Sunday, February 24, 2013

Schweppes Bitter Lemon (food)


imageWhen I was a kid, I had oddball taste in food.  Among other things, I didn’t care for soda.  I didn’t like the carbonation – it stung – and was used to drinking milk, so the sweetness had no appeal.  But in my early teens, I discovered a soda I actually enjoyed drinking:  Schweppes Bitter Lemon.

Bitter lemon had a long history, first developed in the 1830s as a mixer.  It was a combination of lemon juice and tonic.  It’s name described it:  it had a slightly bitter taste and the tang of lemon juice. 

It was a change from the usual sugary sodas for me.  One difference was the presence of a little bit of lemon pulp. Even though I wasn’t concerned about “all-natural” in those days, the little bits of lemon floating made it seem more real to me, and the fact that it wasn’t cloyingly sweet made it very refreshing.

It was never a very popular brand in the US.  If you found it in a supermarket, it would be with the cocktail mixers with bloody mary mix and swizzle sticks.  You had better luck in a beverage store and, possibly, in liquor stores in states that allowed for its sale. For me, it was a real treat.

There was also a Bitter Orange, which was the same thing, only the orange juice was sweeter.  I haven’t seen it in years, and it seems that they stopped making it in the US in 2011.* 

There are some attempts to market the flavor in the US, though it’s limited to knockoffs of Bitter Orange.  Polar, for instance, has Orange Dry, which is a less-sweet orange soda, but with no tonic, and it was the taste of quinine that made Bitter Lemon so good.

I probably wouldn’t drink it enough now to support the brand if it came back, but I hope that someone might try.

*It’s still available in the UK, Germany, and Canada.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Shel Silverstein (music)

Wikipedia Entry

Everybody grab their whipsYes, everyone knows Shel Silverstein.  When the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree are classics of children’s literature, still in print after 50 years. But Silverstein was a complete talent.  In addition to writing and cartooning, he was a songwriter, with songs that often were far different from what you’d expect from a children’s book writer.*

Silverstein grew up in Chicago and started out as a cartoonist, with some of his work appearing in Army magazines while he was in Korea in the 50s.  He began appearing in major magazines and had a series of special articles for Playboy.  In 1963, after publishing several books of adult cartoons, he went into children’s books with Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back.

Silverstein took up music in college and starting to write successful songs in the 1950s.  By the mid-60s, his songs had been recorded by Peter Paul and Mary (“Boa Constrictor”), Johnny Cash (“25 Minutes to Go”), and the Irish Rovers (“The Unicorn”).  Cash then had one of the biggest hits of his long career with Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue.”

That was typical of Silverstein.  He was, after all, a cartoonist, so his songs were often funny, with a sardonic sense of humor that sometimes bordered on the macabre.**

Silverstein had one weakness.  While a great songwriter and top-notch accompanist, his voice was no great shakes.  In 1970, he was composing a musical score for Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? when a producer brought in a group that was working hard to break in, thinking they’d be perfect for Silverstein’s material.  Evidently they were, because Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show rose to prominence on the strength of his material.

Their first song from him, “Sylvia’s Mother,” was a massive hit.  It’s an over-the-top ballad about trying to talk to an ex-girlfriend and a parody of that sort of breakup song.***  The album was a big hit.

They followed it up with Sloppy Seconds, which was only Silverstein material.  “On the Cover of the Rolling Stone” was another hit, a funny and satirical look at being a rock and roll star. 

Other Silverstein songs for Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show include “Roland the Roadie and Gertrude the Groupie,” “Freaking at the Freaker’s Ball,” “Penicillin Penny,” and “I Got Stoned and I Missed It.” As the titles indicate, the songs were concerned with sex and drugs and were all sardonically amusing.  But Silverstein could also be serious:  “The Queen of the Silver Dollar” is a wonderfully joyous love song.

Dr. Hook started moving on to other songs and songwriters, with further hits, but without Silverstein.  He continued to write for other artists, including the delightful “One’s On the Way” for Loretta Lynn.  He did put out an album with many of the songs that were covered by Dr. Hook, but with little success.

Not that it really mattered to Silverstein’s career.  He already had several irons on the fire with the books and everything else.  And he is very well regarded in music circles (and in country music especially) for his songs. It is an aspect of a great artist that sometimes gets overlooked.

*Though far more like what you’d expect from a major contributor to Playboy, which Silverstein was.  Like Roald Dahl, he’s best known for children’s works despite the fact he had a long list of very adult works.

**”25 Minutes to Go” is about a man on death row, who ends up hanging at the end.  Johnny Cash sang it in Folsom Prison – true gallows humor.  “Boa Constrictor” has the singer being eaten by a snake.

***At first, a lot of people hated it because they didn’t get the joke.  Even now, some people still think it’s meant seriously, but, really, how seriously can you take a song with the refrain, “And the operator says forty cents more for the next three minutes, please.”?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Mad Dog and Glory

Mad Dog and Glory(1993)
Directed by
John McNaughton
Written by Richard Price
Starring  Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman, Bill Murray, David Caruso, Mike Starr
IMDB Entry

I’ve always noticed that some actors are particularly good when they’re cast against type.  People who started doing a lot of villains, like Telly Savalas and Peter Falk, can play very good heroes when given the chance.  Some who are used to playing good guys, like Fred MacMurray, make really great villains (see The Apartment).  And when more than one actor is cast against type, the results can be surprisingly good.

Mad Dog and Glory is a case in point.

Wayne “Mad Dog” Dobie (Robert De Niro) is a cop.  Not one who pounds a beat, but a timid police photographer who’s never had to draw his gun.  One night, he stumbles on a convenience store holdup and scares off the crook just before he can kill Frank Milo (Bill Murray).  Milo is grateful.  He is also a crime boss and in his gratitude, he send Mad Dog a present:  Glory (Uma Thurman), a woman who is in hock to Milo and has to follow his orders.  She is Mad Dog’s for one week, to do whatever he wants.

It’s not the best start to a relationship.  But Mad Dog and Glory find an affinity and decide they want to be together once the week is over.  But Milo is not about to allow that:  the deal is for one week, and he’s not the type of person who lets others change the terms of things.

De Niro is quiet and very laid back as Mad Dog,* a nice guy who is a little embarrassed by the whole situation until he gets to know Glory.  Murray gets away from the wiseass persona he had adopted around this point in his career, playing Milo as a menacing bully – who also is seeing a shrink** and performing in a comedy club.

Uma Thurman is also a the top of her game.  Her Glory is a real person with problems in addition to Milo, and needs to move on to some stability.  David Caruso, just before NYPD Blue made him a star,*** is good as Mad Dog’s best friend, while Mike Starr was his usual down-to-Earth self as one of Milo’s henchmen.

The writer, Richard Price, had come to prominence with the script to The Color of Money, and director John McNaughton had made some waves with Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. 

But the film didn’t do well at the box office.  People found its mood confusing: it starts out with Mad Dog photographing a couple of bloody murders, the veers to comedy, and then romance, then back.  The climactic scene with Milo and Mad Dog is funny and also very serious.  This is by design – I think both McNaughton and Price knew what they were doing – but audiences weren’t really sure what sort of movie it was.

The film faded from memory as all the actors went on to other things.  It’s still a strange and charming comedy that is a mix of humor, romance, and deadly serious situations.
*The nickname is ironic, and, of course, has nothing to do with Mad Dog.

**Shades of Analyize This!

***Actually, Caruso first came to my attention in Hill Street Blues, where he had a recurring role as a young gangleader.  Evidently Stephen Bochco had forgotten that when he cast Caruso in NYPD Blue

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Man on the Flying Trapeze

The Man on the Flying TrapezeDirected by
Clyde Bruckman (and W. C. Fields)
Story by “Charles Bogle” (W. C. Fields), screenplay by Ray Harris and Sam Hardy
Starring W. C. Fields, Mary Brian, Kathleen Howard, Grady Sutton, Vera Lewis, Walter Brennan, Carlotta Monti
IMDB Entry

The image of W. C. Fields is that of the snarling con man, the man who kicked babies and thought “anyone who hates children and dogs can’t be all bad.”*  But, unlike the other great film comedians,** Fields didn’t always play the same character.  His characters are on a continuum, with some being what people think he’s like, but others being exceptionally meek and mild and willing to tolerate any indignity.  Some of his best films show that side of him, including The Man on the Flying Trapeze.

In the movie, Ambrose Woolfinger (Fields) is introduced sneaking a sip of whiskey under the nose of his wife Leona (Kathleen Howard). Ambrose is a “memory expert”; his job involves remembering people and events for his boss, and keeping track of important papers (on a giant pile on his desk, though he can find anything instantly).  Ambrose has to endure the jibes of his mother-in-law (Vera Lewis) as well as his lazy brother-in-law (Grady Sutton).  Ambrose is a fan of wrestling, and decides to take his first day off in years in order to go to the big match.  Naturally, things get complicated from there.

Traffic TicketsFields portrays Ambrose as a henpecked husband, putting up with the insults and indignities of life (in one sequence, he gets one traffic ticket after another as he tries to comply with the requests of various cops) until he finally snaps.  Fields the writer and director*** may have sneered at the people around him, but Ambrose wouldn’t think to do it.  Fields goes a long way to be the sympathetic character.

Two minor casting notes.  Carlotta Monti, who plays Ambrose’s secretary, was Field’s mistress; she gives a speech where she defends Ambrose when he’s fired for taking the day off.  And Walter Brennan plays a bit part of a burglar who Fields finds in his house and drinking his applejack.

Like most of Field’s films, this was not a big success when it was released.  It made money, but Fields’s comedy was too bitter for the 30s.  His persona started getting wide notice after his death, as impersonators started showing the popular version of his characters. 

The Man on the Flying Trapeze remains relatively obscure Fields.  It has been overshadowed by films like It’s a Gift and The Bank Dick**** and My Little Chickadee.  It also seems to have taken its time to have a DVD, meaning contemporary audiences have overlooked it.  But it’s one of his comedy classics.

*Which he never said.  The comment was made about him by Leo Rosten at a roast at the Masquer’s Club.

**My list would be Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Fields, the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Jacques Tati, and Woody Allen.  They all were consistently funny, and also were in control of their onscreen images, usually by writing or directing the role.  Only Chaplin showed much variation, and in his case it was an evolution of the character to make him more sympathetic; Fields would switch personas from film to film as necessary.

***Fields took over direction from Clyde Bruckman when the latter fell ill.

****Both of which portrayed characters similar to that in The Man on the Flying Trapeze.