Sunday, August 2, 2015

Ian Dury and the Blockheads (music)

imageActive 1977-1980
Members (original group):
  Ian Dury (vocals), Chaz Jankel (Guitars, keyboards), Norman Watt-Roy (bass), Charley Charles (drums), Davey Payne (saxophones)
Wikipedia entry
Official Website

Rock and roll stardom is fickle and sometimes the most surprising people taste it.  Ian Dury was one of those.  He was a major name in late 70s UK (and in US New Wave circles), and his path was different to say the least.

Dury was born in the UK in 1942 and moved around during most of his childhood.  When he was seven, he contracted polio and spent a year and a half recovering.  In 1971, he formed his first rock group, Kilburn and the High Roads, a part of the Canterbury progressive music scene.*  They toured with the Who and put out a couple of albums to critical success and public apathy.

Looking for work, Dury joined up with a group of friends to form the Blockheads, whose first notable single was “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” in 1977.  The song was controversial, but it made the group’s reputation.  Their album, New Boots and Panties was a major UK hit.  Their next single “What a Waste” made the charts, and Dury’s insanely catchy “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” made #1.

Dury and the Blockheads toured Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and other names of the New Wave scene.  His album was released in the US to disappointing sales.

Dury was a master lyricist, even when his lyrics were goofy.  Most of the music was written by Chaz Jankel and borrowed from jazz, music hall, rock, and rap.  He also had a minor acting career, with

He was never afraid to let people know about his bout with polio.  In fact, his record company was appalled at the video for “Rhythm Stick,” since you can clearly see how the disease affected his musculature.  At the time, though, not many noticed and Dury was glad that they did.  He later got in trouble with the BBC with a song about being disabled, but he was fearless in promoting it.

Dury’s time at the top was short.  When the New Wave became passe, he broke up with the Blockhead and tried new things, to only minor success.  He would occasionally get the Blockheads together.  He died in 2000 of cancer.

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*Canterbury was a hotbed of progressive rock in the late 60s and early 70s; most of the hardcore groups of the era originated there:  Soft Machine, Caravan, Gong, Hatfield and the North, and National Health (the five groups in the center of the scene), plus the Wilde Flowers (originator of the scene), Camel, Egg, Henry Cow, Matching Mole, and others.  None had any notable hits in the US, but considering their mix of jazz, rock, fusion, and avant-garde music, hits were unlikely.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Wait Until Dark

image(1967)
Directed by
Terrence Young
Written by Robert Carrington and Jane-Howard Carrington from a play by Frederick Knott
Starring Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, Samantha Jones, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.
IMDB Entry

Audrey Hepburn became a star by portraying a woman of cool charm and elegance, usually in romantic films.  But she could do more than that, and shows a different side of her in Wait Until Dark.

The film starts with Lisa (Samantha Jones) smuggling heroin into the US inside a cloth doll.  She befriends Sam Hendrix (Efram Zimbalist, Jr.) and, when she sees trouble at the airport, asks Sam to keep the doll.  Sam is married to Susy, who was blinded several years previously in an accident, but who doesn’t let that slow her up, as she tries to be “the world champion blind lady.”  But a group of crooks, lead by Roat (Alan Arkin) track down the doll and Susy, looking to take it back by any means possible.

Susy is the the type of woman heroine I admire:  smart, resourceful, and able to fight back as best she can.*  Hepburn is excellent in every scene and got a well-deserved Oscar nomination.

But the most bravura performance is Alan Arkin’s.  This was one of his first roles, and he’s brilliant.  Roat is one of the best types of villains – very smart, and always ahead of everyone, but with a casual violence that’s absolutely chilling.

The film is often cited as having one of the scariest moments in film.  It’s really more startling than scary**, but it is memorable.

Hepburn took a leave from films after this one to raise her family, not appearing until nine years later in Robin and MarianArkin made some bad choices, but in the 21st century came back into his own as a character actor, with an Oscar win.***

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*I thought of the movie when watching the second episode of Daredevil on Netflix.  There’s a climactic fight scene at the end, and I wondered why Daredevil didn’t think to do what Susy had done, especially since the way to do it (a breaker box) was prominently displayed before the fight began.

**Startling an audience is ridiculously easy; any third-rate filmmaker can manage it:  you set up a character, keep any background to the minimum, and pretend that the big bad is dead.  Then you have the bad guy jump out at you while the soundtrack loudly plays music, preferably a discord.  The audience will jump every time.  If you want to see horror, watch Osama or The Tenant.

***He wasn’t nominated for Wait Until Dark, though he certainly deserved it.  When asked about it, he said, "You don't get nominated for being mean to Audrey Hepburn."

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann)

image1924
Directed by
F. W. Murnau
Written by Carl Mayer
Starring Emil Jannings, Maly Delschaft Max Hiller
IMDB Entry
Entire Film from the Internet Archive

Director F. W. Murnau has been in the news lately (for bizarre reasons) and the articles always mention that he was director of Nosferatu, the first vampire film.  And while Nosferatu* is an important film historically, during his career most people considered The Last Laugh as Murnau’s major achievement.

The story is simple.  It follows a hotel doorman (Emil Jannings).  Proud of his job (and the uniform he wears), the doorman goes about his business with pride and flair. But he is growing old.  One day, a younger man shows up at the door, wearing the doorman’s uniform.  The doorman has been demoted to washroom attendant, a “reward” for his years of service.  The drop in prestige causes his life to unravel.

On a technical side, the movie (nearly, but more on that) attains an ideal that silent directors had always wanted to achieve:  to tell the story with only visuals, and without any title cards.  Murnau achieves this.  There is no dialog, no intertitles to show what the characters are saying.  Dialog is never spelled out, leaving the acting and the context to make it clear what the people are saying.  The scenes – shot by cameraman Karl Freund – also push the technical envelope of the time, but using a moving camera extensively, something that had rarely been attempted at all at the time.

The Doorman realizes he's been replaced.The story is also very affecting.  The loss of prestige breaks the doorman, and the intense sense of loss and depression.  Emil Jannings was one of the best actors of the late sound period** and he imbues the part with such sadness that you believe he is a man utterly crushed.

The movie’s ending was the reason for the single title card.  The studio insisted on adding a happy ending, so Murnau and writer Carl Dreyer added a obviously tacked-on and improbable*** happy ending (hence the card, and the film’s English title).

The film was praised as a classic from the start.  As a silent film, of course, the acting is not what we are used to today, since you couldn’t express emotion with your voice.  But taken on its own terms, it’s a landmark of cinema.

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*An uncredited retelling of Dracula.

**He won the first Best Actor Oscar.

***In the film’s own words.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Frances Ha

image(2012)
Directed by
Noah Baumbach
Written by Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig
Starring Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner
IMDB Entry

I like quirky movies, and also movies that are character and incident driven.  It can be difficult to pull off, but Frances Ha manages the task with aplomb.

The movie features Frances Halladay (Greta Gerwig) and a 27-year old dancer still trying to hold on to her dreams – which weren’t really coming true in the first place.  Her best friend Sophie (Mickey Summer) moves out, forcing Frances to hustle just for a place to stay.

Greta Gerwig is excellent, but then, she has to be for the film to work at all.  Frances is sweet, frantic, naïve, and more than a little disorganized, with a habit of awkwardness.  The movie meanders along with Frances’s life as she tries to make sense of it all.

The film got critical raves, and did as well as a small quirky, black and white film can in the age of blockbusters.

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*I like Quirky, too, but that’s another story.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Theodore Sturgeon (author)

(1918-1985)
Wikipedia Page
Science Fiction Encyclopedia
Internet SF Database

Theodore SturgeonI’ve been watching Sense8 on Netflix and have been following the commentary on it.  Some have compared it to Philip K. Dick, but the clearest precedent is one of the great writers of the genre:  Theodore Sturgeon.

Sturgeon was born as Edward Hamilton Waldo but changed his name at age 11 when his mother remarried.,  He started publishing in 1937 – mainstream stuff, it seems – but switched to science fiction,  where his first genre story, “Ether Breather,” appeared in Astounding in 1939.

Sturgeon was a prolific short story writer, and he quickly became noted as one of the top names in the genre.  His first truly original story – and most influential -- was “It,” in 1941.  “It” established the concept of a vegetation-based monster like Swamp Thing, The Heap, and Man-Thing.  It’s also a masterpiece of horror, with a scare in it that has rarely been duplicated.  Sturgeon’s monster is scary because it’s not evil, which means its actions cannot be predicted.

“Shottle Bop” from the next year is one of the first in the mysterious shop subgenre of fiction and “Microcosmic God” – about a man who creates a whole civilization of people – is still considered one of the greatest sf short stories of all time.  Some of my other favorites include

  • “Two Percent Inspiration,” a slight story, but one Sturgeon loved for pulling off three plot twists at the end.
  • “Killdozer!” about a sentient killer machine; it’s been dramatized a couple of time.
  • Baby is Three,”  the introduction of the concept used in Sense8.
  • “Mr. Costello, Hero,” a devastating attack on Joseph McCarthy and the modern culture of surveillance.*
  • “The World Well Lost” – Aliens have (for the time) a terrible secret.  Maybe the first sympathetic treatment of homosexuality in the genre.
  • “The Man Who Lost the Sea
  • “When You Care, When You Love” – mostly the story of a loving relationship, with a twist at the end.
  • “If All Men Are Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?”  Not only a great title, but probably the most dangerous of the Dangerous Visions.
  • “It Was Nothing, Really” – a lighter piece about force fields and toilet paper.
  • “Slow Sculpture” where a woman and a scientist heal each other by their presence.
  • “Not an Affair” about a seduction and a disease that has surprising consequences for the human race.

There are many more.

Sturgeon’s best known influence is from two TV scripts her wrote for the original Star Trek: “Shore Leave” and “Amok Time.”  In the latter, he created the concept of pon farr, wrote the line “Live Long and Prosper,” and suggested the Vulcan salute.**  And, of course, he’s known most widely for Sturgeon’s Law:  “90% of everything is crap.”***  He’s also known in science fiction for his credo, “Ask the next question.”

He only had a handful of novels published.  Sturgeon both preferred the short story and also seemed to go through periods of writers block, which may have caused him to stay away from longer work.  One of his best novels overall wasn’t even under his own name:  The Player on the Other Side was an Ellery Queen novel that Sturgeon wrote with advice from Queen.

It was a cliché of the time that Sturgeon wrote about love.  It’s basically true, but his stories were not just simple romances.  They explored the possibilities of relationships of all types.

Sturgeon was anthologized all over the place during his lifetime; anyone who read SF anthologies would come across his name.  He also had several collections published.****  And, like most short story writers of his era, he’s slowly fading away.  His complete short works are available for completists, and anything republishing stories from his time frame will include something of his.  But reprint anthologies are more for the long-time fan than anyone new.

But he deserves to be listed as one of the true greats of the field.

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*It was made into a radio play and I was surprised to learn the name of the characters was pronounced COS-tuh-lo.

**Though Nimoy determined what exactly it would be.

***This was in reply to someone saying that 90% of science fiction was crap.  Note that there are various other words used instead of “crap.”

****One was probably the cleverest title ever given to an anthology:  Caviar.  Think about it.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Deathtrap

image(1982)
Directed by
Sidney Lumet
Written by Jay Presson Allen, from a play by Ira Levin
Starring Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, Dyan Cannon, Irene Worth
IMDB Entry

Plot twists are a mainstay of classic mystery fiction.  And occasionally, there’s a work that’s nothing but plot twists.  One of the best examples of this is Deathtrap.

Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine) is a playwright fighting off a string of Broadway flops.  Desperate for success, he gets a manuscript titled Deathtrap, from a former student, Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve).  It’s brilliant and Sidney thinks on stealing the manuscript and taking credit for it* and invited Clifford to their house.  Sidney’s wife Myra (Dyan Cannon) is uncomfortable with the idea, stressing her already weak constitution.  And a mysterious psychic, Helga ten Dorp (Irene Worth) shows up at the house, and complicates matters.

I can’t really discuss much of the plot; the fun is watching it unfold.  It has more twists than a mountain road, and most of the fun of the film is to follow them.

The movie was based on a play by Ira Levin** and directed by Sidney Lumet, who is best know for more serious work.  It’s often compared to Sleuth,*** though it’s different in many ways, lacking the cat and mouse games that made Sleuth successful. 

Caine gives his usual excellent performance, while Reeve, trying to shed his association with the Man of Steel, shows that he’s more than just a superhero actor.

The movie was a moderate success.  One thing that hurt it was something that occurred that was very notable in film history, but which gave away one of the twists, and also kept audiences away.****

Still, if you’re looking for a light thriller with plenty of surprises, Deathtrap is a good choice.

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*A very annoying cliché about writers.  It’s acceptable here because of what happens afterwards, but there are so many times when that is the basis of a mystery that I’m tired of seeing it.

**Author of Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil, and many other successful thrillers. 

***Caine starred in the movie version of that (twice).

****Highlight text below to display
A passionate kiss between Sidney and Clifford.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Aaron Williams (comedy)

image(1933?-)
Wikipedia Page

The cliché of a ventriloquist is that his dummy starts taking on a life of its own.  Though that sort of split personality doesn’t happen in real life, there is one ventriloquist who worked that sort of vibe into his act:  Aaron Williams.

I saw Aaron and Freddie on a family vacation to Miami Beach one Christmas in the early 70s.  He was the opening act for Wilson Pickett* and I immediately loved the act.

Most ventriloquists project a bond with their dummies.  They might be mischievous, but the ventriloquist would gently chide the dummy or treat their comments as joke.  Aaron was different.  He stood on the stage and seemed embarrassed to be sharing it with Freddie.  He sometimes got so tired of it that he’s stuff Freddie into a suitcase.

Of course, by the time Williams came to the stage, ventriloquism was passe.  There were no TV shows, just guest appearances and one shots. But he worked regularly as an opening act for people like Pickett and Ray Charles.  He also did work for the Los Angeles Police Department by doing anticrime demonstrations.

Williams time in the national spotlight was short, and his act was hurt by ventriloquism no longer an interesting novelty.  But he was a fine and effective comedian who broke new ground.

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*Pickett appealed to a younger audience than one would find at a Miami Beach hotel.  Most people didn’t understand the music and thought it was too loud.  I loved it.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Shari Lewis (TV)

(1933-1998)
Wikipedia Entry

As my past few posts have shown, the 1950s was a great time for ventriloquism.*  Shari Lewis was another of the greats of the time and the art, and ultimately continued her act into the 1990s, becoming an honored name in children’s programming.

Lewis was born Sonya Hurwitz in New York city, daughter of a former professional magician who encouraged her career in show business.  She also picked up ventriloquism, and won a first prize on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, launching her career.  In 1960, she was given her own children’s show by NBC.

Lewis was different in that she used puppets instead of dummies.**  The most famous one was Lamb Chop, a sock puppet lamb who was utterly charming.  Others of her characters included the shy Hush Puppy, the slow-on-the-uptake Charlie Horse, and Wing Ding, a crow.***

The show ran until 1963, and Lewis moved on to other projects.  The 60s was not a good time for ventriloquists.

But Lamb Chop made a comeback in 1992 with Lamb Chop’s Play-Along on PBS in 1992.  It introduced here (and Shari) to a whole new generation of children, and won several daytime Emmys.  And you can now start singing the song that doesn’t end…..
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*And puppets in general.
**I notice now that one advantage of hand puppets is that they can be held in front of you to block the view of your mouth, so it was harder to see your lips.  Lewis didn’t need this particular trick – her technique was fine – but it was interesting to notice.
***She later dropped Wing Ding from the act; the idea of a black crow probably was at least borderline offensive, though Wing Ding was never used for racial laughs.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Jimmy Nelson (TV)

(1928 – )
Wikipedia Entry

Sometimes the key to a long career boils down one word.  Jimmy Nelson is the next in our parade of ventriloquists, one who was known for many years even without starring in his own show.  And that word was “chocolate.”

Nelson was born in Chicago and started on his path to success at the age of 10, when his aunt won a ventriloquist’s dummy in a Bingo game.  She gave it to the young boy, giving him a reason to learn how to throw his voice and, after turning professional at the age of 17, he quickly became a success, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1950 and became a regular on The Milton Berle Show.

Nelson’s main dummy was Danny O’Day, a fairly standard personality for a ventriloquist’s dummy – a wisecracking boy.  His second was Humphrey Higsbye, who was a departure from the usual second banana in a ventriloquist act:  instead of being somewhat dim, he was supposed to be a cultured intellectual.  Here’s a look of them on The Milton Berle Show:*

Ed Nelson, Danny O'Day...and Ronald Reagan!!!!! by videohollic
But his most famous character was a hand puppet:  Farfel the dog.  Farfel was a hand puppet instead of a dummy.  Farfel probably would have been just another ventriloquist’s trick if it wasn’t for one thing.

Nestle’s Quik was looking for a spokesman, and Nelson auditioned with Danny and Farfel.  The ad ended with the jingle sung by Danny: “N-E-S-T-L-E-S.  Nestles makes the very best . . . “  And Farfel joined in, adding “Chaaaaw-klit.”  At the audition, Nelson’s fingers slipped as Farfel finished the word, and the puppet’s mouth snapped shut audibly.  That was a beginner’s mistake, and Nelson thought he blew the audition.  But the company loved the snap, and he got the job.

Farfel remained the spokesdog for Quick for most of the 5os and 60s, giving Nelson a steady job even when his TV appearances were few.** At this point, he’s retired, but occasionally shows up a local events.
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*For some reason, the video lists his name as Ed Nelson.
**I saw Nelson at a county fair in the late 70s.  He did his comedy act, but it wasn’t complete until Farfel said, “Chaaaw-klit” <snap>

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Paul Winchell (TV)

(1922-2005)
Wikipedia Entry
IMDB Entry

Mahoney, Winchell, and SmiffPaul Winchell was, for a time, was the most successful ventriloquist on TV. But he went on to a long career that went a long way from just pretending to throw his voice.

Winchell got his start in the way that millions of kids dreamed of:  he answered an ad for a ventriloquism kit from the back of a magazine. He did much more than most kids his age.  He asked his art teacher to create a dummy, and Jerry Mahoney was born.  Winchell and Mahoney practiced and managed to win first prize in the Major Bowes Amateur Hour, and turned professions when he was 14.

When TV came along, Winchell took Mahoney and a second dummy, Knucklehead Smiff, and became a TV hit.  The two were similar to Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, though not as edgy. Mahoney was a wisecracker, and Knucklehead lived up to his name.

Winchell did add one innovation to the art:  Both Mahoney and Smiff had working hands – run by an assistant behind him screen.  This allowed them to pick up things and gesture, something that ventriloquists normally didn’t do.*  Winchell was also ambidextrous, operating Jerry with his left hand and Knucklehead with his right, allowing him to have both on stage at once.

Jerry Mahoney and OzwaldA third character was Ozwald.  Strictly speaking, Ozwald was not a ventriloquist act.  Winchell would draw eyes and a nose on his chin, wear a mask/headdress that covered his head from the mouth on down, and have the camera turned upside down.**  The result was definitely weird.

Winchell was a major success, but by the 60s, ventriloquists were on the way out.  Luckily, Winchell was able to adapt his career as a voiceover artists.  Hanna-Barbara hired him first and he created characters like Dick Dastardly, Fleegle from The Banana Splits, and Gargamel from The Smurfs.  His best known voice role, however was Tigger in Disney’s Winnie the Pooh films.

And, as a sideline, Winchell helped develop an artificial heart.  In among everything else, he had gone to Columbia as a premed and worked with Henry Heimlich*** in the 70s in its development, being granted a patent for it.  It was never actually used and there’s some debate as to how much Robert Jarvik was influenced by Winchell’s work.  Winchell also patented some other inventions, though I’m not sure if any were manufactured.

He also developed a method of cultivating tilapia as part of a humanitarian push to help find new crops in developing worlds.

Winchell died in 2005.  His ventriloquism had been overshadowed by his other accomplishments, but he was a major talent in everything he tried.

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* I suspect the technique was a big influence on the Muppets like the Swedish Chef.

**He used this technique for a second character, “Mr. Goody-Good.”  He often would show the audience how he created the character, putting on the makeup and hat and then telling the camera to turn upside down.  Even knowing how it was done didn’t ruin the illusion.

***Yes, that Heimlich.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Señor Wences (comedy)

image(1896-1999)
Wikipedia Entry

Ventriloquism is a difficult way to become a star.  Not only do you have to master the techniques of throwing your voice, but you have to be a first-rate comedian or else it’s just a gimmick.  One of the biggest stars of the art in the 50s and 60s was a Spaniard who did things differently from any other similar act:  Señor Wences.

He was born in Spain as Wenceslao Moreno and developed his act over there before moving to the US in the mid-30s.  He started out in nightclubs and by the late 50s, he was a regular guest on TV variety shows, most notably The Ed Sullivan Show, which is where he got his greatest fame.

Wences was not the usual ventriloquist.  Usually, there’s a dummy or puppet. Señor Wences didn’t need that sort of prop.  His main character, Johnny, was merely the side of his hand:  the thumb as the jaw.  Lipstick was used to draw the lips, two googly eyes were added, and a small wig was put on the top.  He rested his hand atop a model of a body and Johnny came to life.

But his most famous “dummy” was Pedro.  Pedro was a head in a box.  Wences would open and shut the lid and have Pedro speak.  The voices were slightly different, too:  when the lid was shut, the voice was muffled. Pedro soon created a catchphrase:  “S’allright,” spoken in his deep, gruff voice.

Often, Wences didn’t use a dummy at all.  Once he established Johnny and Pedro, he would leave them on the table and have them comment and talk back to him.  He could take out a telephone handset and pretend to take a call or would start spinning plates on a stick as Johnny and Pedro reacted.

His technical skill was first-rate.  Wences was able to have three and even four conversations, switching from Johnny, to his own voice, to Pedro, to someone on the phone, to Cecillia Chicken (a puppet) in rapid succession.  It was the rapid-fire switches that made the performance.  Indeed, Wences told very few jokes, but got his humor from the reaction of the characters.

After Sullivan went off the air, Wences continued to perform as a TV guest star and at clubs.  In the 80s, he convinced producers to give him a part in the touring company of the musical “Sugar Babies,” by telling the producers he was 15 years younger than he really was. He retired in 1996 at age 100 and died in 1999.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Devil in a Blue Dress

Devil in a Blue Dress(1995)
Directed by
Carl Franklin
Written by Carl Franklin from a novel by Walter Mosley
Starring Denzel Washington, Tom Sizemore, Jennifer Beals, Don Cheadle
IMDB Entry

Film noir was a genre of the 40s and 50s:  black and white films, very often set in southern California, with private detectives travel through a corrupt world and are set up by treacherous dames.  The genre died out with color, as though it couldn’t stand the brightness, but every once in awhile someone tries to made a more modern version.  Devil in a Blue Dress was one of those attempts, which adds a racial element to the mix.

Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington) is an unemployed factory worker who is given money by a stranger named DeWitt Albright (Tom Sizemore) to find a missing woman.  Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals) is missing, as a white woman who liked to visit black jazz clubs, Rawlins is hired to search for her without being conspicuous.  As Rawlins gets drawn into a web of intrigue, bodies start to show up  and he enlists the help of his friend, the psychopathic Mouse Alexander (Don Cheadle) in order to get to the bottom of everything.

The movie is based on the mysteries of Walter Mosley, who wrote in a world where racial issues informed the world, an extra layer to the standard Noir.

Cheadle and WashingtonDenzel Washington has already established himself as a major acting talent, but the person who steals the show is Don Cheadle.  I had known him in the delightful Picket Fences.  His Mouse is one of the most memorable characters in film – charming, dangerous, funny, and capable of anything (“If you ain’t want him dead, why you leave him with me?”).

The movie pretty much broke even.  Director Don Franklin was a TV actor who moved to the directors chair and seems to have made a success of it.  It’s a different look at the type of noir that, though usually black and white, is very rarely black.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Jeno’s Pizza Rolls (Ad)

(1967)
In memory of Stan Freberg.

Stan Freberg was a comic genius.  He got his very first job on his first day in LA, as voice actor for Warner Brothers in 1944* and went on to radio and TV success.  In the 50s, he wrote and performed in a series of classic comedy albums.  His work in those areas are justly celebrated.

But his greatest influence was in the area of advertising.  He started making ads in the early 1960s, with his ad agency Thyme Incorporated.**  And Freberg did something that had never been done for advertising:  he made his ads laugh out loud funny. 

There were many ads, including Sunsweet Pitted Prunes (“Today the Pits, tomorrow the Wrinkles!  Sunsweet Marches On.”), including one starring Ray Bradbury (“I never mentioned prunes in any of my stories.”)

But the best of them was his ad for Jeno’s Pizza Rolls.

First, a little background.  At the time of the ad, Lark Cigarettes*** was running a campaign, where they’d drive through the streets with a sign reading “Show Us Your Lark Pack!”  People would hold up their cigarette packs.  Here’s an example:

And this is what Freberg did (the first person who interrupts the announcer looks much like the Lark Cigarette’s spokesman; the second – well, you should know who they are):

Johnny Carson has said that when the commercial was shown on The Tonight Show, the audience broke into applause, the only time he’d heard that about a commercial.

Freberg kept making the world laugh until his death a few days ago. And his work will still live on.

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*In Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears.

**Time, Incorporated were good sports about it, referring the matter to their lawyers Parsley, Sage, and Rosemary.

***Yes, cigarettes were still advertised on TV at the time.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Topsy Turvy

Topsy Turvey(1999)
Written and Directed by
Mike Leigh
Starring Jim Broadbent, Allan Corduner, Ron Cook, Timothy Spall
IMDB Entry

Mike Leigh is an extremely well regarded British film director, known for serious dramatic films where his actors collaborate by improvising their lines in rehearsals until things click.  However, sometimes he lets things go and have fun, and the result was Topsy Turvey.

The story is simple.  After their play Princess Ida is a flop, composer Arthur Sullivan (Allan Corduner) and playwright W. S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) try to create a new operetta.  But there are issues.  Gilbert wants to use a magic potion as a plot point, but Sullivan, exasperated, points out he has used various magic plot points before and refuses to write music unless the story avoided pure fantasy.  While deadlocked, Gilbert attends an exhibition of Japanese arts and buys a katana.  When the sword falls off the wall of his study, Gilbert is inspired to write The Mikado.*

The rest of the movie shows their work on putting together the play.  It follows rehearsals, backstage maneuvering, and adding and cutting songs. One scene has the group protest the cut of a song that Gilbert didn’t think was worth keeping.  It was “A more humane Mikado” (“My object all sublime/I shall achieve in time/To let the punishment fit the crime/The punishment fit the crime”), one of the highlights of the show even today.**

This may be the best representation of how a play is created, and it’s full of memorable characters, including the always good Broadbent and many others.  It’s a sumptuous looking film, with great scenes of Victorian dress and design, and is also filled with vignettes of life at the time.

The film is a delight from start to finish, not the least because it becomes a “Greatest Hits” version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s score, a perfect place to get a feel for their genius.

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*This story was told by Gilbert himself as the source of inspiration, though he did write about fiction (and magic potions), so the facts should be taken with a grain of salt.

**I saw Itzhak Perlman perform it once at his summer camp; it was delightful.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Rubber

image(2010)
Written and Directed by
Quentin Dupieux
Starring Stephen Spinella, Roxane Mesquida, Wings Hauser, Robert
IMDB Entry

I’m not a fan of modern film horror.* I find it more annoying than frightening, more formulaic than clever.  I think it was the strangeness of the premise that attracted me to Rubber, a horror film that turns out to be a metafiction about horror.

It starts with a group of people out in the deserted, being told by a policeman, Lieutenant Chad (Stephen Spinella) that they are about to watch a movie, one whose events have no reason.  The group take binoculars and starts watching.

And see a tire (Robert) comes to life.  We see it stand upright and start rolling through the desert, but it soon begins to crush things in its path. When it can’t crush something, it starts to vibrate and the object or person explodes.

The tire find Sheila (Roxane Mesquida) and is thwarted when it tries to blow her up and then stalks her into a run-down motel.  Meanwhile, the audience discovers that they are not just observers of the events…

It was the goofiness of the concept that drew me in. The idea of a sentient killer tire is too delightful to pass up, and the scenes featuring Robert are all nice combinations of funny and scary.  It also has a lot to say about horror films and their audiences.

Director Quentin Dupieux continued with further low-budget films that weren’t just horror.  Sadly,  Robert’s acting career never took off,**

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*I do like  monster movies, which is usually classified as horror, but which is usually more interested in dealing with the monster than running up a body count.

*Though he reportedly has a cameo in one of the Fast and Furious films.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Rock Dreams (book, music)

(1973)
By Guy Peelaert (art) and Nik Cohn (text)

Guy Peelaert was a Belgian artist who began selling his work in the 60s, and who was very attuned to the rock and roll scene of the time.  Based in Paris, he had a couple of successful comic strips, and in 1974, he produced Rock Dreams, a fascinating set of images of the rock and roll world.

The book was a series of painting, representing rock music from its roots to the time of publication. It showed the important artists of the genre – but rarely doing anything that related to their career or even to reality.  The images were all visually striking and portrayed the myths of rock more than its reality. 

And it was fascinating.  Stars were shown in situations that they probably had never been in, and yet they fit perfectly into their images, no matter how weird.  So you had the Rolling Stones dressed in black leather drag; the Beatles having tea with the Queen; Brian Wilson looking chubby and lonely in a cluttered room, picking out a tune on a piano; Otis Redding sitting on a dock; the Mothers of Invention as a motorcycle gang. 

Here are some examples:

image

image

image

image

The photos were accompanied by text by rock critic Nik Cohn, which was also evocative, but it was the art the caught everyone’s attention.  The book was a major best seller  and put Peellaert on the map.

As should be obvious, he started doing album covers, most notably It’s Only Rock and Roll by the Rolling Stones and David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs.  He also worked in movie posters and many other things until his death in 2008.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mary and Max

image(2009)
Written and Directed by
Adam Elliot
With the voices of Toni Colette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bana, Barry Humphries, Bethany Whitmore, Renee Geyer
IMDB Entry

In the US, animated films are for kids.  Though there are often elements to entertain adults, that’s not their main audience, and the assumption is that it’s best to stick with children’s stories.  In other countries, though animation for adults is accepted and even celebrated. And there are few films more worthy of celebration than Mary and Max.

MaryThe film starts in a small dreary brown town in Australia, where Mary Daisy Dunkle (Bethany Whitmore) lives a dreary brown life.  She is an outcast, of course, teased because of a birthmark on her forehead “the color of poo.”  Her father is in a dull job at a tea bag factory and disappears each night to do his taxidermy; his mother is a shoplifter who takes a little too much sherry (well, a lot too much). One day, Mary finds a New York City phone book, and wondering about Americans, picks a name at random and sends a letter.

MaxIt reaches Max Horowitz (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a fat 44-year-old Jewish atheist, who lives alone and can’t deal with other people.  The letter frightens him, but he eventually writes back when he sees that they both love chocolate and The Noblets, a cartoon show.  Letter follows letter and the two create a long distance friendship over the years.  But all is not well. One of Mary’s letter, asking if he’s “done sexy,” gives Max an acute anxiety attack, and he’s hospitalized for eight months and diagnosed with a newly categorized disease:  Arnsparger’s syndrome.

Mary grows up (Toni Colette) and marries the boy next door (Eric Bana), but all is not well both between them and especially between her and Max.

The ending is extremely poignant, but I won’t spoil it here.

The movie is certainly dealing with dark themes:  depression, Arnsparger’s, loneliness, death, and even suicide.  But it’s also extremely funny.  Max’s letters have a wonderful deadpan black humor.  Mary’s are filled with the misunderstanding that a young child trying to figure out the world. 

The story is narrated by Barry Humphries, best known in the states as Dame Edna Everege.  It’s also dry and funny and anchors the story.  Hoffman, unrecognizable in a New York accent, shows why he was so highly regarded as an actor.

The design is also wonderful.  First of all, it’s all made with the most painstaking of animation techniques, stop action.  All the scenes in Australia are done in sepia tones, while New York is black and white.*  Other than a few dashes of red, there are no other colors in the film which gives it a unique look.

The film opened the Sundance Film Festival – the first animated film to do so – but never got a US distributor.  I would think that was because of some of the dark elements and the fact that the story is really one for adults, not children.

It’s available on Netflix.  Watch it and get a real treat.

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*Probably influenced by Woody Allen in Manhattan

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Holiday

image(1938)
Directed by
George Cukor
Written by David Ogden Stewart & Sidney Buchman (screenplay) from a play by Philip Barry
Starring  Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Doris Nolan, Lew Ayres, Edward Everett Horton, Jean Dixon
IMDB Entry

Sometimes a movie is a victim of bad timing.  Holiday was certain in that category:  it flopped, even though it was a successful Broadway play and had been a success in the theaters.  But a lot had changed by the time this remake came out, and the result was a vastly underappreciated film.

It’s the story of Johnny Case (Cary Grant) who is about to marry Julia Seaton (Doris Nolan). Meeting her parents for the first time, he discovers she is part of a rich banking family, a surprise for Johnny, who is successful, but not rich.  He father Ned (Lew Ayres) is surprised, but accepts Johnny and wants him to join him in the bank.  The family is conventional and conservative* to a fault.

Except for Julia’s a sister Linda (Katherine Hepburn), who is  lively and a free spirit, an embarrassment to her stodgy family.  Johnny takes a liking to her and confides that his plan was to stop working and try to see the world and figure out how to make his life meaningful. This doesn’t sit well with the family when the word gets out.

Katherine Hepburn fits the character perfectly – exactly the type of woman that understands Johnny and would love to go with him.**  She’s so full of life and so natural that she is a delight in all her scenes.

Cary Grant is Cary Grant, of course, with his famous charm on full display.  Also memorable are Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon as a couple of Johnny’s friends who are far more interesting than anyone in the Seaton family.

Despite the direction of George Cukor and good critical notices, the film flopped.  Most people thought that the theme of giving up a job didn’t resonate in the depths of the Depression, when jobs were so hard to come by.***

At the time, though, the reason was clear:  it starred Katherine Hepburn. She had had a couple of flops that year, and she was labeled “box office poison.”****  She was dropped by RKO and was on her own.*****

Even though it was a flop, the movie seemed to have a lasting effect.  Before the play came out, “Linda” was a rare name.  It got a jump in popularity when the first film came out, and an even bigger one after Holiday.

Now the movie is considered one of many gems in the filmography of Grant and Hepburn and of director George Cukor.

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*In the 1930s understanding of the term.

**It’s not a spoiler to know that they end up together at the end; everything in the movie  points in that direction.

***The play was produced ten years earlier, before the Crash, and the movie came out in 1930, in the early days of the Depression when there were still people who believed that prosperity is just around the corner.

****The two films that seemed to bring on the epithet was this one and Bringing Up Baby, (now considered one of the best comedies of all time).  It’s interesting that Cary Grant, her costar in both those movies, never was named poison himself.

*****Of course, Hepburn was not one to take this lying down.  She went back to Broadway to perform a play by Phillip Barry, which was such a big success that Hollywood wanted to make a movie of it.  But Hepburn was smart enough to buy the movie rights, and insisted she star as a condition.  The Philadelphia Story was a hit and Hepburn never looked back.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Monolith Monsters

image(1957)
Directed by
John Sherwood
Written by Norman Jolly and Robert M. Fresco (screenplay); Jack Arnold and Fresco (story)
Starring Grant Williams, Lola Albright, Les Tremayne, Trevor Bardette, Phil Harvey, Linda Scheley
IMDB Entry

I always liked 50s monster movies, and even today the best hold up pretty well.  Oh, the science is often silly, but once granted the premise, it sticks it with logical solutions and results.  The monster are very similar though:  usually some sort of giant creature that runs amok.  Certainly the most imaginative threat in these shows up in The Monolith Monsters.*

It starts with a meteorite crashing into the desert near a small California town.  Geologist Ben Gilbert (Phil Harvey) finds one of hundreds of black rocks and takes it back for study.  When water falls onto one of the rocks, it starts to bubble.

The next day, Dave Miller (Grant Williams) returns from a business trip to find Ben, his body turned into rock.  Meanwhile, the schoolteacher Cathy Barrett (Lola Albright) takes her class on a field trip, where her kids find more of the rocks, and Ginny Simpson (Linda Scheley) take it home. Cathy recognizes the rock in the lab as the same one that Ginny took with her, and they rush to her house, only to find it destroyed and Ginny slowly turning to stone.

The black rock turns out to be a crystal that grows when exposed to water.  After a rainstorm, the monoliths begin to move:  they grow to immense height, then topple over, breaking into thousands of  pieces that grow when exposed to water, and repeating the cycle.  And they cannot be stopped.

The movie isn't perfect.  The biggest flaw is that to increase suspense the characters are slow on the uptake:  trying to find what causes the monoliths to move, they take forever to realize its water. 

The Monoliths attack!But the monoliths are the stars of the film.  They are a different type of threat:  mindless, moving only the way gravity takes them, and totally dangerous.  The shots of them growing and crashing, destroying anything in their path are impressive.

The story was credited to 50s movie great Jack Arnold, who I've discussed before.  You can see similarities to other of his films, most notably the desert locale and the attempt to make the pseudoscience believable.

The film didn't make much of a splash when it came out, released as part of a double feature and disappearing.  It's fallen into public domain and can be found in the Internet Archive.

Despite the fact that a sequel would be natural, the monolith monsters never showed up again.**  It's still one of the top examples of the subgenre.

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*I had always loved the premise, but didn’t get a chance to see it until recently.

**Other than a cameo appearance in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Wolf

Wolf(1994)
Directed by
Mike Nichols
Written by Jim Harrison, Wesley Strick
Starring Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, James Spader,
Christopher Plummer, Kate Nelligan
IMDB Entry

Of the classic movie monsters, the werewolf is probably the worst served. The problem is the setup:  the man/animal dichotomy is great, but it only happens in a full moon, unlike, say Cat PeopleWolf succeeds nicely because it moves away from the literal man/wolf but also uses it as a metaphor.

Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) is an editor of a publishing house* who is bitten by a wolf after hitting it in his car.  But that’s the least of his worries.  The business has been bought out by Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer), who ruthlessly starts making changes to make it more profitable,** including demoting Will and replacing him with Stewart Swinton (James Spader).  Angry, Will is further enraged when he picks up Stewart’s scent on his wife’s (Kate Nelligan) clothing, knowing she is having an affair with him.  He goes to confront Stewart, and ends up biting him.  Will becomes more and more wolflike, being helped out by Adler’s daughter,  Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer).

But the change also helps out Will, who starts being more cutthroat and aggressive, winning his job back and getting Stewart fired.***  But being a wolf also has its drawbacks, especially when there’s another one around.

This is the type of role in which Nicholson excels:  over-the-top but not entirely crazy, and he plays it well.  He had been wanting to make a movie of the script for years, since Jim Harrison was a friend of his. Nicholson’s background in horror also serves him well.

Spader, of course, makes a creepy bad guy, and Pfeiffer was good as usual.

The movie got mixed reviews, mostly because it’s a mixed movie.  It tries to be arty, which turned off the horror movie crowd, and a horror film, which didn’t appeal to the arty crowd.  It also plays with the tropes of the werewolves in unexpected way. 

Despite its flaws, the movie overall is something to check out.

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*Since Columbia didn’t own a publishing business at the time, the went to science fiction/fantasy publisher Tor Books to supply the books needed to dress the set.  Sharp-eyed viewers can spot several volumes of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, as well as other SF/fantasy authors.

**Since I have some knowledge of the publishing business, I can say that this is harder to believe than believing in werewolves.  Book publishing even in 1994 was not that lucrative.

***Leading to this memorable scene:

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Cabin in the Sky

(1943)
Cabin in the skyDirected by
Vincente Minnelli
Written by Joseph Schrank, based on the musical by Lynn Root, music by Vernon Duke
Starring Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Lena Horne, Kenneth Spencer, Rex Ingram, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington.
IMDB Entry.

Cabin in the Sky was a daring movie when it was released in 1943:  a film in 1943 with an all-Black cast.  While it wasn’t the first time this happened,* but the studios ran the risk that theaters in the South would not show it, and, though the movie may have some things that seem stereotyped today, it was a major step forward in its time – and an entertaining movie to boot.

It’s the story of Little Joe (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) and inveterate gambler who is married to the long-suffering Petunia (Ethel Waters).  Joe is shot over his gambling debts but, when he gets to heaven, the General (Kenneth Spencer) gives him another chance:  six months to straighten up his act.**  However, Lucifer, Jr. (Rex Ingram) has other plans, and sends Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) to tempt him.

The film employed just about every Black actor in Hollywood.  Though the characters were comic, they were not caricatures, and the casual racism of the time was toned down.  The script overall is witty with an studied attempt to avoid condescension and all of the human characters are portrayed a real human beings. 

Eddie “Rochester” Anderson was probably the most successful black actor of his era, primarily because of his role on the Jack Benny Show.***  He is good as Joe, and manages to be tempted without being a buffoon.

Ethel Waters gets one of her best roles here.  Her Petunia is a wonderfully sympathetic character and, of course, a great singer. 

And Lena Horne was terrific.  This was her first important acting role**** and she lights up the screen.  Her Georgia is playful, sexy, and the perfect seductress, something that probably bothered a lot of the white supremacists of the time.

This was director Vincente Minnelli’s first film.  Minnelli (Liza’s dad) made a specialty of musicals, and in this case he wanted to be respectful of the people involved.  Much of the original Vernon Duke score was removed in favor of songs by The Wizard of Oz’s Arlen and Harburg. 

The movie manages to retain its entertainment value, and is one of the few films of the era with African-Americans can be seen without wanting to cringe for them.

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*The Green Pastures – not a musical, with some of the same themes (its screenwriter helped with the screenplay)  – came out in 1936 (with some of the same cast) and it’s always risky to call any movie a “first.”

**This was a common fantasy theme of the time:  people being killed but getting a second chance.  It probably had a lot to do with the fact that so many Americans were dying in the war.

***One thing about the character is that Rochester often got the better of Benny and spent much of the time ridiculing Benny’s ego.  In a time when that sort of behavior could get you lynched, it was an important milestone.

****She had appeared as a singer in two earlier films.  Ethel Waters took a dislike to her, feeling her character was not behaving like a lady.  Waters also was miffed when publicity for the movie featured Horne very prominently, even though Waters was billed above her.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Wild Thing (music, comedy)

(1967)
by “Senator Bobby”/”Senator Everett McKinley” (Bill Minkin)
Wikipedia Entry

In the 60s, music still had a novelty side.  You could have a hit with a song that was purely humorous, and even if it wasn’t a song (more on that later).  And “Senator Bobby” had one with his version of “Wild Thing.”

First, a little background.  The song “Wild Thing” was a number one hit by the UK group the Troggs in 1966.  It has a catchy but heavy guitar riff behind it with a growling vocals filled with sex and menace. 

And, in 1967, Senator Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen had a surprise hit single (#16) with “Gallant Men,” a spoken word recording praising the military, a hawk’s ideal in the Vietnam era.*  That album including it won Dirksen a Grammy Award for best spoken word album.

That’s where comedian Bill Minkin came in.  He had the brilliant idea of using Dirksen’s dramatic voice to use the “let’s get sexy” lyrics of “Wild Thing,” with the nom de comedy of Senator Everett McKinley.

Of course, records needed to have two sides, so Minkin did the same thing with a more liberal senator:  Robert F. Kennedy.  Internal evidence indicates that this was supposed to be the B-Side of the record, but it was released as the A-side.  Recorded as by “Senator Bobby and the Hardly-Worthit Players,” the song reach #20.**

The Dirksen parody was not neglected, though.

(Sounds a little like Elvis, doesn’t he?)

Both songs are a bit dated, if only because of the references to political figures of the time, and the Kennedy family. 

I would also guess that the assassination of RFK put a damper on it being played, though by then the song was old news, so it didn’t affect Minkin the way Vaught Meader was affected by JFK’s death.  Minkin became friends with Martin Scorsese, with bit parts in Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.  He also hosted The King Biscuit Flower Hour for 20 years.

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*It made Dirksen the oldest person to have a top 40 hit until he was surpassed by Moms Mabley two and a half years later

**Though the Senator Bobby version was released as the A-side of the single, it’s clear that it was meant to be the B-side, which included the parody of Dirksen.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Canada Lee (actor)

Canada Lee(1907-1952)
Wikipedia Page
Boxing record
IMDB Entry
Internet Broadway Database Entry

Canada Lee led a remarkable life. In his heyday, he was second only the Paul Robson* as the best Black actor on Broadway.  But the blacklist and health problems cut Lee’s career short, and his insistence on only accepting roles where he was treated with dignity made it difficult for him to get movie roels.

Lee was born Leonard Lionel Cornelius Canegata in New York City.  He knew he wanted to make a lot of himself, and ran away at 14 to be a jockey.  While there were many Black jockeys in the 19th century, they were being squeezed out of the business by the time Lee got involved.  Still, by dint of hard work, he managed to get some mounts and win a handful of races in the New York circuit before he grew too big to get mounts.

That’s when Lee took up boxing.  He had a talent for that, too, and one day a ring announcer, cold reading the name “Canagata, Lee” from a card, billed him ad Canada Lee.  Lee used that name from then on.

Boxing in the early 30s was just as segregated as the rest of society.  After Jack Johnson won the heavyweight crown, white promoters shied away from matching Black boxers with white ones.**  Lee faced the same issues, having success against other Black opponents, but finding it hard to get matches against white ones. Still, he was able to make enough money in the ring to live a prosperous lifestyle – though he never learned how to manage money, and was also very generous with it.

But the boxing came to an end when in 1929 an opponent’s blow led to Lee going blind in one eye.  He kept the injury secret in order to keep fighting, but eventually he had to give up the ring. 

Lee had played the violin as a child with some proficiency, so decided that was his next career.  With the help of columnist Ed Sullivan, he opened a night club, but never was able to make any money at it.

By 1934, Lee was broke.  He realized that he would have to give up his dreams and take a job as a laborer.  He reluctantly headed to the employment office at the Harlem YMCA and stumbled upon his true calling.

A theater group was auditioning .  Lee, to postpone the inevitable, sat in just to watch  Someone asked him to come up and read for a part.  Surprised, Lee got up on stage and got the role.

Lee took to the stage easily.  After one performance, he noticed a young man in the back of the theater being threatened by a couple of men.  He came down and chased them away, to the lasting gratitude of the other, a young man from Kansas named Orson Welles.  Welles later cast Lee as Banquo in his groundbreaking all-Black version of the Scottish Play, which instilled in Lee a love for Shakespeare and classical theater.

Slowly Lee worked his way up, and he finally achieved Broadway stardom as Bigger Thomas in the stage adaptation of Native Son in 1941.*** The play reflected Lee’s penchant for social justice and better treatment for Blacks.  And he also did a lot of radio, his voice making him an ideal announcer and even a DJ.

Lee wanted to do a movie, but he was picky:  he had no interest in playing the sort of menial roles that Blacks were stereotyped in.  Finally, in 1944, he found a role he felt was a good one:  Joe in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat.  He had to fight to avoid stereotyping even then (the script was changed after he signed on), and racism on the set, but it’s probably his most visible role today.  Even that was an issue: some publicity photos had Lee cropped out.

Lee in LifeboatHe returned to Broadway and continued his success, playing Caliban in The Tempest, and Daniel de Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi.  The latter was a milestone:  the first time a Black actor played a role that had previously only been cast for whites.  Even so, he had to wear special makeup to give him Caucasian skin tones.

Around this time, Lee started getting into trouble.  Always an activist, he often found himself at events where the Communist Party was involved.  The postwar Red Scare was coming into to play, and with it, the blacklist, and Lee was friendly with too many so-called “subversives” to miss notice.  His name appeared on a list of suspected Communists, and from then on, he had trouble finding work.****

Lee traveled to Europe and South Africa to appear in a film version of Cry the Beloved Country.  He continued to speak out against racism, and was particularly outspoken about what he saw under Apartheid.*****  

His health was failing.  He had high blood pressure, probably exacerbated by his worries over the Blacklist.  He recovered a bit in Europe, but returned to the US to promote the film.  There he found he couldn’t get work, and he was not allowed to leave the country.  Desperate and nearly broke, he died in 1952.******

Lee led a fascinating life, and I’m sure there is ample material for a movie about him.  There is a biography, Becoming Something:  The Story of Canada Lee by Mona Z. Smith.  I definitely recommend it to see a pioneer of Broadway who has been lost to time.

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*Their careers had certain parallels:  both started out as athletes (Robeson was an all-American football player and considered among the best of his era), both went into acting, both had a strong social conscience, and both had their careers cut short by the Blacklist.

**Harry Wills was the #1 challenger for the heavyweight crown in the 20s, but was never given a title shot.  Jack Dempsey seemed willing, but the bout never came off.

***Also directed by Welles.

****His former friend Ed Sullivan was particularly vehement, ignoring a letter from Lee asking for help clearing his name and constantly reporting rumors of his subversion.

*****Lee himself was treated well, but he saw plenty of examples about how South African Blacks were treated, which was worse than anything Lee had seen in the US.

******He is occasionally cited as being killed by the Blacklist.  While it certainly exacerbated his problem, the high blood pressure did seem to run in his family.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Wagner and Sons Tea (food)

(1847-2000?)

imageBack in the 60s, if you wanted tea, your had only one choice:  orange pekoe,* and in most cases, that meant Lipton.**  Chinese restaurants had their own blends, but they were never sold unbrewed.  Celestial seasonings could be found in hippie stores, but nowhere else. It was Wagner and Sons Tea that showed me there was more to life than flo-thru tea bags.

Wagner’s was loose tea, and sold in a distinctive square tin.  Most were 3/4 oz., with a tin about 2 in. high.**  The tins were colorful, with each tea having a different color, with its name emblazoned on the front.

imageAnd the types of tea were things you never saw in supermarkets.  Orange pekoe, of course (orange tin), but Keemun (black), Jasmine (yellow), English breakfast (red), Formosa Oolong (light green), Imperial gunpowder (medium green), Irish (kelly green), Earl Gray (purple) Rare Mandarin (lavender), Pan fired green (blue), and Ch’a Ching Chinese restaurant (white).

The flavors let you experience a world of tea – and fairly cheaply.  The variety was appealing and soon you would get tea infusers to try out all the flavors.

The company was founded in 1847.  The teas were usually sold in gift stores and specialty food stores.  I knew of one not far from us where I’d go every few weeks to pick out old favorites and try things that sounded interesting.

Then, at some point, Wagner teas vanished. The company, around for almost a century and a half, sold out to a company named “Rose Spice” in 1996.  The company seems to have vanished, and with it, Wagner: the trademark lapsed in 2000.

At this point, all that is left are the tins, which are collectors items.  I can see why:  it must be fun to try to collect all the colors.  But the tea inside probably introduced many Americans to the idea that there was a world of tea to explore.

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*Which is not named for a growing region or drying method or variety:  it’s part of a grading system for black tea with leaves of a certain size and the tea can come from anywhere.

**Red Rose, Tetley, and other teas were available, but if you ordered tea in a restaurant, Lipton was what you got.

**There were also full-size tins of 4.5 oz.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Day the Earth Caught Fire

image(1961)
Directed by
Val Guest
Written by Wolf Mankowitz, Val Guest
Starring Janet Monro, Leo McKern, Edward Judd, Arthur Christiansen
IMDB Entry

The British always did downbeat science fiction well, and The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a minor classic in the genre.

It starts out with an abandoned London, where reporter Peter Stenning (Edward Judd) staggers sweaty in the heat.  He goes to his office, so hot the typewriter platen* is melting.  He then starts to dictate the story.

It’s three months earlier.  The newspaper is humming and Bill McGuire (Leo McKern**) is covering for Peter’s absence due to his personal problems.  But things are going wrong.  There are sunspot and seismic activity that seem to be connected with a nuclear test a few days before. And that’s just the beginning:  a solar eclipse happens ten days early and a massive heat wave envelops Britain. And more and more weather anomalies occur.  Eventually the news gets out:  The explosions have changed the tilt of the Earth – for a start.

The movie is reminiscent of films of the 30s:  rapid and witty dialog (especially from McKern).  Another nice touch is that the newspaper scenes were shot at an actual newspaper, and the editor of the real Express newspaper (Arthur Christiansen) plays the editor in the film.

The results of the changes are well thought out, and the movie does not have a conventional happy ending, leaving the result ambiguous.

Director/Writer Val Guest got his start in science fiction by writing and directing the movie version of  the seminal British SF TV show The Quatermass Experiment.

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*For those of you who have never seen a typewriter, the platen was the cylinder, usually made of rubber, where the keys strike the paper.

**Yes, Rumpole.  It’s odd seeing him so young.  He is one actor who is always a pleasure to watch, and I remember him as the villain in the Beatles’s Help and as Number 2 in The Prisoner.