Friday, February 29, 2008

It's a Beautiful Day (music)

David LaFlamme (Flute, Violin, Vocals), Linda LaFlamme (Organ, Piano, Celeste, Harpsichord, Keyboards), Pattie Santos (Percussion, Tambourine, Vocals), Hal Wagenet (Guitar, Vocals) Mitchell Holman (Bass) Val Fuentes (Drums, Vocals)

The violin never became fashionable as a lead instrument in a rock band. In a way, this is odd -- it works so well with an orchestra and classical music. But I can think of only a handful of rock violinists, and they are usually used only as fill, not a solo instrument. The list is short -- Don "Sugarcane" Harris, Richard Greene, Papa John Creach -- and David LaFlamme.

LaFlamme started as a classical musician and was a soloist with the Utah Symphony. With his wife Linda, he moved to San Francisco and started getting involved in the music scene there, sitting in with other groups. Eventually, he and Linda formed It's a Beautiful Day.

The name was one of the clunkiest in rock history; the opposite of short and snappy. It also caused confusion ("Is that the name of the song or the group?"), but it did sort of give the impression of the music the played. In 1969, they put out their self-titled album.
It was a classic. The violin/keyboard combination gave them a unique sound, and guitarist Hal Wegenet could play hard rock and blues as needed. The album had only seven songs, but all were wonderful:

  • White Bird. This is their most famous track, one of the most beautiful melodies in rock, but with a strange sadness to it. Its beginning -- a pizzicato passage on the violin -- introduced a song that became an FM radio staple.
  • Hot Summer Day. A bit of an edge to it, in a minor key.
  • Wasted Union Blues. Starts with a nasty little guitar in a blues number about being strung out.
  • Girl with No Eyes. A tune even more beautiful than "White Bird," about a paradoxical poster on the wall.
  • Bombay Calling. An instrumental with an Indian feel, building from a short catchy riff to a rock tune.
  • Bulgaria. Mysterious dark song that's something like a religious rite.
  • Time Is. Fast paced song about the relativeness of time.

It's a fine album from start to finish and should have been the start of a great career.

Alas, the group ran into troubles. Linda left the group, probably due to a split up with David. She cowrote three of the songs with him, and was instrumental in her sound. As for why, well, when you're touring with a beautiful female singer (Pattie Santos) in a time when free love was in the air, it's possible that the reason was right there.

The group got a new keyboard player, but it wasn't the same. They released an album, Marrying Maiden. It was more country oriented, which is OK, but stopped focusing on David's violin (except for the best track on the album, the excellent "Don and Dewey"). Jerry Garcia sat in, but the result was exceedingly bland. The album did better than the debut, but probably because of people who were now hearing "White Bird" and being disappointed.

Disintegration followed. It got so bad that LaFlamme was kicked out of the group, which made no sense. After a couple of more so-so albums with a revolving door of musicians, It's a Beautiful Day was no more.

But they left one delightful album. And how many groups out there have names that are complete sentences?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth -- "The Curse of Clifton"


Who was the greatest American author of the 19th century? Well, these days, one might consider Mark Twain. There's also Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe was candidates, as well as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (certainly the writer of the most influential book of the 19th century).

But if you asked the question back in 1870, there would be no debate. Both critics and readers would have agreed that the greatest US writer of the time was Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth.

Southworth was the master of the best selling novel of the time, the sentimental novel. She was born Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte, her father's dying wish giving her the two middle names. She was trained as a teacher until she married Frederick Southworth and went with him to raise a family.

Alas, Fred skipped town to seek his fortune in South America, leaving Mrs. Southworth and her two children to fend for themselves.* Mrs. Southworth went back into teaching and tried her hand at writing.

She was an enormous success. By 1857, she was earning over $10,000 a year from her writing, a pretty good sum even today from writing fiction, and even better back then.

I can't say if The Curse of Clifton is one of her best; it's just one I happened to read (I have another stashed away for a rainy day). What is most memorable to me was a scene that nowadays would be considered horribly contrived.

The situation: Archer Clifton, a soldier fighting the Indians, is returning to his old home to marry, bringing his comrade Frank Fairfax to be the best man. Frank meets Zuleime, the bride's younger sister, and sparks fly (quite proper sparks, of course; this was during the Victorian era). She wishes they could get married right away.

"Wait a minute," says Frank (I'm paraphrasing here). "It just so happens that I have an extra copy of Archer's marriage license here. I wasn't sure which name he and his bride wanted to use, so I had the clerk sign it and leave the names blank. All we have to do is fill in our names and we can be married. But we'll need a minister."

"Well," says Zuleime, pointing at a small cabin they happen to be passing, "it just so happens that that cabin is the home of an old minister whose lost his congregation. But he still has all the powers of a minister. Let's get married there."

So they get married. And about an hour later, news comes from the west: the Indians are attacking and Frank and Archer must return to their unit.

Nine months later -- yup, Zuleime is pregnant.

She is kicked out of the house, a fallen woman (she doesn't seem to have the marriage certificate with her, and I believe the minister died). So she has to take the most degrading of all work a woman can fall to.

She becomes an actress. On the stage!

I'm having some fun here, of course; these sort of things tell a lot about the assumptions of the audience in the 1850s (no sex without marriage, etc.). But, in a way, it's kind of charming.

And it is fun to read. Even the stuff that doesn't seem ridiculously dated is entertaining. Mrs. Southworth stuck to the conventions of her time (though her own marital history caused her to have a slight cynical eye when gazing upon "happily ever after"). But (once you get used to the 19th century prose), the books move along nicely, with plots and characters that make you understand why she was so popular.

Mrs. Southworth wrote over 60 novels all together, all forgotten now. Feminist scholars occasionally stumble upon her as an example for their theories, but no one is likely to read her work for fun. The sentimental novel died by the turn of the century; what it was lives on in romance novels. She died in 1899, still an important writer even then.

Such is fame.

*This was not uncommon in the 19th century and isn't quite what it seems. With divorce unthinkable, many men just lit out for the frontier if they wanted out of a marriage, keeping the divorce rate low, but having the same effect on those they left behind.

Monday, February 25, 2008

3 Kings

(1999) Directed and Screenplay by David O. Russell Story by John Riddley Starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonez, Nora Dunn IMDB Entry

I was recently reading an article on a British poll of the top ten films to miss out on Oscars. The list is pretty distinguished, including The Shawshank Redemption, The Sixth Sense, Blade Runner, It's a Wonderful Life, Taxi Driver, Psycho, Singin' in the Rain and Dr Strangelove. But, of course the film that came to my mind wasn't even mentioned. And while some of these films may not have won best picture Oscars, they did get nominations.

Three Kings, on the other hand, got nothing. Not a win -- which might have been unlikely due to its political theme -- but not a single nomination. This for one of the best war comedies ever made, a weird little comedy-drama that captures the weirdness of combat unlike any other film.

War movies are a big genre, of course, and it's hard to call any war picture the ultimate movie made about a particular war (though M*A*S*H comes close for Korea/Vietnam). Except for Three Kings, which is clearly the ultimate Gulf War film.

The movie is set as the war officially ends, in the time when chaos is king. Three soldiers discover a map that may or may not lead to Saddam Heussein's gold bullion, and led by Major Archie Gates (George Clooney), go off in on a chase through Iraq in search of it. It's a movie of random weirdness and events that show how connected the world really is. One of my favorite moments was when one of the soldiers is captured and thrown into a cell. On the floor are thousands of old cell phones. He picks them up and keeps dialing until he gets his wife at home in the US, telling her to send help.

The movie keeps you guessing, and makes some good points about war itself. Needless to say, Clooney is just perfect in a typical George Clooney "charm and wisecrack" role, and there's special credit for Spike Jonez, as the cracker soldier Conrad Vig. Jonez is better known as a director (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), but is fun to watch as the halfwitted Vig.

The movie did tolerable business and got good reviews, but may have been hurt by a relatively early (October) release. Or maybe the fact that people thought we were done in Iraq and it wouldn't be news again . . .

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Only the Lonely

(1991) Written and Directed by Chris Columbus Starring John Candy, Ally Sheedy, Maureen O'Hara, Anthony Quinn, Milo O'Shea.

Chris Columbus had a talent for directing second-rate films that were big box office hits. He did Home Alone, Nine Months, and Mrs. Doubtfire --big at the box office, but pretty mediocre overall. Home Alone is dull and too sentimental (and I like sentiment) until the way-too-late payoff, while Mrs. Doubtfire stumbles from cliche to cliche on top of Robin Williams's mugging and is really only worth seeing as having the last cartoon footage directed by a true genius, Chuck Jones. (Columbus's two Harry Potter films were workmanlike, no more, and his Rent was good, so it looks like his real forte is directing films adapted from existing properties*.)

Oddly, though, Columbus was much more successful at moviemaking with his lesser known projects. His Adventures in Babysitting is a fine debut (I may talk about it some day), and his best overall is probably Only the Lonely.

It's not just his best film, but it's one of John Candy's best, too. Candy was famous as a wild man comedian from the great Second City TV, but his film roles rarely raised above caricature. This is one of his most touching roles, and it shows he had some chops as a dramatic actor.

It's a simple love story. Candy plays Danny Muldoon, a Chicago cop (well, pretty much in name only -- his job is driving a paddy wagon). He meets Theresa Luna (Ally Sheedy), who works in a funeral home (which is the basis of one of the funniest lines: Danny comes out of the home after Theresa has agreed to go out with him, and shouts you a happy "Yeah!" A group of people passing by give him a funny look. He says, "Oh... sorry... but I just got lucky in there with a girl." It does not make a good impression, and he continues on to make it all worse.)

There is only one problem: Danny's mother Rose (Maureen O'Hara). Rose is a great character, a firm believer in speaking her mind and letting the chips fall as they may. And she is a bit prejudiced against anyone who isn't Irish. Rose is a meddling mother, and Danny has to deal with his issues with her for his romance to succeed.

Maureen O'Hara is terrific as Rose. She had not appeared in a movie in 20 years, and this was her last actual film role.** O'Hara, best known for her roles in Miracle on 34th Street and The Quiet Man, manages to keep Rose from being a stereotype, and shows some wit that gives the role depth.

Candy is gently funny, but shows his dramatic chops, especially when he has to light into his mother for her "tell it like it is" persona. Anthony Quinn is also good as Nick Acropolis, a local man who has had his eye on Rose for some time, but who she couldn't accept because he wasn't Irish.

It's a film about letting go and growing up, and works just perfectly from start to finish.

*Oh, wait, scratch that. He did Bicentennial Man.

**She did appear in a few TV movies.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Best of the West (TV)

Produced by Earl Pomerantz
Starring Joel Higgins, Carlene Watkins, Meeno Peluce, Leonard Frey, Tracey Walter, Tom Ewell, Malcolm McCowan, Valri Bromfield
Description on Sitcoms Online
Episode Guide

It's hard to believe, but for many years, westerns were the mainstay of TV programming. At the height of the genre, there wasn't a night when one of the networks weren't showing something set in the old west. By the 70s, these petered out. Gunsmoke lasted forever, but the old westerns were slowly cancelled and new ones didn't take their places. Part of this was the idea that the genre had passed, but I think another issue was that audiences expected more realism in their dramas. You needed to shoot on location (take a look at Bonanza and note how nearly all the outdoor scenes are done on a sound stage), and it was hard to find locations that didn't have reminders of the 20th century.

But in 1981, ABC tried to buck the trend by putting on a satirical comedy, Best of the West.

The show was about Sam Best (Joel Higgins), who moves his to the town of Copper Creek, and is accidentally named sheriff. Copper Creek is run by Parker Tillman (Leonard Frey), who isn't happy to have someone like Best enforcing the law. Tillman's henchman, Frog (Tracey Walter) tries to help him best Best, but Frog is not really the sharpest guy in the room.

Best was a true believer in the western cliches, and his idealism is an annoyance to his wife Elvira (Carlene Watkins, later of Bob) and smart-mouthed son Daniel (Meeno Peluce). Elvira is a southern belle, and has trouble trying to adapt to living in a one-room cabin (though she tries, like when she tried to sweep up all the dirt, only to be told they had a dirt floor).

The real delight in the show is Frog, part of the tradition of peripheral characters who overshadow the stars. Walter plays the role in sort of a dazed, deer-in-the-headlights way and stands out in just about every scene he is in.

Frey is good as the bad-but-not-evil guy. His Tillman is a conniver, but his plans are often thwarted by Frog's ineptitude. However, he does carry enough of a threat to be a nice foil for Best.

Despite some big name guest stars (Dixie Carter, Andy Griffith, Christopher Lloyd, Richard Moll, Betty White), the show did poorly in the ratings, especially since it followed Mork and Mindy on Thursday nights (networks hate it when the show after a hit loses the lead-in audience), and was quickly canceled. The show might have done better if the satire were more biting, but you could see that the producers loved westerns and was willing to poke fun at them, but not attack them.

The actors went on to long careers on TV, though generally not as stars. Meeno Peluce made the well-regarded Voyagers! before getting lost in the transition from child star to adult star. Watkins, Higgins, and Frey did a lot of TV work, and Walter is a busy character actor to this day.

But the show was a pleasant comedy that should have done better.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Soft Machine -- "Third"

(Music) Robert Wyatt (drums, vocals), Mike Ratledge (organ, piano, keyboards), Hugh Hopper (bass), Elton Dean (saxophone), Lynn Dobson (flute, horn, sax), Nick Evans (trombone), Jimmy Hastings (flute, clarinet), Nick Evans (trombone), Rob Spall (violin). AllMusic Guide Entry

In 1970, the Village Voice named one album a milestone in music. What was it? Obviously, Soft Machine's Third (that is the title of this essay).

They were overstating a bit -- but not by much. The album is a classic of progressive rock and jazz/rock fusion (even though it predates the latter term).

Who was Soft Machine? Well, the group grew out of the Canterbury Scene in the UK. Canterbury, for some reason, became a hotbed of progressive rock music, with groups like Gong, Caravan, Hatfield and the North, National Health, Egg, Henry Cow, and many others -- none of which had any real success in the US. The Soft Machine -- named after a William Burroughs novel -- were arguably the foremost group coming out of Canterbury, and second only to the Pink Floyd* in the world of progressive rock.

The group was a freeform contingent, originally consisting of Daevid Allen, Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt, and Mike Ratledge. Ayers left, Allen was detained by immigration and not allowed in the country, and Hugh Hopper joined the other two on bass. Various other Canterbury musicians drifted in and out of the lineup (I saw one article that said, basically, that the best lineup of the group didn't stay together long enough to record anything).

I first became familiar with them with their second album, Volume Two. I picked it up at a friend's recommendation, and, the first time through, didn't like it much. But every once in awhile I would listen again, and it grew on me. I especially liked the way their lyrics (all written by Robert Wyatt) never rhymed.

So when Third came out, I was a fan and picked it up.

The credits are a bit misleading. The group at the time was Wyatt, Ratledge, Hopper, and generally Dean. The other names sat in the sessions and gigs that made up the album.

Now this is progressive rock. People today think that any song over five minutes is "indulgent" and too arty. But the great classical composers wrote for longer than that, and there's just no ironclad rule. Some long songs are great (the Pink Floyd* are best when they go eight minutes or more), and some are lousy. But they shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.

What the Soft Machine was doing was a melding of rock and jazz. There was a rock beat in the background, but jazz improvisations throughout. The music is truly thrilling. The songs run between 18 and 19 minutes each, and just flow around you like a great musical river. The album consists of four tracks: Hugh Hopper's "Facelift," Mike Ratledge's "Slightly All the Time" and "Out-Bloody-Rageous," and Wyatt's "Moon in June." It all grabs at your ears and draws you in. My favorite is "Moon in June," with its non-sequitur lyrics (non-rhyming, of course) and pastoral tune.

After the album, Wyatt left the group. They continued to perform, putting out albums Fourth, Fifth, Six, and Seven (the titles seem less like a lack of imagination than they do opus numbers), but without lyrics. Eventually Ratledge left, followed by Hopper, so the name carried on without any of the original members.

Wyatt had an strange but successful solo career. He first formed Matching Mole (a pun on the French name for Soft Machine: Machine Molé), then embarked on his own. While partying after the release of his first album, End of an Ear, he fell out an apartment window and was paralyzed. Though he couldn't play the drums any more, he persevered, and had a hit single with, of all things, the Monkees' "I'm a Believer." That led to a bit of controversy, as the BBC didn't want to show him performing the song in a wheelchair. After protests, they relented. Wyatt went on to record the well regarded Rock Bottom (said by some to reflect his feelings about his accident, but Wyatt has said most of it was written before it happened) and the delightfully titled Ruth is Stranger than Richard. He also became involved in politics.

The only other member of the group to have any impact was Elton Dean, who is well known for inspiring a young piano player to take his first name as his own.

The music is not for everyone, but if you think you'd want to give it a listen, it's the best bargain on iTunes. Since iTunes charges by the song, and there are only four songs on the album, you can get over 70 minutes of music for under four dollars. If you're into progressive songs, it's four dollars well spent.

*As they were often billed.

Monday, February 11, 2008

52 Pick-Up

(In memory of Roy Scheider) Directed by John Frankenheimer Written by Elmore Leonard Starring Roy Scheider, Ann-Margaret, John Glover, Vanity, Robert Trebor, Clarence Williams III IMDB Entry.

A few years ago, my wife went on a Roy Scheider kick. She would purchase or rent any movie with his name in the credits. So I saw a lot of his films. Many (Sorcerer) were stinkers; many were quite good. But the biggest surprise was 52 Pick-Up.

Elmore Leonard has had some very uneven treatment in Hollywood, especially in the earlier films made of this work. I don't know if he was tired of this, or if director John Frankenheimer knew enough to hire him, but in this case, he worked on the script and the result is a taut thriller.

Roy Scheider plays Harry Mitchell, a successful businessman who is having an affair with a topless dancer. But Mitchell discovers it's not all fun and games when a videotape is made. Alan Raimy (John Glover) asks for a ransom or the news will get back to the press, embarrassing Harry's wife Barbara (Ann-Margaret), who is a politician. Mitchell at first refuses, but when Raimy sends him a second videotape showing his girlfriend being murdered by Mitchell's own gun, he agrees to pay $52,000 (hence the film's title), and then sets in motion a plan to take down Raimy and his friends.

I don't have to tell you that Scheider is good; he's good even in the worst of films. But the most memorable performance is John Glover as Raimy. He's a man who is capable of anything and who never seems to worry about what others -- including the law -- might think. His Raimy is funny yet chilling and deserves to be amid the top movie villains.

Director John Frankenheimer keeps the action movie. He had had an interesting career, making such classics as Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, and Seven Days in May. By the time this film came out, though, he was in somewhat of a slump. This was a return to the taut thrillers he had made in the 60s, and a good one.

It's a fine movie of revenge and a crime gone wrong.

Saturday, February 9, 2008


(band) Dehner C. Patten (lead guitar, vocals), Gary L. Yoder (acoustic guitar, rhythm guitar, vocals), Joseph D. Damrell (bass guitar, sitar, tambourine, vocals), Christopher A. Lockheed (drums, tabla, harpsichord, maraccas, vocals)

I suppose this group isn't forgotten as much as it never made it. But I think they definitely deserved to be, if not a major success at the time, at least the type of cult band that had a small but devoted audience.

Kak produced one album before breaking up. Back when it came out, I was working in my family's store in Eastern Long Island. We convinced my father and grandfather to sell records. I don't think they made much money, but since they were fully returnable, there was little risk.

Each week, we would get shipments of new albums. Now this was before the Internet, and you just didn't have any idea what was coming out. I remember when we unpacked The Beatles double album (as we called what now is called "The White Album") and, not knowing about it, somehow thought it was really John Lennon's Two Virgins (which was getting a lot of press and which was supposed to be in a plain cover).

In any case, one week, we opened the box and saw Kak's album. We didn't know what to make of it and weren't even sure of the name of the group (the lettering looked like "CAK"). It sat in our bins until we sent it back.

A few years later, when I was in college, I discovered one of the guys on the floor had the album. And he played it a lot.

It was a good one. It was one of the few albums that I remember playing for someone back in college and having him say, "That's pretty good."*

The group came out of California, and seems to have had some connection with the Grateful Dead, though it's unclear what. As far as I can tell, the name of the group is the same as the Russian word for "How," though whether that has anything to do with naming, I can't say. The musicians were unknowns, most of their songs written by Gary Yoder and Greg Grelecki. The album started out strong with "HCO 97658," the mysterious title a reference to the album's catalog number, with the tune about cutting the record. "Electric Sailor" is a wonderfully nutty psychedelic rocker, while "Disbelievin'" and "Bright and Clear Day" were minor key blues. There was an interesting mix of sounds throughout the album.

The group sounded different and it took me a while to figure out while: Dehner Patton's lead guitar never stopped. Usually, the lead guitarist will lay back while the singer is singing the song, but Patton kept playing the entire time. It made for something that made the group stand out.

Alas, despite showing up even in rinky-dink record outlets like mine, the album flopped. The group had broken up during its recording, so that was the end of that. The only member to make any other impact is Gary Yoder, who ended up with the band Blue Cheer.

The album was repackaged for CD with a bunch of leftover material as Kak-Ola.** I haven't heard the additional material, but if that's an excuse to bring the music back, I'm all for it.

*The other was "Stairway to Heaven" -- I played it for a major Zeppelin hater, telling him to wait for it as we played the side of the album. After each song, he'd ask, "Is that it?" and try to leave. But when he got to "Stairway," he stayed.)

**The image at the top of this entry is Kak-Ola, but the only difference in the cover is "Kak-Ola" written above the hard to decipher name of the group.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Hollywood Shuffle

Directed by Robert Townsend
Written by Robert Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans
Starring Robert Townsend, Cragus R. Johnson, Keenan Ivory Wayans
IMDB Entry
Watch the full movie at

The biggest story about Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle is the story of how it was made. Like Spike Lee, Kevin Smith, and Robert Rodriguez, he financed it himself, putting the cost on his credit cards, begging for film stock, and taking years to to film it, grabbing scenes in bits and pieces as needed.

It shows. The movie is a bit rough and disjointed, but that adds to its charm.

Townsend stars as Bobby Taylor, and young actor trying to break into Hollywood. But there's a problem: he's black, and he is constantly having to deal with the stereotypes. Roles he's up for are usually pimps or other embarrassing racial stereotypes. Meanwhile, Bobby dreams about how things might be for him. His biggest fear is that he will be forced to go back and work in the post office, as his family wants.

Townsend is charming, but the movie is primarily an attack on stereotypes. The script definitely goes over the top -- Roger Ebert pointed out that some of the stereotypes Townsend attacks hadn't been used in film in decades, and that most of the audience probably never saw them. There's also an unending parody of the Siskel and Ebert movie review show that starts out being unfunny and goes on forever in that vein. I noted that this bit includes Keenan Ivory Wayans, and I suspect this is part of the script he was responsible for, a precursor to the long, unfunny comedy of In Living Color.

But the film is redeemed by its ending. It works on so many levels, and is wonderful and delightful, saying that your dreams may come true in strange and unexpected ways. I'll put the ending in white print; highlight it with your cursor if you want to see it.

Bobby realizes the stereotypes he is forced to play are more and more demeaning and finally quits. He goes to work at the post office -- where he ends up starring in a series of advertisements for them.

It's wonderfully satisfying to see.

Unlike the other directors I mentioned, Townsend never seemed able to build on the success of the film. He worked regularly as a director, but only The Five Heartbeats was better than mediocre and most had a long way to go to reach mediocrity. I kept looking for Townsend to do it again, but, alas, it was not to happen.

But Hollywood Shuffle is a flawed but memorable film that should have launched much more.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

He and She

(TV) (1967-68) Produced by Leonard Stern
Story Editors Chris Haywood and Alan Burns
Starring Richard Benjamin, Paula Prentiss, Jack Cassady, Kenneth Mars, Hamilton Camp
Episode Guide

Some TV shows are just a little bit ahead of their time. Not even good stories, great characters, and laugh-out-loud funny scripts are enough to save them -- yet if they had come on the air a year or two later, they might have been big hits.

He and She is a prime example of this. It ran for only one season, and was similar in style and tone to the MTM comedies of a few years later (as others have pointed out). For some reason, it just didn't catch on.

The show starred Richard Benjaman and Paula Prentiss (husband and wife) as Dick and Paula Hollister. Dick was a cartoonist, whose comic character Jetman was a hit TV show starring actor Oscar North (Jack Cassady). Paula worked at the Traveler's Aid, and had a bad habit of bringing home lost travelers like stray puppies.

Most of the stories took place in the main room of their apartment, which doubled as Dick's work area. Harry Zarakardos (Kenneth Mars) was their neighbor -- a fireman who lived in the building facing them and who would visit by walking across a plank between the two apartment. Rounding out the cast was Andrew Hummell (Hamilton Camp), the building handyman.

Obviously, Dick should have been making enough money with a hit TV show to buy the building instead of living in a run down apartment. So eventually, he did. Evidently, he just liked the place, and didn't mind that his wife worked even though she didn't need to (pretty advanced thinking for 1967).

Of course, it was easy to believe Dick and Paula were a married couple, especially since their chemistry in real life spilled over into the show. Dick was slightly more levelheaded and it allowed Benjamin to play up his propensity for hysterical frustration. Paula was a bit flighty, but calm and soothing (and quite sexy, too).

But the other actors helped make the show such a delight. Cassady was just great as Oscar North, an egotistical actor who always wanted to be front and center. Some have compared him to the later Ted Baxter, but he was never the fool that Baxter was, but rather someone who couldn't go past a mirror without taking a look.

Hamilton Camp was wonderful as Andrew, the somewhat strange handyman. I remember loving every moment he appeared on screen. (Camp, incidentally, was a celebrated folksinger and songwriter at the time of the show, with songs recorded by Peter, Paul, and Mary; Simon and Garfunkel; Ian and Sylvia; and Quicksilver Messenger Service.) Kenneth Mars was also great as Harry.

The show never went anywhere in the ratings, and was cancelled at the end of the season (it reran a few episodes in the summer of 1970).

The cast moved on. Benjamin became a movie star for a time (most notably in Goodbye Columbus and Westworld) before making some horrible choices and fading into character roles and direction (notably with My Favorite Year and unnotably with most everything else). His career might have been more successful if audiences had taken to Quark, which also was ahead of its time.

Prentiss never seemed find a good role; Cassady found his star eclipsed by his ex-wife Shirley Jones and sons David, Shaun, and Patrick, and died tragically in an apartment fire. Camp also never got a role a good as Andrew, but worked successfully as a character actor and singer until his death. Only Kenneth Mars had a successful career, becoming part of Mel Brook's stock company starting with The Producers (he played the Nazi playwright) and going on the considerably more nutty roles.

The show seems to have been forgotten, though. It's something that's worth a DVD. I know I'd go out and buy it.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The President's Analyst

(1967) Written and Directed by Theodore J. Flicker Starring James Coburn, Godfrey Cambridge, Severn Dardeen, Joan Delaney, Pat Harrington

I've always had a taste of satire, and The President's Analyst is a gem of a satire of the 1960s. In general, satires on the era were made years afterwards, when some perspective can be developed as to the issues of the time. This is one of the few satires that was made during the era it satirized, and is a funny movie, to boot.

Dr. Sidney Shaeffer (James Coburn) is hired to be the psychiatrist to the president (who isn't seen, but clearly has similarities with Lyndon Johnson). And the president is willing to tell him everything.

The problem is that when you know everything the president is thinking, you become a target for people who want to know what you know. Shaeffer is soon trailed by the Soviet agent Kropotkin (Severn Dardeen) and gets the CEA (not a typo) involved in protecting him, with agent Don Masters (Godfrey Cambridge) involved in the security. And there's a third force, TPC, who also has sinister plans for Shaeffer.

Shaeffer is on the run, spending time with hippies and generally trying to go back to a normal life when TPC captures him, and the two agents have to effect his rescue.

The film's actors really make it a treat. Coburn plays Schaeffer with a kind of gravelly charm, but the real gems are Cambridge and Dardeen as the agents. I've loved watching Godfrey Cambridge. Cambridge was a fine standup comedian who turned to acting, and always tried to be cast in roles that white actors could play (carrying it so far that he played the son of the very Jewish Molly Picon in the Broadway flop, How to Be a Jewish Mother. Suspension of disbelief could only go so far.).

Dardeen is also superb at the Russian agent who's become a little too westernized. One of his lines always stuck with me, and turned out to be a little bit prophetic:

Logic is on our side: this isn't a case of a world struggle between two divergent ideologies, of different economic systems. Every day your country becomes more socialistic and mine becomes more capitalistic. Pretty soon we will meet in the middle and join hands.

Pat Harrington also is great as the somewhat odd head of TPC (which everyone hates).

The film did fairly well. Coburn was at the height of his box office fame, which helped. Flicker was never able to do something similar, and returned to TV, where he created Barney Miller. Cambridge did some sterling work in Cotton Comes to Harlem and othe films before dying prematurely of a heart attack. Dardeen worked regularly in TV and film, but rarely got an important part.

The movie was ahead in its time in seeing the Cold War as something as silly as it seems today. Even TPC isn't around any more (in the same way). But it's a delight of a comedy that needs to be more widely known.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Blood Sweat & Tears -- "Child is Father to the Man"

Al Kooper (organ, piano, vocals), Steve Katz (guitar), Fred Lipsius (piano, horn arrangements, Saxophone), Bobby Columby (Drums, percussion), Jim Fiedler (bass), Randy Brecker (trumpet), Dick Halligan (trombone), Jerry Weiss (trumpet), John Simon (arranger, organ, cowbell).

"What?" you say. "How is Blood Sweat & Tears forgotten? They're songs are all over classic rock radio!"

Well, obviously, this is another Blood Sweat & Tears.

Note that there is no mention of David Clayton-Thomas. He wasn't part of the group at the time Child is Father to the Man was made. The album and group were part of the genius of Al Kooper.

Kooper broke into music as a member of the Royal Teens (who had a small hit before Kooper joined with "Short Shorts," written by Bob Gaudio before he became a Jersey Boy). He quickly became a fixture of the New York music scene as a studio musician and cowrote "This Diamond Ring." He was asked to observe a Bob Dylan recording session and was able to get himself hired on the spot to play organ on "Like a Rolling Stone" (despite the fact most of his session work was on the guitar) and on Blonde on Blonde. After Dylan, he was asked to join the Blues Project, a well-regarded jazz-blues group of the era.

In 1967, with the Blues Project broken up, Kooper got together with a few other musicians -- Jim Fiedler (fresh from a gig with Buffalo Springfield), Steve Katz (a friend from the Blues Project), and Bobby Columby -- with a new idea for a group, something that would merge rock and jazz, using jazz horns the way rock bands used guitars. They played a few gigs together, and started to recruit a horn section.

The result was Blood Sweat and Tears.

In 1968, their album was released. It was a triumph. It started with an overture, which, like a Broadway overture, had snippets of the songs in the album. It was an eclectic mix. Kooper wrote a good deal of the material, but there were songs by Harry Nilsson ("Without Her"), Randy Newman ("Just One Smile"), and Jeff Buckley ("Morning Glory'). There's the paranoid blues of "Something's Going On" (about a man afraid his lover is leaving him), the blusey "I'll Love You More Than You'll Ever Know," and the love song, "I Can't Quit Her." There's the gloriously goofy "Life in the Country," and Steve Katz's song to his young daughter, "Megan's Gypsy Eyes." There really isn't a bad cut on the records.

The album did OK, grazing the bottom of the charts and showing a promishing new group.

But Kooper, always restless, left. He returned to playing as a session musician, and became a producer, where he helped discover Lynyrd Skynyrd and gave the Zombies their last big hit. He put out some solo albums, along with a couple of live albums -- Super Session (with Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills) and The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper -- both of which were big sellers at the time.

The rest of Blood Sweat & Tears, of course, continued. Columby and Katz decided to find a new vocalist; the result of David Clayton-Thomas and superstardom (which deemphasized the Jazz background in the first album). Many people who liked the second (hit) album may have gone back to hear the first and be confused and disappointed (I know I was).

As time goes one, Child is Father to the Man is being recognized as a milestone in 60s music. If you hate Blood Sweat & Tears, then you may want to give it a listen.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Ogden Nash

In the 50s and 60s, Ogden Nash was probably America's most popular poet.

Sounds like faint praise, I know. These days, just about the only people who read poetry for pleasure are poets themselves. It didn't used to be that way. A century ago, Americans loved poetry. Newspapers had a daily poem. At any important event -- a holiday or the opening of a museum or courthouse -- a poem was commissioned for the occasion. Families would memorize poems and recite them.

Of course, poetry lost its popularity as the 20th century wore on. I think this was mostly due to the change to free verse. Free verse has produced some fine poetry, but it made poetry into an art for the literati and not the general public. People just like rhymes (not that rhyming poetry was superior -- many of the daily newspaper poems were really second-rate doggerel, too.)

Nash was popular as poetry died in popularity. And not just relatively popular: his work appeared in places like Life Magazine, as mass market as you got (other than TV). Some of his poems are instantly recognizable. For instance, I'm sure you all know his "Reflections on Ice-Breaking." It --

What? The name's unfamiliar? What about the words:

Is dandy
But liquor
Is quicker.

Recognize it now?

Nash wrote light verse, filled with puns and surprising and funny rhymes ("streptomycin" with "aging bison," for instance or "Siam" and "Scram"). But what really made him stand out was something that he made uniquely his own: poems with one line considerably longer than another. An example (I'm using bullets to show the two lines because HTML formatting is flaky) :

  • "But his great-aunt spreads the word you are a quack
  • Because she read an article in the paper last Sunday where some Roumanian savant stated that tonsillectomy is a thing of the past and the Balkan hospitals are bulging with people standing in line to have their tonsils put back."

This is an extreme example, but Nash did this sort of thing all the time, with one line considerably shorter or longer than the previous one. Interestingly enough, the poems still had a sense of rhythm, as though the "beat" of the poem would adjust itself (or wait) until the rhyme was finished.

You could say his work was doggerel, but it was high-class doggerel. The poems were funny (and sometimes serious) but always a delight to read.

Nash chose some funny and mundane subjects -- animals (Myself, I rather like "The Bat" and, of course, "The llama"), the foibles of social gatherings, sports, and much else.

He lived in Baltimore and was a big Colts fan, so when they won the NFL Championship in 1968, Life commissioned him to write a bunch of poems about the team. When the Jets beat them in the Super Bowl, he grudgingly wrote a poem praising New York.

Nash died in 1971. His reputation went into eclipse very quickly. Serious poets and critics ignored him because he wrote humorous poetry (and rhymed it). His public aged and, with poems being considered a chore to read, no new audience developed. Nash was forgotten.

That may be on the verge of being remedied. A couple of books came out last year, reviving his work for a new audience. There's a new collection of 500 of his poems on Amazon. Give it a look.