Saturday, June 25, 2011

Sister Rosetta Tharpe (music)

Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973)
Wikipedia Entry

Rock and roll music came from a variety of sources:  the blues, rhythm and blues,* country, and -- sneaking in the back way -- from gospel.  And one of the great pioneers of the gospel sound that was incorporated into rock music was Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Tharpe was born in Arkansas as Rosetta Nubin.  Her mother, Katie Bell Nubin,** was an evangelist and singer, and young Rosetta took up guitar at an early age, playing and singing well enough to be something of a sensation by the 1920s.  In the mid-1930s, she moved to New York to further her career as a singer and guitarist, briefly marrying Rev. Thomas Thorpe, and changing her stage name to "Tharpe" once the marriage ended.

She started recording in 1938 and became a popular star because of her ability to perform both traditional gospel numbers and uptempo tunes. She was an early crossover artist, selling the gospel records to one group, and the more rocking numbers to the general public and catching on with white audiences (to the dismay of her gospel fans).

Her most famous song, "Up Above My Head," was recorded in the late 1940s with her singing partner at the time, Marie Knight.  It shows how joyous -- and surprisingly modern -- her music could be.***

Tharpe was not only a great singer, but an excellent guitarist.  She was not content to play rhythm guitar only, but would break off in solos that still sound good today.****

Tharpe and Knight were a popular recording act up until around 1951, when they made a misstep and tried to move into the blues.  It failed, and her gospel audience -- which didn't like the more secular road her music was taking -- abandoned her.  She broke up with Knight and tried to do more popular tunes, but she didn't catch on with the mass audience.  The move may have been too soon -- rock 'n roll had yet to catch on and by the time it did, she had lost her record contract. Still, she continued performing until her death in 1973, respected by musicians, but forgotten by the general public.

Sister Rosetta has been rediscovered and credited as an influence by many big name acts like Elvis, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, and Johnny Cash. She was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2007.

*Similar, but not the same thing.

**There is no record of her father.

***The version with Knight is even better than this, but that was before the days of television and doesn't seem to be available.

***Some writers claim that she invented the "windmill" style of guitar made famous by Pete Townsend of the Who.  However, I haven't been able to track down footage of her doing it.  What I have seen was that she would move her hand away from the guitar as a flourish when the solo ended (see the video above). It's not the full windmill that made Townsend famous. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Great Flamarion

image (1945)
Directed by
Anthony Mann
Screenplay by Ann Wigton (story), Heinz Herald, and Richard Weil, based upon a character created by Vicki Baum
Starring Erich von Stroheim, Mary Beth Hughes, Dan Duryea, Steve Barclay.
IMDB Entry
Watch Online

At at time when an obscure film like Detour has been rediscovered and hailed as a classic of the genre it is surprising indeed that The Great Flamarion is not similarly praised.  Yet Eddie Muller's Dark City, the definitive survey of the genre makes no mention of it, and it just doesn't have the cachet that other titles do.  Maybe the title sounds too silly for the seriousness of the story.  Maybe it's just that films from Republic Pictures are overlooked.  In any case, this is a fine, classic film noir movie that makes the most of its opportunities.

The film is shown in flashbacks.*  The Great Flamarion (Erich von Stroheim) is a vaudeville entertainer, a trick shot artist.**  Connie (Mary Beth Hughes) and Al Wallace (Dan Duryea) are his assistants, who are shot at every night.  But Connie -- who is something of a con artist when men is concerned -- grows tired of Al and his drinking, looking for greener pastures.  So she turns to seducing Flamarion and suggesting that the way to free her from Al is  . . . well, I think you can figure it out.

For Flamarion, happiness should have remained a warm gun Erich von Stroheim is considered as one of the great film directors, though his output was small due to the fact that his obsessive perfectionism caused his movies to go way over budget and run far too long.  After the silent days, no one would allow him to director, so he turned to acting, and being billed as "The Man You Love to Hate" for his villainous roles.  But von Stroheim was more than just a villain, and when given a chance, could give his characters (usually stiff-necked military types) some nice depth.***  In this case, in invests some true pathos in the Flamerion, a man whose vaudeville act is his life and who has no real friends, the perfect target for Connie's scheme.  When he finally discovers he's been her patsy, you feel his disappointment strongly.

Dan Duryea was one of the great heavies. He has a menacing presence even in this role, where he is more a victim than a villain.  Mary Beth Hughes is probably too soft a presence to be a true film noir femme fatale, though her cutie looks at least explains why men have themselves falling all over her.  Still, she manages to hold her own against two of the strongest male villains of the era.

The film came out about eight months after Double Indemnity, the landmark of film noir, and probably was influenced by it, since the producer -- W. Lee Wilder -- was the brother of Billy Wilder. Since it was released by Republic Pictures, a poverty row studio, it was quickly forgotten, especially since it did not get particularly good reviews.**** Anthony Mann later developed into a respected director of westerns and film noir.

The film deserves more recognition, especially for von Stroheim's portrayal of Flamarion.  It's a worthy entry in the film noir genre.

* A common device in film noir.

**His act has him showing up, presumably as the wronged husband, at a tryst between a woman and a man, and using that to shoot at them -- missing them, of course.

***He was especially good as the German commander in La Grand Illusion, and is probably best known to modern-day audiences as Max von Mayerling in Sunset Boulevard, where he played a parody of his own image.

****The New York Times of the era hated it, but I suspect they were not yet attuned to this new film noir sensibility.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Who's in Charge Here? (book)

By Gerald C. Gardner

Who's in charge here? Political humor dates quickly*.  The only way to avoid this is to stay topical, something that radio and TV have managed to do.  It's much harder to do it in a book, but Gerald Gardner came up with the idea to have a series of books, each with some funny topical humor of the year.
Gerald Gardner was a TV writer, best know for scripts for The Monkees and Get Smart.** In 1962, he got the idea of taking news photos and adding humorous dialog that supposedly showed what the people were saying or thinking.  The book was called Who's in Charge Here?, and the cover photo showed John F. Kennedy sitting with Harry Truman, with Truman saying, "So the bathroom still leaks."
Despite the photos of political figures, the book didn't take a political point of view.  It focused more on the absurdity and foibles of the people involves, as well as commenting on what was shown in the picture.
The book was a smashing success.  So much so that Gardner continued with new editions every few years.  There was More Who's in Charge Here, Who's in Charge Here 1966, Who's in Charge Here: Watergate Follies, and many other variations on the theme.  The most recent version I can find was from 1996. 
None were as popular as the original.  And I suspect the gentle ribbing you found in Gardner's books is out of place in today's more vicious style of political humor***.  It's hard to say how well the book hold up, but I think it's not too bad, since you only need to have a vague understanding of the events involved.
The books, though successful, were always just a sideline for Gardner, who was a very successful TV writer and producer both before and after the first volume came out.  It was a minor book, but an entertaining bit of political humor.
*The clearest example to me was an Art Buchwald column on the Watergate hearings entitled (in our newspaper), "What We Have Learned So Far."  It was the funniest thing I ever read when it first came out.  Rereading it six months later, it was nowhere near as good.  And after a year, I couldn't find anything funny about it at all (I don't think it's was ever reprinted in any of Buchwald's collections).  Once you forgot the details he was satirizing, there was little left.
**A favorite Get Smart episode was "The Diplomat's Daughter," which had one of Smart's best villains:  "The Craw."  ("Not Craw!  Craw!!")
***At least, Gardner didn't suffer the fate of Vaughn Meader, who also joked about JFK. 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Day of the Triffids (book)

imageBy John Wyndham
Wikipedia link

Sometimes when you read a book, the thought crosses your mind that it would make the perfect movie.  And anyone reading The Day of the Triffids would agree*.  It is, in many ways, the perfect monster movie, and it remains a classic of science fiction horror.

Triffids was written by John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, though with a name that unwieldy, you can understand why he shortened it to John Wyndham.  He was born in a small village in the UK, the son of a barrister. He went through various careers in the 1920s and 1930s, selling an occasional science fiction short story to US magazines.  After World War II, he returned to writing and, in 1951, he produced his best-known work, The Day of the Triffids.

The book, like many of his, deals with a disaster.  Bill Masen wakes up after an eye injury that caused him to be bandaged up for several days, and all around the hospital is eerily quiet.  He removes his bandages -- they were due to come off anyway -- and soon learns that everyone seems to have gone blind.  There had been a magnificent display of meteors the night before, but everyone who watched it cannot see any more.

And, worse, there are the triffids.  They a (possibly) genetically engineered carnivorous plant that can walk and has a whiplike poisonous stinger that it uses to kill its prey.  They are useful, though:  cut off the stinger and they can be raised for their high-quality oil.  When the book begins, the triffids are well-established**.  Some have their stingers docked (though they grow back), but many do not.  Without sight, humans have no advantage over them.  And the triffids are on the march.

The book is a post-apocalyptic masterpiece as Masen has to avoid the triffids, find others who can see, rescue some who can't, and help develop a community and a plan to fight back.  There are many chilling moments, like when a sighted little girl describing how she saw her brother being stalked by a triffid, but can do nothing because one would attack her once she made a sound.  There are scenes of triffids herding people like food animals, and blind humans turning sighted ones into slaves to keep them alive.

The triffids themselves are great monsters.  They communicate among themselves, and their ability to move, as well as their poisoned stingers make the memorable and terrifying.  But many of the worst monsters in the book are human beings who try to take advantage of the situation. In a broken down society, the most ruthless prevail if people aren't careful

You'd think that this would make a great monster movie.  A movie was made, but it's terrible.  The problems were many, but the biggest mistake was coming up with a magic solution to kill all the triffids; in the book, it's not magic, but hard work, and there's a long way to go.  In addition, the darkness of the broken down society is shunted to the far background in place of standard "fight the menace" scenes that have very little excitement.  There have also been two better-received TV miniseries, though they are not well known in the US.

John Wyndham Wyndham continued in this vein for most of his writing career,  His next novel, The Kraken Wakes,*** is nearly as good. In it, there's an alien invasion that no one realizes -- because it takes part in the deepest parts of the ocean.  And the aliens start to make over Earth so it's all deep ocean.

There's also his The Midwich Cuckoos, where all the women in a village all become pregnant one day, only to give birth to silver-eyed children who develop psychic powers.  The book was filmed as Village of the Damned, and is a minor classic of 50s horror.

But Wyndham's most terrifying creating never gained widespread popularity in popular culture.  It's too bad, since there's clearly a space for a great horror film from the book.

*Another one was Gregory Macdonld's Fletch, a book whose cover listed the first few paragraphs of the novel, with the assumption that you'd read that and be hook.  And you were.  It was a tight little mystery thriller.  Hollywood made it into a soggy comedy with Chevy Chase as his most self-indulgent. 

**Masin's eye injury was caused by a few drops of triffid venom, an irony that is noted.

***Retitled in the US to the far less imaginative Out of the Deeps.