Friday, December 31, 2010

The Kids are Alright

(1979)
Directed, Written, and Researched by
Jeff Stein
Starring Peter Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, Keith Moon
IMDB Entry
A description of the film from theWho.net

The cast list should have tipped you off:  this isn't the 2010 film about a lesbian couple.  It is one of the top ten rock documentaries.

I've been a big fan of the Who from the early 70s, when Tommy was played constantly on our college campus.  Pete Townshend was one of the great rock songwriters, while John Entwistle was the just a great rock bassist.  And Keith Moon was clearly the most impressive rock drummer ever.  So when the film came out, I wanted to see it.

And The Kids are Alright is different from most of the genre.  Usually, the filmmaker starts filming a concert or tour and edits the footage to make a movie.  Director Jeff Stein -- who had never directed before -- had the brilliant idea of collecting video and film clips of the Who performing on TV and in concert and weaving it into a single film.  He pestered the group to let him try it, and when he showed them an early version, they fell in love with it and let him complete the film.

The Who was one of the most theatrical of rock groups.  You had Daltrey as the lead singer, dancing and spinning the microphone around like a lasso.  Townsend's guitar playing was bravura -- part musician, part dancer as he hopped around the stage and used his famous windmill* to bash out the music, often with him smashing the guitar at the end of the show.  Moon was a madman behind the drums, playing faster than it seemed humanly possible and bouncing drumsticks up into the air, where he'd catch them without losing a beat. Entwistle was the opposite of them all -- he never seemed to show any expression as he played.  In the early days, they always dressed in high Mod style.**

The movie consists of performances and interviews, with Moon showing his mad side at every turn, and the others joining in. In the opening sequence -- as they took over The Smothers Brothers Show and refused to say their rehearsed lines -- Keith Moon set off a firecracker that probably led to Townsend losing his hearing***. 

We hear some tidbits, like how the group managed to get new guitars in the early days when they weren't making much money.  Townshend would run into a guitar store, grab one quick, and then shout out, "Put it on our bill!" 

The movie is one fine performance after another, capturing the excitement of one of rock's greatest stage acts.

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*Moving his right arm in a giant circle before playing a power chord.  He may not be the one who invented the trick (I've seen in credited to blues great Sister Rosetta Tharp), but he made it his own.

**A British teenage subculture that stressed high fashion and rock and roll.  They competed and brawled with the Rockers, who had a motorcycle gang leather jacket image.

***Mood died while the film was being finished.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Weekend (TV)

(1974-1979)
Executive Producer
Reuven Frank
Presented by Lloyd Dobyns (later joined by Linda Ellerbee).

Back in the 70s, believe it or not, no one in television thought TV news shows had any chance of being more than just a prestige loss leader.  News was reserved for the 6:00 hour, and the idea of a prime time news show was tried and never seemed to work.  60 Minutes struggled along, helped by its Sunday time slot, until it started to gain momentum in the late 70s. 

But it did well enough for NBC to think about emulating it.  Their first attempt, First Tuesday, struggled.  So Reuven Frank decided that the best way to go was to try a time slot where they had little to lose -- late night on Saturday.  Thus, Weekend was born.

The show was hosted by Lloyd Dobyns, who also wrote a lot of the pieces. It was different from 60 Minutes.  There were no interviews, for one thing.  For another, it was willing not only to handle serious subject, but also lighter fare, all held together by Lloyd Dobyns's wry commentary.

Dobyns has worked his way up NBC news to doing documentaries, and he was a major change from the 60 Minutes crew.  He was willing to add a little humor to the news, often at his own expense.  For instance, after a news report about africanized "killer bees," he ended it with a story about how while filming the natives expressed one wish:  that the TV crews would go home and not rile up the bees.  Dobyns was able to make these comments using his dry sense of humor.

The show premiered in the fall of 1974, and gained acclaim, eventually winning a Peabody Award for its writing (Dobyns wrote his own commentary).  And the ratings weren't bad, considering that the network never had anything in that time slot before.  But there was a problem.

Weekend was not the only show NBC premiered in that time slot that season.  The other was Saturday Night Live.  In the beginning, they played nicely -- Weekend was on once a month, while SNL appeared the other three weeks.  This gave SNL a break, while allowing Weekend time to develop stories.  But SNL became a breakout hit, and executives decided it was best not to skip a week.  And while Weekend was not up to SNL's ratings, it won awards and had enough of a following that NBC decided to move it to prime time.

They made a brilliant move of adding Linda Ellerby to co-host with Dobyns.  The two were very much alike in attitude and wit; they made a perfect team.

But they made an stupid move that ruined all that:  it was scheduled opposite 60 Minutes*.  And in the time that Weekend ran, 60 Minutes had become a ratings powerhouse, moving into the top ten of all TV shows.  Weekend just couldn't compete.  It was canceled in 1979.

Ellerby and Dobyns moved on to the acclaimed NBC Overnight** and both continued as successful if underappreciated news figures. 

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*They were faced with the problem of the name of the show.  They didn't want to change it due to the good will it had, but it had to be put into a weekend slot.  (Once, they did run it on Tuesday, and Dobyns said that the weekend was a state of mind, but I doubt many would get the joke).

**Which probably deserves a Great but Forgotten entry of its own, but I never saw the show and thus cannot comment on it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Man Who Loved Women

(1983)
The Man Who Loved WomenDirected by
Blake Edwards
Screenplay by Blake Edwards, Milton Wexler, Geoffrey Edwards, based upon a screenplay by Michel Fermaud, Suzanne Schiffman, and François Truffaut
Starring:  Burt Reynolds, Julie Andrews, Kim Basinger, Marylu Henner, Sela Ward, Denise Crosby
IMDB Entry

(In memory of Blake Edwards)

This film is exhibit A.  I have often mentioned here that some movies are mismarketed -- their ads implying things about a film that are just not there.  The Man Who Loved Women is the key example of this:  it was marketed as a comedy.

Now, that's not particular surprising.  Blake Edwards was best known for his Pink Panther films and for later comedies like S.O.B. and Victor/Victoria.  But he did make some dramas. 

The Man Who Loved Women is not quite a comedy, and not quite a drama, but is a very interesting time. It's the story of David Fowler (Burt Reynolds), who has the problem of loving too many women.  He goes to a psychiatrist (Julie Andrews), who tried to help him come to terms with his behavior -- while, at the same time, Fowler is finding new women to love.

The key point is that Fowler is not a womanizer as most people use the term.  He is not really into the conquest.  He truly falls in love with all the women he sleeps with, and his problem is trying to choose as to who he wants to stay with permanently.  And one of the main points is that the women loved Fowler just as deeply.

But few others do.  The movie was advertised as a laugh riot from the director of The Pink Panther.  And while there was a bit of perfunctory slapstick, the movie was generally dealing with Fowler's inability to make a decision over anything.

It flopped, in part because people were led to believe it was something very different than what it was.

Edwards took it in stride, and continued to make movies, and the film didn't hurt any of the actors careers.  But I find it a sweet rumination on love and relationships between the sexes.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Ref

The Ref(1994)
Directed by
  Ted Demme
Screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss, from a story by Marie Weiss
Starring Dennis Leary, Judy Davis, Kevin Spacey, Christine Baransky, Glynis Johns.
IMDB Entry

Ah, Christmas.  A time for joy and heartwarming movies about families getting together. But read any advice column this time of year and you'll see that it's also a time of drama, bad feelings, spite, and malice. And The Ref takes the dark side of Christmas and turns it into a sharp little black comedy.

Gus (Dennis Leary) is a burglar, who is ditched by his getaway man as he pulls off a job on Christmas Eve, forcing him to improvise. He finds Caroline Chasseur (Judy Davis) and forces her and her husband Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) to take him to their home while the police search for him.  Caroline and Lloyd's marriage is, to say the least, in trouble -- neither can say anything without attacking the other.  Gus is forced to deal with him until he works out a plan, but soon Lloyd's family arrives, forcing everyone to pretend that things are normal. Gus soon discovers that the only way he's going to be able to escape the police is to solve the problems of Connecticut's most dysfunctional family.

The movie has a lot going for it:  a very funny script and some very talented performers.  Though the names of Leary and Spacey are well known today, they were just becoming noticeable in films at the time.  Leary was known primarily as a comedian and Spacey was just reaching stardom.  Judy Davis was even then one of the most well-regarded actresses in film, even if she has rarely had roles worthy of her talents.  Christine Baranski was a year away from her breakthrough role in Cybil

Even though today we'd look at the cast list and nod at how good they must have been, the movie was not a hit, and barely made back its budget.  Leary has blamed the marketing, and the time was certainly not right for black comedy with a Christmas theme, especially one coming from Touchstone/Disney.  And the name of the film was probably not a help; while The Ref makes a lot of sense in the context of the film, it's a bit opaque and hard for audiences to remember.

Director Ted Demme career didn't seem badly affected by the so-so box office, as he made several more movies with top level casts.  His last film was Blow starring Johnny Depp as the man who made cocaine mainstream in the 70s.  That's ironic, since Demme died the next year of a heart attack induced by cocaine in his system.

This is not a warmhearted Christmas movie, but it's still a film that gets a lot of laughs about the dark sides of the holiday.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Jon Gnagy (TV)

(1907-1981)
Website

Jon Gnagy He was billed at "Television's Original Art Teacher," and few disputed the claim.  Jon Gnagy was a fixture on TV in the 50s and 60s, and millions bought his "Learn to Draw" kits in an attempt to bring out their artistic ability.

Gnagy grew up in Kansas, where he took up drawing and began winning art competitions when he was in his teens.  After attending art school, he moved to New York in the Depression to try his hand as a freelance artist. He gained success surprisingly quickly, getting a major commercial art contract two days after he got there.  He went on as a successful freelancer and teacher, developing his system to make people comfortable drawing.

All that put him in a good position when, on May 16, 1946, the first television broadcast from the Empire State Building antenna was aired. Gnagy's charm and ability let him to getting the leadoff spot on the broadcast, and he was on TV for years afterwards.

Gnagy's system made it easy for beginning to learn to draw.  He broke everything down into four geometric shapes:  a ball, a cone, a cube, and a cylinder, and promised that if you could draw those shapes, you could draw anything.  And he would proceed to show you how.

Gnagy was a fixture of off-hours TV.  Part was because his shows were interesting, but I suspect that they were also cheap for the stations to run them. Production costs were minimal -- there was just Gnagy and one camera.  In addition, Gnagy also sold a "Learn to Draw" Kit, which had imageall the pencils, erasers and other equipment needed to follow along with the show. The kit and others by him are still being made, and kids continue to use his methods to learn how to draw. But sales of the kit clearly helped support the show, and probably allowed Gnagy to make offer it at a low price.

It's hard to get a handle on the show's history.  It was syndicated, and appeared in odd timeslots like Sunday mornings.  By the late 60s, they were gone.

Gnagy had the ability to make things look easy enough that any beginning artist could feel he could follow along.  Thousands of kids -- including many who went on to be professional artists -- got their start from his shows.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Screaming Yellow Zonkers (food)

c1966-2007
Wikipedia Page

Screaming Yellow ZonkersUsually, I buy snack food for the taste.  With Screaming Yellow Zonkers, I bought them for the box.
Not that they were bad.  Screaming Yellow Zonkers were candy-coated popcorn -- like Crackerjack without the peanuts and the prize. Since I didn't care for peanuts, and the prizes in my day were cheap plastic toys about the size to choke a two-year-old, that meant they were the best part.
And then there was the box.
Like the Morning Chex Press, the box was covered with strange and witty comments.  My favorite was at the spot where grocers stamped the price:  "Easily cheaper than diamonds of equal weight."  There were oddball lists and strange directions, like the words printed on the bottom of the box: "This might be the bottom of the box.  To find out, open the top, and turn the box upside down. If the Zonkers fall out, this is the bottom. If they fall up, this is the top. If nothing happens, this box is empty.”
The boxes also featured cartoons and oddball art*. It was as much fun reading the box as it was eating the food.  And the boxes changed every few months, giving you a reason to buy more.
They also has some impressively strange ads:
Screaming Yellow Zonkers were produced for a surprisingly long time.  I used to find them on grocery shelves even in the 90s.  But when your main selling point is the words on the box, and that has to change every few months, it's hard to keep things going.  I also suspect the packaging cut into the profits.  In any case, a conglomerate bought their original manufacturer and stopped making them in 2007. 

Addendum: Good News! (4/18/12)

Screaming Yellow Zonkers are coming back!  ConAgra, who now owns them, will be making them available in Walgreen stores starting May 15 (for a limited time).  

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*It's also billed as the first product to use predominantly black packaging.  That may be so.  It was tricky to print all black; you had to cover the package with black ink and the white-on-black text required it be done perfectly.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Firesign Theater (comedy)

c1967-Present
Members:
Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, and Philip Proctor
Wikipedia Link
Firesign Theater Website

Back around 1970, I was at a party. The record supplying the music was done, and I put another one one.  A comedy record.  People were complaining that they wanted music, and that they couldn't hear what was happening, and meanwhile the party conversations went on, ignoring everything.  But after about ten minute, the group slowly became quiet, so they could catch everything being said.

Don't  Crush that DwarfThe record was from the Firesign Theater.

They were a group of four writers/performers who started out doing radio plays and quickly graduated to records. They were as big a revolution in comedy as Monty Python's Flying Circus, who were starting out around the same time.

The group took its name from astrology -- all four members were Fire Signs* -- with a nod to the old Fireside Theater radio show. They took the conventions of radio drama and added psychedelic sensibilities and wove it all into a dense collection of comic brilliance.  In the early 70s, you could say, "Wait a minute, Danger.  What about my pickle?" and people would go off on long riff and quotes of the absurdist dialog that were their stock in trade. The Firesign Theater created more in-joke quotes than anyone except Python: 

  • "That's just a two-bit ring from a Crackerback jox."
  • "She's no fun.  She fell right over."
  • "Antelope Freeway, one half mile."
  • "What kind of chump do you take me for?"  "First class."
  • "I can shout.  Don't hear you."
  • "And you can believe me, because I never lie, and I'm always right."
  • "You can wait here in the sitting room, or you can sit here in the waiting room."

(Yes, if you know the Firesign Theater, these are as funny as "This is an Ex-parrot!")

At their best, the Firesign theater was far ahead of its time.  They would, for instance, stop to listen if they had said thing on the other side of the record, and one half of a phone conversation on one album would have the other half showing up on another.  Their work was filled with social commentary (some prescient), slapstick, anything-for-a-joke humor, and more.  It never got stale, no matter how often you listened.

They started out in radio on the west coast, but were signed with Columbia Records, and put out their first album, Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him in 1968.  It consisted of only four tracks.  "Temporarily Humbolt County" was a bitter satire on manifest destiny, but the true genius of the album was the title track, which took up the entire second side of the album, about a traveler lost in a country where everything is confusion. 

imageThe album was successful enough for a second one, this entitled How Can You Be Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All? It really only had two cuts:  the title one, a skewed look at American consumer culture and their best known piece (and comedy classic):

Announcer: Los Angeles.  He walks again by night! Out of the fog.  Into the smog (cough cough). Relentlessly. Ruthlessly (“I wonder where Ruth is”).  Doggedly (dogs bark) Toward his weekly meeting with . . . the unknown. At 4th and Drucker he turns left, at Drucker and 4th he turns right, he crosses McArthur Park & walks into a great sandstone building! ("Oh my nose!") Groping for the door, he steps inside, and climbs the 13 steps to his office. He walks in. He’s ready for mystery. He’s ready for excitement.  He’s ready for anything. He’s…
Nick Danger (picking up ringing phone): Nick Danger, third eye!
Phone Voice: Yes.  I want to order a pizza to go, and no anchovies.

The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye is a parody of radio detective shows, with the hero meeting a Peter Lorre type mysterious man. And a search for Melanie Haber . . . . Audrey Faber. . . Susan Underhill . . . Betty Jo Bialowski!**  This is the point where most people became fans. 

They topped this with their next release, Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, a parody of the teen "let's-put-on-a-show" movies of the 40s, but with their usual twists and surreal humor.  There was only one track, as they followed George Leroy Tirebiter, former child star, in his film High School Madness as he tried to find out who stole Morse Science High, as it gets mixed in with a Korean war movie.  The two plots run parallel -- or rather, are twisted like rope. 

It's actually pretty pointless to try to describe.  You just listen.  Rolling Stone has called this "the greatest comedy record ever made," and I certainly agree.  Though it's not anything you pick up on immediately.  The jokes are so multilayered that it takes several listens to begin to catch them all, and the more you listen the funnier it gets.  It was a pinnacle of comedy, as amazing in its own way as Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The next album, I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus was a slight dropoff (understandable).  They followed that with a collection of their radio shows called Dear Friends, showing their earlier comedy.  But their next album, Not Insane was a disappointment, and they never really recovered, even though they did some good work afterwards.

The group remains together today, doing live shows of their work, and the various permutations also released albums over the years.  Proctor and Bergman worked together,*** and Ossman and Austin also did solo work. But they never made the break into TV or films, and they became forgotten by all but their long-term fans. 

But for their first three albums, they put forth a brand of comedy that was all their own.  No one has ever come close.

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* An Aries, a Leo, and two Sagittariuses.

**He knew her as Nancy.

***I saw them in the mid-70s.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Willie Dixon (music)

(1915-1992)
Wikipedia Entry

When you list the great American songwriters of the 20th centuries, the names would usually include people like Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Irving Berlin, and Harry Warren.*  But the one name that's overlooked when people try to list the names is Willie Dixon.

Dixon grew up in the Mississippi delta and became interested in music and the blues.  He moved to Chicago in 1936 and after an abortive attempt at becoming a boxer, he started performing and writing songs.  In the early 50s, he was signed as an act by Chess Records. Though Dixon did record, his greatest influence was a bass player and songwriter.

His songs were first recorded by Chess artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Little Walter, but they were listened to by dozens of budding rock and blues musicians, who, when they got recording contracts, played Dixon's songs.  Groups like The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, the Animals, the Allman Brothers Band, George Thorogood, Cream, the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Monkees, the Grateful Dead, and many others recorded Dixon's song.

The titles should be familiar to any rock or blues fan:  "I Ain't Supersitious," "Back Door Man," "Little Red Rooster," "I Can't Quit You, Babe," "Hoochie Coochie Man," "Spoonful," "Wang Dang Doodle," and hundreds of others. 

Dixon was instrumental in the success of Chess Records, with his songwriting, bass playing, and production.  As that faded, he began organizing and performing in blues festivals in Europe, where British musicians were starting to record his work, too.  He was more of a behind-the-scenes guy at this point, but in 1970, he released I Am the Blues, the first time in years he stepped out to be noticed by the public and not just musicians.

Like everyone in the music business, Dixon was screwed out of a lot of his royalties, but as time went on, he was able to win a few lawsuits to get what he deserved**.  And the recognition came in, too:  he was named to both the Blues and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.

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*If Harry Warren doesn't mean anything to you, it isn't because you don't know his songs:  "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," "That's Amore," "42nd Street," "Lullaby of Broadway," and many more.  I may write about his some day, but for now, go to the Harry Warren webpage.

** Including a couple of plagiarism suits against Led Zeppelin, who are now notorious for taking songs without the proper credit.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Rehearsal for Murder (TV)

Rehearsal for murder(1982)
Directed by
  David Greene
Written by Richard Levinson and David Link
Starring Robert Preston, Lynn Redgrave, Patrick McNee, Lawrence Pressman, William Russ, Madolyn Smith Osborne, Jeff Goldblum, William Daniels
IMDB Entry

I've written elsewhere that most of the made-for-TV movies of the 60s and 70s were dismal.  That also true for those of the 80s, but every once in a while, there was a gem.  And that applies Rehearsal for Murder.

I'm a sucker for and old-fashioned whodunit and this is one of the best this side of Agatha Christie.*  The set up is simple:  at the opening night of a Broadway play, leading lady Monica Wells (Lynn Redgrave) commits suicide after getting bad reviews about her role.  A year later, her fiancee, playwright Alex Dennison (Robert Preston) gathers the principals in an empty theater to read a new play he's written.  You see, Dennison never believed Monica killed herself, and the play is a trap to show not only that she was murdered, but who did it.  He brings in the detective who originally investigated the case, Lt. McElroy (William Russ) to watch the proceedings in an attempt to convince him of the truth.

The suspects are:

  • David Mathews (Patrick McNee), her co-star, who Monica spurned.
  • Lloyd Andrews (Lawrence Pressman), her director, who was also in love with Monica, and was angry when she announced her engagement.
  • Walter Lamb (William Daniels), the play's producer, who stood to lose big money on the flop -- but who could recoup it with an insurance policy if she were dead.
  • Karen Daniels (Madolyn Smith-Osborne), her understudy, who would to anything to be a star.
  • Leo Gibbs (Jeff Goldblum), Karen Daniel's lover, who would do anything to make Karen a star.

The various actors have no idea what they're getting into, but follow Dennison's script (under protest from some) until the real killer is revealed.

The movie was written by the writing team of Richard Levinson and William Link, probably the best TV mystery writers of their era**, with shows like Burke's Law, Colombo, McCloud, Murder She Wrote, and Mannix to their credit.  They were probably the best practitioner of mystery scripts in the history of TV.

It's hard to single out who's best in their roles, but my nod is to William Daniels for one particular scene.  His character is the one person who has no acting experience and when he reads it role, he fills that part perfectly, stumbling over lines and saying them with the tentativeness of a true amateur.  It's seems incredibly hard for a pro actor to "unlearn" all his skills to sound the way he has been working for years to avoid.***

But it's a pleasure to see Robert Preston, Patrick McNee, Lynn Redgrave (in flashback), and Jeff Goldblum also taking part in a clever and twisty script.

Only Agatha Christie could do this better.

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* It's also rare to see them on television; their home seems to be on stage.  As a matter of fact, the screenplay for Rehearsal for Murder has been adapted for the stage and may show up at a community theater near you.

**Not that TV had many good mystery series.  People didn't seem to like the traditional whodunit, and generally didn't care for mysteries at all until CSI brought the police procedural after all.  There were cop shows, and detective shows, but they never concentrated on the puzzle that makes mysteries so much fun.

***Alan Steele, one of the "Travis Tea" authors of the Atlanta Nights hoax, faced a similar problem when trying to write like a terrible writer for the book and could only do it by getting roaring drunk.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The New Spirit of Capitol (music)

(1970)

New spirit of capitol I've written before about sampler albums: compilations of music from a particular record label whose goal was to introduce people to new music.  Warner/Reprise had several of these, available by mail if you bought an album, but they weren't the only ones.  Capitol Records tried the same thing in 1969 with The New Spirit of Capitol.

Capitol was probably the biggest US record company in the 60s, with the Beatles and the Beach Boys.  But in 1970, the Beatles had broken up and the Beach Boys were considered washed up* and had moved on.  Also, there was a change in management so that EMI Records was more involved.

So, in order to trumpet the changes, they released the album, The New Spirit of Capitol.  It consisted of an eclectic mix of British groups, especially from their Harvest label and US names and a surprising number of groups that went on to be superstars.  The tracks were:

  • Steve Miller Band -- Little Girl.  Miller was successful from the first, and this was from his fourth (and best) album, Your Saving Grace.  But he did not become a major name until he had a hit with "The Joker" several years later.
  • Hedge and Donna -- Jamie.  A folk-rock duo with soul influences who never made much of a splash.  "Jamie" is a soft rock tune parts of which seem very much like Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne."
  • Joe South -- Games People Play. At the time, this was the best-known song on the album -- a top 20 single.  South was a very successful songwriter, but this is the song that first comes to mind when his name is mentioned.  It takes its title from a best selling self-help book of the time.
  • Linda Ronstadt -- Silver Threads and Golden Needles.  Ronstadt at the time was just launching her solo career after a hit as lead singer for the Stone Poneys.** The song is a rock version of an older country song, and her voice is as good as ever***.
  • John Stewart -- July, You're a Woman.  Now known as host of The Daily . . . no, that that John Stewart.  He was actually a big success before this album, as a member of the Kingston Trio and this was from his first solo attempt.  He later had some hit songs in the 1979.
  • David Axelrod -- A Little Girl Lost.  Named White House Chief of . . . no, not that David Axelrod, either.  He was a producer and A&R man who started a performing career.  Though he has been successful, he's never was a chart topper.
  • Edgar Broughton Band -- Toy Soldier.  One of the Harvest Records acts, the band never was a hit in the US.  Broughton's voice has been compared to Captain Beefheart, and he even covered one of the Captain's songs, but he was more a blues artist than avant garde. "Toy Soldier" was a blackly humorous and very bitter antiwar song.
  • Grand Funk Railroad -- Please Don't Worry.  Grand Funk was just starting out; this was from their second album and the first to go platinum.  Grand Funk were becoming superstars as New Spirit was released.
  • The Sons -- It's Time.  A San Francisco group, originally called The Sons of Champlin.  Nice song, but they never caught on.
  • Pink Floyd -- Astronomy Domine. Believe it or not, Pink Floyd was just a cult British group up until Dark Side of the Moon.  This was the earliest, four-minute version of "Astronomy Domine" from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, so it wasn't even a new song.  Still, it's always been the most outstanding song from the Syd Barrett era.
  • Guitar, Jr. -- Broke and Hungry. There were two acts named "Guitar Junior" in the blues world; this one eventually switched his stage name to Lonnie Brooks.  This is classic electric blues and Brooks had a long career after this.
  • Bob Seger System --Innervenus Eyes.  Yes, that Bob Seger. At this time, he was trying to find the right mix to break out nationally; this song is somewhat more spacey than you'd expect from him.
  • Mississippi Fred McDowell -- The Red Cross Store. McDowell was a slide guitarist who played for years in northern Mississippi until he was discovered in the late 50s, where he immediately became a sensation in the blues world. 

The album just hit #200 on the Billboard top 200 list for one week, then vanished.  I picked it out of a cutout bin for 39 cents.  It was the best record bargain I ever got.****

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*A few years earlier, I saw them at a free concert at Nassau Community College on Long Island.  They didn't draw 200 people.  For free.

**"Different Drum," which had been written by Mike Nesmeth of the Monkees.

***Linda Ronstadt put less emotion into her singing than any singer I've ever heard.  Her voice, though, was a magnificent instrument and a pleasure to listen to.

****Not counting legal free music, of course.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Comic

The Comic(1969)
Directed by
Carl Reiner
Written by Carl Reiner and Aaron Reuben
Starring Dick van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Michele Lee
IMDB Entry

The Comic starts out with a funeral.  Sparsely attended, the organ plays a sad tune that speeds up to reveal it's a version of "Yes, We Have No Bananas."* And, at during the service, the minister gets a pie in the face.  And that intriguing beginning is one of the many great mometns of Carl Reiner's and Dick van Dyke's loving comedy drama about silent film comedy.

Reiner was a giant in early TV with Your Show of Shows, and van Dyke was the star of his own very successful TV who (which Reiner created and produced).  Van Dyck said he discussed the idea for The Comic with Reiner when he wanted to do a Stan Laurel imitation and discovered that Laurel no longer owned the rights to his own image.  It got Reiner thinking about the silent comedy days, and The Comic was the result.

The film is the fictional biography of Billy Bright (van Dyck), who became a silent film superstar, only to throw everything away.  With the help of his friend and agent Cockeye (Mickey Rooney), he builds a career, and, due to his drinking and womanizing, throws everything away.

Van Dyke is terrific in the role.  It was a smart move to make Billy a very flawed man.** Of course, every comic wants to do pathos, and there is a lot of that.***  But Billy is deeply flawed.  He throws away the love of his life (Michele Lee) with his need to womanize, turns arrogant with his fame, and ends up a lost and lonely man who only wanted to make people laugh.  Rooney provides expert support as the one person who understand him and isn't driven away.

The film made no splash at the box office.  Van Dyke's movie career was stalling before then, with a hit in Mary Poppins**** while he was still on TV, but several flops after that started hurting.  His next film after this was Cold Turkey, which was well regarded but little seen, and Van Dyke gave up on movie stardom to go back to TV.

Reiner directed some TV and helped Steve Martin's film career get started.  But he didn't seem to want to try anything as ambitious as this again.

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*Also used at a funeral in Ingmar Bergman's comedy, Let's Not Talk About All These Women.

**His story has elements of the lives of Stan Laurel and Buster Keaton, but the character is not much like either overall.

***<spoiler>The final scene, where Billy wakes up in the middle of the night to catch one of his old films, is especially touching -- not Chaplin level, but one of the most affecting of all those attempts.

****Everyone sneers at his bad cockney accent, but I think his role as Bert is the most delightful part of the movie; he was a much more interesting character to me than Mary.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Little Big Man

(1970)
Directed by
Arthur Penn
Screenplay by Calder Willingham from a novel by Thomas Berger
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Chief Dan George, Faye Dunaway, Martin Balsam, Richard Mulligan.
IMDB Entry

The mood of the 60s was to question authority. While the western is pretty much dead as a genre, up through the 70s, it was a mainstay of Hollywood films.  But by the 60s, filmmakers were moving away from the conventions of the genre and began filming versions movies that demythologize the west.  And one of the best was Little Big Man.

Jack CrabbBased on a novel by the underrated author Thomas Berger, Little Big Man is the story of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), who we first meet in a nursing home, claiming to be the 120-year-old only white survivor of Custer's Last Stand.  And with that claim, we flash back to see the story of Crabb's life.

Crabb's family is killed, but he's raised by the Cheyenne tribe (who call themselves "The Human Beings").  He's guided by the medicine man Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George), but makes friends and enemies and returns to living as a white man when soldiers find him.  He's place with the Rev. Pendrake and his wife Louise (Faye Dunaway), who takes a special interest in young Jack.

Jack drifts along, being a con man, a gunslinger, and finally joins up with George Custer (Richard Mulligan), a vain, egotistical glory hound, who Jack leads to the Little Big Horn.  Jack encounters with gay Indians, famous western heroes, marries four women (simultaneously), and drifts back and forth between Native and White cultures, running into different people at different stages of his western adventures.  The plot become a musing on the west, as well as having some parallels to the US mission in Vietnam. 

Hoffman, of course, is excellent, but the real delight is Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins.  George was indeed the chief of an Indian tribe* who went into acting in his 60s.  The movie casts him as the wise old shaman stereotype, but he does a lot with it, and has all of the memorable lines.  His death scene is especially touching.

He got an Oscar nomination for the role, but lost to John Mills.

Mulligan's Custer is also remarkable.  He plays up the man's vanity and the result is truly memorable.**  And director Arthur Penn was at the top of his form; this marks the third of the three best films of his career, following Bonnie and Clyde and Alice's Restaurant.

The movie was successful enough, but no blockbuster and by the time the VCR revolution came along, it had been forgotten.  It shows up from time to time on TV, but should rank up with one of the best westerns of all time.

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*The Tsleil-Waututh Nation of British Columbia.  The position was elected, not hereditary.

**Mulligan came to prominence in the TV show Soap in 1977, and, until I started this article, I hadn't realized he was the one I like so much as Custer.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Ripping Yarns (TV)

Ripping Yarns (1976-1979)
Written by Michael Palin and Terry Jones
Starring Michael Palin
IMDB Entry

Monty Python's Flying Circus was the greatest run of sustained comic brilliance in television history.  But all good things had to come to an end* and the six main performers ended up going their separate ways. John Cleese struck pay dirt immediately with Fawlty Towers, another comic landmark.  Michael Palin and Terry Jones did nearly as well with Ripping Yarns,** a show that's clearly overlooked.
It may have been the concept.  Ripping Yarns was a send up of the British boys' adventure novels (and other genres) of the 1920s and 30s, with derring do and British upper class locales (generally).  Palin and Jones used these stories -- which certainly looked very silly when they were writing it -- and turned them into wild humor.
Palin played the lead actor in all of them; Jones appeared once or twice, but pretty much stuck to writing. The episodes were filmed, not videotaped, and the stories took their genre and added many pythonesque absurdities.  There were six in the first season:
  • Tomkinson Arrives Tomkinson's Schooldays.  The British schoolboy novel (think Harry Potter without the magic), where Tomkinson is tortured by upper classmen as he tries to prove himself in the school's great event, the Thirty Mile Hop.***
  • The Testing of Eric Olthwaithe. Called "a northern yarn," this evidently parodied books about the people in the north of England.  Olthwaithe is the most boring person in his Depression-era town, until he accidentally gets mixed up with bank robbers.****
  • Escape from Stalag Luft 112B.  About Major Phipp's maniacal plans to escape from a POW camp -- where the others don't want to escape.
  • Murder at Moorstone's Manor.  An Agatha-Chrystie type murder mystery where nothing is as it seems.  Or everything is.  It has my favorite exchange:
    • Charles (after his brother is murdered):  But why?  Why do we have to have a funeral?
    • Mother:  People like funerals, dear.
    • Charles:  We didn't have a funeral for Aunt Mabel.
    • Mother: Well, we know why that was dear, now please.
    • Charles:  Why?  Why did we never have a funeral for Aunt Mabel?
    • Mother:  Because we couldn't find her, dear.
    • Charles:  We found most of her.
  • Across the Andes by Frog.  Captain Walter Snetterton out to prove his theory of amphibian migration.
  • The Curse of the Claw.  The evil "monkey's paw" whose horrific influence haunts a man's life.
The episodes did well enough that three more were commissioned the next year:
  • Whinfrey's Last Case.  England's greatest hero foils a plot by the Germans to start World War I a year early.
  • Golden Gordon.  A soccer mad man goes to extreme measures to revive the local team to its glory days.  Actually, rather sweet overall.
  • Roger of the Raj. The story of the heir to a peerage who gets caught up in an rebellion in India.
Palin was, to my mind, the funniest of the Pythons, mostly because he was able to play the silliest of roles with an earnest manner.  He was assisted by top-notch BBC talent.
The show was expensive to produce, so after nine episodes, the BBC canceled it.  But while Fawlty Towers became a favorite in reruns, Ripping Yarns got very little play in the US.  I'm not sure why.  It had only nine episodes, but Fawlty Towers only had 12.  It's possible that the references of the parodies just didn't go over well in the US.
Michael Palin moved on, appearing in the underrated The Missionary and eventually finding his niche doing travel series.  Terry Jones started writing children's stories.  And, of course, Monty Python continues to be the gold standard for comedy.
But Ripping Yarns also deserves its place among the greats.
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*And, to be honest, the final season of the show -- without John Cleese -- was very uneven and often very unfunny.  Yes, I'm looking at you, Mr. Neutron.
**Eric Idle took a long time to find his niche, but eventually developed Spamalot for the stage and has been successful as a standup comedian.
***This actually was supposed to be a one-time special, but the BBC liked it so much they ordered more episodes.
****The ending is a neat dig at our passion for celebrities;  one of the jokes is that the same dull monologues that drove Eric's acquaintances to run away to avoid mind-numbing boredom are not interested once he becomes famous.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Groff Conklin (science fiction)

(1904-1968)
A checklist of the works of Groff ConklinWikipedia
Bud Webster's Index to Groff Conklin anthologies (click on the image to purchase)

At first, science fiction stories were ephemeral.  They appeared for a month in a pulp magazine, then were never seen again.  Until the 50s,  novels were few and far between, and were often "fix-ups" -- a group of previously published short stories set in the same universe (e.g., The Foundation Trilogy, The Martian Chronicles).  It's quite possible these works and authors would have just been forgotten if it weren't for Groff Conklin.

Conklin was not an author nor was he a magazine editor.  He was an anthologist.  From 1949 until his death in 1968, he gathered together the best of the magazine SF stories into over 40 anthologies that helped define the genre.

This was essential. I started reading SF in the early 60s, and didn't know about the pulps.  By that time, only a few were being published* and I didn't know what to look for at the newstands, especially since the era of pulp fiction had ended.  But I did haunt the bookstores and my school library, and the name Groff Conklin was everywhere.  You really couldn't look at a bookshelf without seeing a collection with his name on it.

Conklin knew the great stories.  He was fond of authors like Theodore Sturgeon, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Damon Knight, William Tenn, Arthur C. Clarke, Cordwainer Smith, and all the greats of the genre.  His books were the way to get a grounding in science fiction.

Science Fiction Oddities My favorite of his anthologies was something called Science Fiction Oddities, which includes such gems as Alan Arkin's "People Soup,"** Isaac Asmov's "What is This Thing Called Love?,"*** R.A. Lafferty's amazing "What Was the Name of That Town?," Charles Harness's "The Chessplayers," Fritz Lieber's Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-TAH-Tee," and several others.  All were off-beat stories that went into areas that few dared go and brought more smiles of pleasure than any other collection I have read.

Conklin continued to collect and publish anthologies until his death.  He was purely a labor of love:  the economics of such a book are pretty dismal even in the best of times.  He paid the authors low rates (not a big problem, since they had already been paid for the original publication), and didn't have a lot left over for him.  I doubt the books were his main source of income.

Of course, not only is Conklin forgotten, but the reprint SF anthology has gone the way of the passenger pigeon.  People far prefer novels these days, and if they want a reprint anthology, it'll be from a single author they've discovered through books.  That's too bad.  The real advantage of a reprint anthology was that it had great stories by authors you never saw before.  If someone impressed you, you could look for more of his work.  Now, with the exception of some anthologies edited by Martin H. Greenberg, it's much harder to have that sort of smorgasbord of authors to sample.****  But, alas, it's far too late to change that trend. 

Conklin's anthologies are long out of print, and are unlikely to be reprinted due to issues of getting the rights.*****  It's a loss to the field, especially since the stories may be forgotten.

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* Fantasy and Science Fiction, Analog, Amazing, Fantastic and one or two others.

**Made into a short film that was Adam Arkin's film debut.

***Asimov's preferred title, though I like the original one:  "Playboy and the Slime God."

****Martin H. Greenberg has stepped into Conklin's footsteps, with original and reprint anthologies.  He often works with other authors -- a big name to make the selection of stories, and, for reprints, someone to find stories for the anthologies (Charles G. Waugh had a self-made index of SF stories by theme and did a lot of the digging up of obscure works.  Greenberg actually just handled the business end in all these, getting the rights and selling the concept.

****It would take a Herculean effort to track down the authors and their estates.  The only one that seems to be available is one he co-edited with Isaac Asimov, which is around because of Asimov's name. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Naked Kiss

(1964)
Written and directed by
Samuel Fuller
Starring Constance Towers, Anthony Eisley, Michael Dante, Virginia Grey, Patsy Kelly
IMDB Entry

The Naked KissThe woman is furious.  She's attacking a well-dressed man, screaming at him and pummeling him with her purse and a shoe.  In the battle, the man grabs for her hair; it comes off in his hand, revealing she's completely bald.  That doesn't slow her, as she attacks the man until he's lying on the floor, helpless.  Then she goes for his wallet, taking $75 and telling him she's only taking what he owes her, then tosses the rest back to him, kicking him in the side for good measure.  The woman goes to a mirror and starts to put her wig back on.

That's when the credits for The Naked Kiss begin.

As is obvious, this isn't a sedate and subtle movie.  Director Sam Fuller is praised as a great "primitive" director, meaning he dealt with pulp fiction plots and characters with energy and a brutal style. And there's more than enough of that in The Naked Kiss.

Kelly's in town -- watch out The scene switches to three years later the small town of Grantville, where the woman (Constance Towers), now a  blonde and with her own hair, shows up on the bus. Her name is Kelly, and she's a hooker.  There's no beating around the bush about this:  it's said right out, and one of the first things she does is take the sheriff (Anthony Eisley) as a john.  He tells her that she should go to join Candy (Virginia Grey) and her "bon bons" -- a bordello -- across the river in the next state. 

But Kelly stays, something happens and she decides to straighten out her life.  She gets a job at a local hospital, helping handicapped children and tries to leave her old life behind, attracting the attention of the J.L. Grant (Michael Dante), the son of one of town's richest citizens.

Of course, it doesn't work out as a fairy tale.

The film surprises with its blunt treatment of things like prostitution, bordellos, abortion, and even pedophilia.  This was in the early 60s, when film censorship was on its way out, but was still a force.  It's amazing to see these subjects being treated forthrightly*. 

Constance Towers plays Kelly as a tough girl who, of course, has a softer side.  She made quite a few movies, but was more successful in theater, where she played Anna opposite Yul Brynner in a 1977 revival of The King and I and she seems to still be acting in soaps today.

Eisley is a bit hard to follow as the sheriff, since the part requires change his feelings about Kelly every few minutes.  Dante is good as the rich man who truly loves Kelly -- but has a secret himself.

Fuller continued with his career through the 90s, working both in film and TV.  His stock has risen over the years, so much so that Criterion has added this film to its collection of notable films on DVD. 

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*And, yes, the opening scene is explained.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Laura Nyro (music)

(1947-1997)
Wikipedia Entry

Laura NyroWell, I see Laura Nyro's been nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  And it's about time -- though I fear that she won't be inducted.  Her greatness is indisputable, but popular success always eluded her, despite the fact that she is one of the three greatest female rock songwriters of her era.*

Nyro** grew up in the Bronx and was a child prodigy, teaching herself piano and writing songs starting at the age of eight.  In 1966, she sold her first song "And When I Die" to Peter Paul and Mary*** and started performing professionally.  Her first album, More than a New Discovery**** was recorded that year. It included "And When I Die," and "Wedding Bell Blues," which the 5th Dimension made into a solid hit.  The album did so-so, but Nyro wasn't happy with it, disliking some of the artistic decisions.

But Nyro had caught the eye of David Geffin, who took over her management and got her signed to a long-term contract with Columbia Records that gave her the artistic control she wanted. 

The results were spectacular.  Her first album for Columbia, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, was a revelation, containing three hit singles -- for other artists.*****  She topped that with what is usually considered her best, New York Tendaberry.  Her next, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, spawned her only single to make the charts, "Up on the Roof" (ironically, a cover song by a talent who made her name writing songs for others to cover).

Nyro mixed pop, jazz, soul, R&B, spirituals, and everything she could find into a tuneful delight, all sung in her pure, soulful voice, which was a thing of beauty in itself.  She usually accompanied herself on solo piano, but was happy to use a band when necessary.  Critics and musicians raved about her, but she never found popular success.  Part of this was that she was a reluctant performer, and rarely appeared on television.  The click below is one of the few, a version of "Save the Country."

The next year, she recorded an album of cover songs with Labelle that was, in a way, treading water, and after it was done, she announced her retirement from music in 1971.  She was 24.

Of course, such things never stick, and she was back recording in 1976, and she released four originals, plus a live album, from then until 1996, when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  Her final album was put on hold and finally released in 2001.  Several compilation albums have come out, choosing the best of her work.

Nyro never got the success she deserved.  Some of it was due to her own idiosyncrasies.§ But part of it was that she just was out of step with the popular mind.  It would be wonderful if the Hall sees fit to reward excellence.

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*The other two:  Joni Mitchell and Carole King.

**Born Lauro Nigro, so you can see why she took a stage name.  She pronounced it like the Roman emperor.

***It later became a success for Blood Sweat and Tears.

****Later retitled Laura Nyro, and still later, The First Songs.

*****"Eli's Coming" for Three Dog Night and "Stoned Soul Picnic" and "Sweet Blindness" for the 5th Dimension, who owed their career to her.

§ the record company wanted to retitle Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, fearing people would think it was a Christmas album, but Nyro refused.  The record company was right.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Jackie Vernon (comedy)

(1924-1987)
Wikipedia Entry

Jackie VernonAs a kid, I used to watch The Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday.  I was no fan of the highbrow and the circus stuff, and the musical acts ranged from great to uninteresting.  But the one thing I always looked forward to were the comedians, and my favorite of them was Jackie Vernon*.

Vernon worked his way up from strip clubs to becoming a TV headliner with by creating a persona that always brought laughs.  He was a short, dumpy man, and Vernon worked off that by using the deadest of deadpan styles.  His voice was always a monotone, and he would do his routines without showing any noticeable expression other than hangdog.

My favorite was his "vacation slides" routine. Vernon would come on with just a little clicker and would pretend to be doing a slide show of his trip to the Everglades:

  • <click>Here's the guide I got. His name was Guido. Very famous guide, in fact he was known as Guido the Guide.
  • <click>Here's Guido the Guide leading me around a bed of quicksand.
  • <click>Here's Guido the Guide from the waist up.
  • <click>That's his hat right there.
  • <click>Here's the rescue party rushing to his aid.
  • <click>Here's the rescue party from the waist up.
  • <click>And here we have a lot of hats and ropes and things.
  • <click>Here's my next guide, Son of Guido the Guide.
  • <click>
  • <click>
  • <click>That's his hat.
This was all delivered without the slightest expression with Vernon's high-pitched voice.  I also loved the way he'd imply what was going on without saying it.

Vernon did record a couple of albums, A Wet Bird Never Flies at Night and A Man and His Watermelon, which sold adequately but didn't make a big splash.  He also never managed to break into films, other than a few bit parts.

But he did make one indelible mark.  The team of Rankin/Bass chose him to do the voice of the main characters in one of their perennial Christmas classics: Frosty the Snowman.  I'm not a big fan of Frosty,** so I rarely watch it, and it is hardly representative of Vernon's comedy.

Vernon was very successful on the various "Celebrity Roasts" of the 70s, his style making the most out of all his material. 

Vernon continued his career in clubs and nightclubs, but by the 70s, with the death of the variety show, he was seen less and less on television.  He died in 1987, leaving behind memories of great comedy.

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    *Not to be confused with Jackie Mason, who was banned from the show, supposedly for giving Ed the finger on air, though he denies it.

    **Rankin/Bass were very uneven and usually awful, with the exceptions of Rudolph and The Last Unicorn.

    Sunday, September 19, 2010

    Ebinger's Chocolate Blackout Cake (food)

    (1898-1972)

    I grew up on the eastern end of Long Island, but my mother and grandmother came from Brooklyn. As a kid, it was a big deal when my grandmother drove out to visit. Certainly it was great seeing her, but one thing made ever visit special:  she always brought cakes from Ebinger's. I don't think I ever set foot in any of their stores, and if you weren't from the New York City area, you've never heard of them, but they were bakery perfection.

    The chain was founded in 1898 by George and Catherine Ebinger and quickly thrived. What I remember most are three cakes that no one has ever duplicated:

    • A yellow cake with a hard, dark chocolate icing, the two layers separated by a milk chocolate buttercream.
    • A chocolate cake, much like a torte in a small loaf, with the hard, dark chocolate icing. It had a pattern of green lines running over the top, dividing it into squares.  My brothers and I used to fight over who got the end pieces (with more of the delectable icing).
    • The chocolate blackout cake.

    The latter is what people remember today. It was a dark devil's food cake, with dark chocolate icing between layers and on the top. But icing was sprinkled with crumbs of the cake, turning the smoothness into a great texture.  It was a chocolate addict's dream and called by many "the best cake on Earth."

    I think the key to all the Ebingers cakes were their chocolate icing. It was relatively thin and made of dark chocolate, and were thin and hard, more like candy than cake.  I've never found anything like it on any cake since. The Chocolate Blackout Cake's crumbs of cake only made it even better.

    In 1972, Ebingers went bankrupt and the recipe for the cake was lost.* There have been attempts at recreating it, but I'm not sure anyone has gotten it right.**

    I haven't tried them.  I'm not sure if I want to, since I doubt they would measure up to my memories.

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    *Word has it that the heirs have it, but refuse to sell.

    **The cake on the link looks very close, and only misses by having too much cake sprinkled on the frosting.  The true Ebinger's Chocolate Blackout Cake had only a thin sprinkling that let the gloss of the icing come through. It's from a recipe at CooksCountry.com.  The picture on the Cooks County website looks less like the real cake than this one.

    Monday, September 13, 2010

    Half a Sinner

    image (1940)
    Directed by
    Al Christie
    Written by Frederick J. Jackson, story by Dalton Trumbo
    Starring Heather Angel, John "Dusty" King, Constance Collier, Tom Dugan, Clem Evans
    IMDB Entry

    Readers of this blog may not be surprised to hear that for the past year or so I've been slowly going through a set of DVDs of old, public domain movies.  It was billed as a set of mysteries, and it's a mixed bag of film noir, detectives, comic book heroes, and many other dramas, some very good, some terrible, others impossible to hear because of the poor prints. That's why I was surprised to come across Half a Sinner, a pure comedy adventure that's very fast and funny.

    Heather Angel plays schoolteacher Anne Gladden, who realizes that she needs to break free and for once in her life forget about responsibilities and just have fun.  She buys a new dress, lets down her hair and stops wearing her glasses* and sets out for a day of adventure.  But it's more than what she expected.  When a masher makes a pass at her, she jumps into his car and drives away.

    Unfortunately, she doesn't realize there's a dead body in the back seat.

    She soon is being chased by the cops (who think the car is stolen) and by gangsters (who want the body and the incriminating evidence).  Along the way, she gives a lift to a mysterious and charming stranger (John King) and crosses path with a rich dowager with a little larceny in her heart (Constance Collier).

    The film is fast paced (it runs 59 minutes), and quite funny.  There is a lot of understated black humor and the plot twists around and back and even when you can guess some of them, they're played with such charm that you don't mind.  The skill of Dalton Trumbo** may be one reason why the story keeps you wanting to watch.

    Heather Angel was trying to establish herself as a leading lady after being primarily known as Bulldog Drummond's long-suffering fiancee*** and she is a charming presence.  Alas, here career didn't take off, though she kept on working in small parts.  John King also was a veteran of B movies and later made a name for himself as a cowboy star.

    Director Al Christie produced and directed over 400 films, primarily shorts and B pictures.

    The movie fell into the public domain, but seems to be marketed primarily as a film noir and mystery (the DVD cover certainly makes it seem much more dramatic than it every dreamed of being). Don't be fooled. What you have is a fast, charming little comedy that a B movie gem.

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    *Of course.

    **Later to be blacklisted, but at this point learning his trade as a screenwriter.

    **Every Bulldog Drummond episode seemed to begin with she and Drummond just about to tie the knot when all hell breaks loose.  She spent a lot of time as a hostage, too, but was usually fairly capable.

    Friday, September 3, 2010

    Ellery Queen (author)

    (1905-1971) & (1905-1982)

    He was probably the most influential and popular of all American detective story writers and editors in the 1930s until the 1970s, yet, Ellery Queen seems to be only live on in the name of one magazine, where many of its readers may not even have read any of his work.

    image"Ellery Queen" was the pen name of two cousins, Manfred Lee and Frederick Dannay, who started writing together in the late 1920s.  Their first novel, The Roman Hat Mystery, introduced a new star to the lineup of detective sleuths:  Ellery Queen.

    It was a cute conceit* as were several others.  Queen the writer was a strong advocate of the "fair" detective story -- where all the evidence is laid before the reader so that you had a chance at guessing the solution.  Queen took it even further by stopping the narrative for a "Challenge to the Reader," where he would say that you now had all the facts you needed to solve the crime and would dare you to guess.  These gimmicks helped make the Ellery Queen novels stand out from the many being published at the time.

    The early novels -- all of which were titled "The <nationality> <noun> Mystery"** -- used this gimmick to great effect and worked because the solutions were all difficult to guess, but clear once Queen explained it all.

    That the big thing they had going for them, since the character of Queen was not well defined.  He was introduced as a sort of a upper class snob, son of Police Inspector Richard Queen, who wore a pince nez and quoted Latin aphorisms without bothering to translate.***  He is more mannerisms than a character, and probably would not have lasted long once the gimmick got tired.

    Lee and Dannay realized that.  Their tenth novel, Halfway House, dropped the nationality in the title (even though the introduction shows they could easily have stuck with it) and had the final "Challenge to the Reader."  The title not only fit the mystery, but it also signified that the book would be a "halfway house" into a different form of mystery. 

    The later books made Ellery more human, the mysteries more than just puzzles.  Lee and Dannay set a group of books in Hollywood, but were more successful with several more in the fictional small town of Wrightsville, which he joked had more murders per capita than any other town in the US. 

    Toward the end, Lee and Danny hired other writers like Theodore Sturgeon and Avram Davidson to flesh out their outlines. My favorite Queen mystery, The Player on the Other Side, was actually written by Sturgeon, and the Davidson title, And on the Eighth Day, is memorable in its portrayal of real-life evil and how it can come up even when we think it's defeated.

    In addition to the novels, Queen wrote many short stories, often based upon a "dying clue" -- something the victim did in his last moments that identified the killer, but which is not clear until Ellery Queen shows up.

    But Queen was more than a writer; he was an editor (or rather, Dannay was).  In 1941, he founded Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine as a place to showcase mystery fiction, and it quickly became the top magazine in the field, and is still being published today.  Queen's anthology, 101 Years' Entertainment, was essential reading to familiarize readers with the best of the genre (no Sherlock Holmes, though -- but that's because it was easy to find Holmes stories, but difficult to find detectives like the Old Man in the Corner, Arsene Lupin, Dr. Thorndyke, Father Brown, Philip Trent, Professor Poggioli, or Ruth Kelstern.****

    Lee died in 1971, and Dannay continued his editorship.  There were few Ellery Queen stories now and they were strictly puzzles.*****  The partnership seemed to work with Dannay coming up with the plots and puzzles and Lee fleshing out the characterization, so the stories after Lee's death were puzzle stories.  Danney died in 1982.

    So why is Queen not remembered today?  Of course, there is the change of taste in mysteries; Queen was too old-fashioned to work in a Raymond Chandler mystery universe.  In addition, the Ellery Queen stories never had the type of popular success that someone like Agatha Christie did when translated to other media.  There were several movies, but none were major hits and the last US film was back in 1942.  In the mid-70s, there was a TV series starring Jim Hutton (and run as a period piece, with Hutton stopping the story to give the "Challenge to the Reader" each show) that ran for one season, but to mediocre ratings.

    Without a presence in other media, the novels lost their appeal, especially the earlier ones that were based on gimmicks and sometimes clues that are now badly dated.****** 

    But the books are still fun to read as puzzles and as detective stories.  And Queen's work as an editor and anthologist have cast a long shadow on the field.

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    *Though why they did it is a mystery.  The stories were written in the third person, and Ellery Queen the detective was clearly not Ellery Queen the author.  But it did make thing memorable, and maybe that was the point.

    ** The Roman Hat Mystery, The French Powder Mystery, The Dutch Show Mystery, etc.

    ***In the first book, he is said to be retired, married, and living in Italy after the events of the mystery, but that bit of background vanished away.

    ****It might be easier now, with the Gutenberg Project.

    *****It is generally thought that Dannay wrote the plots and puzzles, while Lee handled the characterizations.  With Lee gone, the stories were all plots and dying clues.

    ******The resolution to one book, for instance, is based on the assumption that no man would appear in public without a tie.

    Saturday, August 28, 2010

    The Lovin' Spoonful (music)

    (1965-69)
    Members:
      John Sebastian (guitar, harmonica, autoharp, vocals), Zal Yanovsky (guitar), Steve Boone (bass), Joe Butler (drums)
    All Music Guide

    After Sgt. Pepper, most rock musicians turned away from hit singles and toward albums.  Many of this period talked at the time about how they lost interest in top 40 radio, that they didn't really care for it and preferred to listen to albums.  But there was one group that they always said was an exception:  The Lovin' Spoonful.

    The group had its origins in New York's Greenwich Village.  Guitarist Zal Yanovsky had become a member of the Mugwumps with Cass Eliott and Denny Doherty, who soon gained pop fame as half of the Mamas and the Papas.*  After the Mugwumps broke up, Yanovsky started working with Sebastian.  The added Boone and Butler and started recording.

    Their first single, Sebastian's "Do You Believe in Magic," went to number 9, and they followed up with a series of classic singles, with  "Daydream," "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?," "Summer in the City," "Rain on the Roof," "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice," and "Nashville Cats" hitting the top ten.

    The hits were all written by Sebastian.  He was able to take a combination of folk music, jug band music, and rock and turn it into a cheery new hybrid, usually called "good time music."  Which described it well:  there was a joyousness in every song and a sense of fun throughout.  It started a trend**.  

    In addition to their singles and albums, they recorded two movie soundtracks:  "What Up Tiger Lily?" for Woody Allen, and "You're a Big Boy Now" for a young Francis Ford Coppola.

    Things were going well, but trouble struck in an unexpected way.  Zal was arrested for possession of marijuana.  Not unusual, but the police pressured him to name his supplier, threatening him with deportation (he was Canadian).  The music community didn't forgive him and put pressure on him so much that he quit the group and moved to Canada anyway. 

    He was replaced with an old friend of the group, Jerry Yester.  The group's sound changed and, though they had a couple of hits,*** things were ending.  Sebastian decided it was time to go solo.  The group continued and even had some minor hits, but it just wasn't the same.  They broke up in 1969.

    Sebastian went on to a successful solo career****, starting with the album John B. Sebastian***** and hitting the charts a few years later with "Welcome Back," written as the theme song for the TV show Welcome Back, Kotter.  Yanovsky released a quirky album called Alive and Well in Argentina, which was quickly forgotten.  Yester, Boone, and Butler eventually reunited and are playing as the Lovin Spoonful even now.

    While they were not a group known for their albums, their singles still have the power to make you smile.

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    * Their song "Creeque Alley" includes references to Sebastian ("In a coffee house Sebastian sat") and Yanovsky ("Zal and Denny, working for a penny").

    **The Turtles, for instance, who had a couple of minor hits with Dylan covers and who thought of themselves as a protest band, heard "Do You Believe in Magic?" and decided they'd rather be cheerful than Mr. Alienation, and recorded "Happy Together."  The Grateful Dead reportedly saw the Spoonful and decided to switch from acoustic jug band to rock.

    ***Including "Money" (not the song the Beatles covered), which is a loving paean to the capitalism and the banking system.

    ****He was an extremely likeable live performer.  I saw him live at the Union College Memorial Chapel in the early 70s.  Sebastian came on and, with wonder in his voice said, "I've never played in a chapel before," then broke into a few bars of "Chapel of Love."  Great show.

    *****Probably the only record to ever be bootlegged by a major recording company.  Sebastian signed with Reprise Records for the album, but MGM Records (the parent company of the Spoonful's label) claimed he owed them an album, so they pirated the tapes and sold it.  MGM lost the ensuing legal battle.  They tried again by releasing a live John Sebastian album the next year, but again, they were told to cut it out, and Sebastian released his own live album in response.

    Friday, August 27, 2010

    Hollywood Shuffle

    (1987)
    Directed by
    Robert Townsend
    Written by Robert Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans
    Starring Robert Townsend, Starletta DuPois, Keenan Ivory Wayans, Anne-Marie Johnson
    IMDB Entry

    We always like it when a director makes a big splash with his first film.  And it's an especially good story if he does it on his own, in a small independent movie. People like Spike Lee (She's Gotta Have It*), Kevin Smith (Clerks), and Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi) were able to make critically acclaimed low-budget debuts, and have them picked up by studios and move on to solid careers.

    Robert Townsend started out that way.  His first film, Hollywood Shuffle, was shot on a budget of $100,000,** $40,000 of which he raised while maxing out his credit cards and working as a bit player in a handful of movie. And he hit the jackpot:  critical acclaim, a studio distribution, and a foot in the door.

    Hollywood Shuffle is the story of Bobby Taylor (Townsend), an aspiring Hollywood actor.  But he has a problem:  as a black man, he keeps coming face to face with stereotyping.

    Now, Hollywood was always about stereotypes.  They may have become less offensive of the years (especially the racial ones), but even now characters learn to play a type.  And at the time the film was made in 1987, roles for Black actors were still limited:  pimps, Eddie Murphy types, and other roles that, while better than the demeaning stereotypes of the pre-Civil-Rights days, were still pretty limiting.

    The movie hits the whole issue with a biting satire and Bobby keeps trying to get a role that doesn't require him to portray what he hates.  It's somewhat hit or miss*** but very likeable.

    The ending is what makes the movie stand out.  It's something of a twist that turns Bobby's seeming failure into a real success, letting him do what he's been wanting to do in a surprising way.

    Townsend was able to pay off his credit card bills and establish himself as a director to watch.  Alas, it didn't pan out.  He directed Eddie Murphy Raw, not the type of film that gets and director noticed, then had a series of flips:  The Five Heartbeats, The Meteor Man, and BAPS, none of which made more than $9 million in the box office.****  He moved to TV, but still hasn't done anything of particular note.

    Hollywood Shuffle may be a bit dated, but the issues it raises still exist, and it's final message is something everyone can take to heart.

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    *He also did several student films, but She's Gotta Have It was his first film on his own.

    **Remember, this was still the film era, where the cost of shooting was greater.

    ***There's a overly long section with Keenan Ivory Wayans (pre In Living Color) portraying one of a Black "Siskel and Ebert" pair of movie critics that isn't all that funny and really clouds Townsend's point.

    ****Though they did make more money than Hollywood Shuffle.  Still, they also cost far more than $100,000 and were a loss in real accounting, not just the Hollywood version.

    Thursday, August 19, 2010

    Baroness Orczy (author)

    Baroness Ocrzy(1865-1947)
    Wikipedia Page

    European nobles are not known for their contributions to the arts. Oh, there's Lord Byron, of course, but other than that, it's hard to think of anyone who was successful in the arts, where their bloodlines and money does them no good. But Baroness Emmuska Orczy managed to become an extremely popular writer in the early years of the 20th century.

    Orczy was the daughter of a Hungarian baron who moved to London when she was twelve to escape a revolution in his home country. In the late 1890s, she began to write as a way to bring in money, and, after a few fits and starts, ended up establishing herself as a writer of mysteries and adventure stories.

    She made her name as a writer of swashbucklers, starting with The Scarlet Pimpernel.  Though the name is pretty much forgotten except as a joke,* it was a major success when the character first appeared in short stories and finally a play in 1903.  The stories were set during the days of the French Revolution as the Pimpernel**, one of the first characters to have a secret identity, fought to rescue nobles from the madness of the Terror.  The Pimpernel was really a precursor to superheroes like Batman and the Shadow, and both better-known heroes had similarities to him.

    It is interesting that Orczy, who was uprooted by revolution as a noblewoman, chose as a hero a man who fought against revolutionaries to save noblemen.

    But the Pimpernel wasn't Orczy's only literary creations.  She also wrote a series of mystery stories featuring the Old Man in the Corner.

    The Old Man -- his real name unrevealed -- was one of the first armchair detectives.  He sits in the ABC Tea Shop and engages reporter Polly Burton*** in conversations discussing the mysteries of the day, all the while fidgeting with a piece of string.  The Old Man does get around -- to visit the scenes of the crime or to watch the trial -- but each story has him staying entirely in his chair.  Like he does with the knots in his string, he unravels mysteries, and finds the solution.  But he never arrests anyone, and often the murderer remains free.  The stories are first class mysteries.

    Orczy also had another series about the adventures of Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, the police's only woman detective, who manages to solve crimes by using a woman's eye to see what men have missed. 

    With these and other series, Orczy was one of the most popular writers of the early 20th century.  Alas, her stories slowly lost favor and the type of swashbuckling adventure of the Scarlet Pimpernel is out of date****

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    * Looney Tunes parodied it in their classic cartoon, The Scarlet Pumpernickel.

    **One of the first characters to have a secret identity -- Sir Percy Blakeney

    ***Whose function is to put forth questions to challenge the Old Man, only to have them shot down.

    ****Except when they use lightsabers.

    Friday, August 13, 2010

    Magic

    (1978)
    Directed by
    Richard Attenborough
    Written by William Goldman
    Starring Anthony Hopkins, Burgess Meredith, Ann-Margaret.
    IMDB Entry

    Ever since The Great Gabbo, ventriloquists in film* always seem to have the same problem:  the dummy becoming a representative of their own multiple personalities.  Magic is one take on the genre, overcoming the cliche with good writing and an excellent cast.

    Fats and CorkyIn the film, Corky Withers (Anthony Hopkins) is an aspiring stage comic who comes up with ventriloquism as a gimmick for his career.  His dummy, Fats, is foul mouthed and rude, and makes Corky into a star.  But just as his agent Ben (Burgess Meredith) lines up a prime time TV show for him, he vanished into the Catskills.

    The reason is that he keeps hearing Fats talking to him, even when he's not holding the dummy.  Corky fears he's on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Meeting an old girlfriend (Ann-Margaret) seems to help at first, but soon things get worse.  Very much worse.

    The interesting part about the film is that it's never entirely clear whether Fats is part of Corky's personality, or some sort of supernatural being. Except for one shot, he is being manipulated by Corky, but that one shot -- where Fats appears to move -- hints that maybe it's something else.**

    This was the first American starring role for Anthony Hopkins, and he does a fine job showing Corky and a man on the edge.  Ann-Margaret was at the peak of her career, and great to watch as the woman who inadvertently sets the tragedy in motion.

    The script is by William Goldman, a purveyor of first-class movie scripts, and best known for The Princess Bride and Marathon Man.  Director Attenborough took the job partially to raise money for his bigger project:  Gandhi. The film also started getting Hopkins noticed in the US, and his next starring role, in The Elephant Man, put his career into high gear.

    Though the story is a bit old hat, the great talents involved make it a solid psychological horror film.

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    *Except for Edgar Bergan

    ** My feeling is that there's no supernatural explanation and the movement is merely gravity doing its thing.