero was the great Thomas 'Fats' Waller. I had all of the LP reissues of his Victor recordings of the 1930s as well as some other, odder no-name label LPs which were probably semi-legal compilations at best. One was a strangely packaged blank, cream-colored album cover which simply listed the songs in black bold-face type with no accompanying graphics. The record itself was transparent blue. Hm. Among other scraps of the Waller canon it contained a long-ish cut of Fats singing "I've Got My Fingers Crossed." Now, what was odd about this recording to my young ears was the sound of a thousand tap-dancing feet that accompanied Waller at one point. The album notes indicated that the cut was taken from the soundtrack of "King Of Burlesque" but gave no other information. Somehow, my brave and intrepid nine year old soul bothered to track down the year of the film--1936--and that it starred Warner Baxter, Jack Oakie and Alice Faye (probably via Leonard Maltin's early edition of Movies On TV...how else, in those pre-internet days?) I used to listen to the recording and envision the accompanying movie in my head, never dreaming that it would ever appear on our black and white Zenith TV. One early AM, though, it did. I got up in the middle of the night and watched it, mesmerized. The idea of having created a movie of the song in my head--which is what I effectively did by listening to it over and over--and then seeing it born out in reality was a deeply thrilling experience.  Below is that number. It is unusually good and interesting for a variety of reasons.

The director, Sidney Lanfield's covereage of the number is extensive, varied and inventive. (If indeed Lanfield shot this--the dance director was the great and forgotten Sammy Lee who choreographed many early musicals and later became a director--this could very well be his work as it was common, in the studio era, to use multiple directors on a movie, all charged with different tasks). Whoever is responsible, clearly much craft went into the creation of this particular production number. The dancer is Dixie Dunbar--later the dancing legs covered by the giant cigarette box in the early commercials for Old Gold.

But it's the year of the film's making that is especially intriguing. "King Of Burlesque" was released in 1936, which means it could have been shot in '35. You'll notice that this production number contains both black and white people performing in it, was was atypical to say the least. Indeed, 1935 was the year when Benny Goodman started touring with Teddy Wilson, as bold a defiance of the 'color line' as had yet been seen. White people and black people performing together was by no means something that was certain to be acceptable to movie audiences. Was "King Of Burlesque"--and this number in particular--the first time ever? And how did Hollywood, never known for its chance-taking, wind up crossing the color-line so quickly?

The answer, alas, is probably hidden in the subtle distinction that, although whites and blacks are sharing the stage, they are not technically performing together. The band is all black, the dancers are all white. Now of course they ARE all performing together--but, in a racist mindset, it's possible that they didn't have to rehearse with each other. Believe it or not, this may have made all the difference in the sorry attitude of the time. Still, there they all are on stage together, Fats resplendent in his vast white suit. Whoever allowed this to go forward is to be no doubt posthumously complimented. Perhaps they just had their fingers crossed...



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