Saturday, December 31, 2016

Leon Redbone (music)

(1949 – )
Leonredbone.com

My wife and I share very few musical tastes in popular music.  She prefers folk and singer-songwriters; I go for blues and hard rock.* However, there was one musician we agreed about at the start:  Leon Redbone.

imageRedbone’s origins are unclear. He started performing in the early 70s in Toronto. After an endorsement by Bob Dylan, he got a record contract and released his first album, On the Track, in 1975.**

Redbone didn’t write his material, but instead revived music from the 20s, 30s, and 40s, singing it slowly and carefully, and sounding much like the way the songs sounded in their earliest recordings. On the Track included music from greats like Jimmie Rodgers, Fats Waller, Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercier, and the underappreciated Harry Warren.

He had a deep, rich, world-weary voice that was completely in service to the music, and a nice touch of irony when needed (though he was perfectly able to sing things straight.

Redbone never had a big hit, but continued to release albums through the 70s and 80s.  Someone at Saturday Night Live took a liking to him and he appeared there twice, most notably with his sly rendition of “Seduced.”

Redbone was often called upon to lend his talent and voice to other media. He sung a duet with Zooey Deschanel of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” at the end of Elf, and showed up as Leon the Snowman in the film. 

Like many artists of my youth, I lost track of him over the years, but he continued to perform and record until 2015, when he announced his retirement.

He’s certainly not for everyone, but if you  like the old-timey feel and great songs that were a hit before your mother was born, Redbone is a delight.

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*We both love musicals, though.

**With art by cartoon great Chuck Jones. Yes, that’s Michigan J. Frog. Redbone paid tribute to the cover by covering “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” on his third album

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Marital Blitz (book)

image(1954)
By Stan and Jan Berenstain

The Berenstain Bears are a beloved series of children’s books, and there seems to be a minor controversy about the spelling of the authors’ names.  Many people think it’s Berenstein, even though it’s been spelled Berenstain on all the books they’ve written.

I never thought it was spelled that way. Also, I have never read any of the books about their bears.* What did introduce me to them was their paperback, Marital Blitz.

This is not a children’s book. It’s a humorous look at the foibles of married life (note the cover, which is a little risqué for children).  It concentrated on the early years of a marriage.

I read through my parents’ copy many times.  It was one of the things that gave me my idea of what a marriage should be, along with my parents and Jean Kerr.

The Berenstains did quite a few books of this kind in the 50s and 60s, with titles like Lover Boy, The Facts of Life for Grownups, and How to Teach Your Children about Sex without Making a Complete Fool of Yourself.  Of course, as the bears became a phenomenon, they concentrated on that.  Their last book of this nature was published in 1972.

Most, if not all, of these books are long out of print.  But they were a charming sidelight to the careers of a successful husband-and-wife team.  And I noticed from the start the way they spelled their name.

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*I was too old for them when they first came out in 1962, and they never came up when my daughter was the right age.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Hellzapoppin’

Hellzapoppin'(1941)
Directed by
H.C. Potter
Written by Nat Perrin & Warren Wilson, based on a story by Nat Perrin.
Starring Ole Olson, Chic Johnson, Martha Raye, Hugh Herbert, Jane Frazee, Robert Paige, Mischa Auer, Clarence Kolb, Shemp Howard, Elisha Cook, Jr., Richard Lane
IMDB Entry

A friend of mine mentioned Hellzapoppin’ on Facebook in the highest terms, so I decided to move it from my list of “Movies I’d like to see” to my list of “Movies I’ve seen.”

It was worth it.

It’s an adaptation of a hit Broadway play that became the longest running show during its original run. The play was evidently nothing but craziness – non sequiturs, dumb jokes, weird running gags, musical numbers, and an “anything can happen” attitude.  The cast not only interacted with each other, but with audience members, both real and planted.*  It was a smash, the Hamilton of the 1930s.

Of course, it was made into a movie.  The film starts in the projection booth, where Louie (Shemp Howard, the once and future stooge) is setting up the film, which shows a group of chorus girls descending a staircase.  But the stairs collapse like a funhouse, and deposits them in hell for the first musical number.

any similarity between Hellzpoppin' and a motion picture is purely coincidentalWe eventually meet Ole Olson and Chic Johnson, who start out with one surreal gag after another (including asking Louie to rewind the film), until the director (Richard Lane) stops things to say they need a plot, pointing out the writer they hired, Harold Selby (Elisha Cook, Jr.**).  The script is a standard 30s “let’s put on a show” plot.  When Olson and Johnson complain is far too clichéd, the director shows them the film – with them in it.

The issue isn’t the plot, which is only an excuse to hang gags. Indeed, the story takes a back seat to Olson and Johnson’s jokes and antics, along with sight gags and surreal humor. The conventions of film are played with and destroyed, with the characters not only breaking the fourth wall, but just about anything you like.  The film becomes mis-centered, with the top half below the bottom half (and the actors know it).  Stinky MillerDuring one of the romantic scenes, a slide keeps showing up asking about “Stinky Miller” and telling him to go home.  The main running gag involves a man walking around with a tree – the grows each time you see it – calling for “Mr. Jones.”

The cast is filled with first class comics.  Hugh Herbert*** plays a “master of disguises” detective. Mischa “The Mad Russian” Auer is Pepe, a deposed prince who is out to marry the heiress.  Martha Raye is the comic female lead.****  A favorite of mine, Clarence Kolb (of My Little Margie) is a straight man caught up in the madness.

The plot is inconsequential, and the movie comes to life mostly when Olson and Johnson are on stage and move it from standard gags to complete madness.

It was highly influential.  Laugh-In owes everything to it, and I noted a scene that showed up in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Every movie where actors knew they were in a movie owes it a debt.

Despite their brilliance, Olson and Johnson were far to anarchic for films.  They tried to recapture the success of Hellzapoppin’, but never succeeded, either on Broadway, movies, or TV.

The movie may not have been up to the legend of the show, but it’s amazing how fresh and funny it still is today.

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*I read that the theater management was not happy that the show required actors to sit in the audience for various gags because they couldn’t sell the seats for a sold-out show.

** Cook – best known for his roles in The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep is strange to see as a naïve young kid instead of a gunsel.

***Herbert was satirized in a lot of Looney Tunes, with his trademark “hoo-hoo-hoo” sign of nervousness.

****When I first knew of Raye, she seemed to be one of Bob Hope’s road show has-beens.  But her role here and especially in Monsieur Verdoux shows a clever comic talent.