Monday, January 27, 2014

John B. Sebastian (music/album)

John B. Sebastian (MGM version)(1970)
  John Sebastian (vocals, guitar, harmonica, piano, percussion), Stephen Stills (guitar, harmony vocals). David Crosby(guitar, harmony vocals ), Graham Nash (harmony Reprise editionvocals), Dallas Taylor (drums), Buddy Emmons (pedal steel guitar, Moog synthesizer), Paul Harris (keyboards), Ray Neopolitan (bass),
Danny Weis (guitar), The Ikettes (background vocal), Buzzy Linhart (vibraphone)
Wikpedia Entry

John Sebastian was the guiding force and primary songwriter for the Lovin’ Spoonful*.  Of course, few groups can remain together over the long run, and Sebastian quit the group in 1968 to go solo.  His first solo album, John B. Sebastian is a classic effort, whose success was deliberately hampered by, not his record company, but a record company he had nothing to do with.

The story is complex.  The Lovin’ Spoonful recorded for Kama Sutra Records, which was distributed by MGM.  Sebastian recorded the album for Kama Sutra, too, but before it was released Kama Sutra ended their agreement with MGM by the simple expedient of disbanding and forming Buddah Records.  MGM was not happy.

Sebastian didn’t pay much attention to this as he  gathered a bunch of his old music friends for his first solo record.  After the album was recorded, a single, “She’s a Lady” was released, but did poorly.  Then MGM made a decision that, since Kama Sutra was no more, they’d be releasing the album on their label.  No big deal – except that the insisted it be released as a Lovin’ Spoonful album and insisted that this was to fulfill their contract with the group.

Sebastian balked.  He wasn’t a member of the Lovin’ Spoonful (which had gone on unsuccessfully without him), so didn’t feel obligated to stick to their contract.  Also, the contract was with Kama Sutra, not MGM, so Sebastian felt there was no obligation in any case.  So he went to Reprise Records, who were more than happy to sign him, especially since he was a big hit at Woodstock.

MGM still insisted they owned the album, but in early 1970 – a year late – Reprise was able to get the master tapes and the rights to release it.  Shortly afterwards, MGM released it, too, claiming again that the Lovin’ Spoonful owed them an album, and that, since they had released the single, they could release the album, so there.

Reprise sued and the MGM version was taken off the shelves.**  But not before they also released John Sebastian Live, which they were forced to withdraw.

But with all this, what about the actual album?  It’s some of Sebastian’s best work.  “Red-Eye Express” is a fun opener, and “She’s a Lady” is a fine ballad.  There are also such gems as “You’re a Big Boy Now,”*** “Rainbows All Over Your Blues,” and several others.

The musicians involved were budding stars, most notably Crosby, Stills, and Nash before they became Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

The album a moderate success, reaching #20 on the charts, but not a major hit.  Sebastian continued to record, but never became a major solo star; his biggest hit was the number one hit “Welcome Back” in 1976. And he stuck it to MGM when he named his live album “Cheapo Cheapo Productions Present Real Live John Sebastian.” (The phrase “Cheapo Cheapo Productions” was one of Sebastian’s comments on the MGM live album).

In any case, once you cut through the legal nonsense, John B. Sebastian is an excellent album, an advance on what he was doing with the Spoonful, but still maintaining a similar joyous feel.

*I’ve realized I’ve been writing a lot about the Lovin’ Spoonful and its members lately. 

**Not until after my brother bought it, and eventually gave it to me.

***Also recorded with the Spoonful.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Paper Lion

Paper Lion (book)(Book: 1966, Film 1968)
Book written by
George Plimpton
Movie directed by Alex March
Screenplay by Lawrence Roman, based on the novel
Starring Alan Alda, Lauren Hutton, Joe Schmidt, Alex Karras, John Gordy, Mike Lucci, Pat Studstill. Vince Lombardi
IMDB Entry.

George Plimpton would seem an unlikely person to have a best seller about sports.  He was a Harvard and Cambridge educated intellectual, and editor in chief of The Paris Review, a well-regarded literary journal.  But he did love sports, and in 1958 came up with the idea that made his fame: showing how a regular person (Plimpton himself) would fare against professional athletes.

He started in 1958, facing a series of National League batters in an exhibition game.  He fared poorly (he tired badly and had to be relieved) but wrote a successful book about the experience called Out of My League.  His next role was to box against Archie Moore and Sugar Ray Robinson.  But his biggest success was when he managed to make his way onto the exhibition season* roster of the Detroit Lions in 1963.

Plimpton’s background was supposed to be kept secret; he was the team’s new third-string quarterback, a rookie from Harvard who was trying to make the team.  The players, however, began to be suspicious as training camp progressed. 

The book not only covers Plimpton’s trials as a regular person trying to play with the pros, but lists anecdotes about the training camp and the other players.  Many stories involve defensive tackle Alex Karras, who wasn’t even in camp at the time.**

Plimpton got his chance to play in a team scrimmage,*** where he lost yardage on every play.  There was a plan to play him in an exhibition game, but Commissioner Peter Rozelle refused to let him.

Plimpton wrote up his experiences in articles in Sports Illustrated in 1964, and in 1966, they were expanded into a book.  It was a best seller.

And, like most best sellers, Hollywood decided to make it into the movie. To star, they picked an obscure actor best known for being the son of a big Broadway star.****  This was Alan Alda’s first major movie role and he certainly looked enough like Plimpton.  The film also had Lauren Hutton as his girlfriend (her first movie role).  And director Alex March had the idea of using actual football players as the members of the Lions, led by Alex Karras.

Plimpton is warnedThe movie took liberties on the book (and gleefully admitted to it).  Karras, of course, was in the camp, and Alda’s Plimpton actually played in an exhibition game.  It was otherwise a nice movie version of the book.

Alda’s career stalled for several years after the film (though he won a Golden Globe as Best Newcomer), but he eventually became a TV icon.  Hutton carved out a long career.  But probably the most surprising success at the time was Alex Karras, who, when he retired, became a successful actor in TV and movies like Blazing Saddles and Victor/Victoria. 

Director Alex March was a TV veteran, and continued to work on the small screen, with only one other movie to his credit.

Plimpton continued trying out other sports, most notably in
The Bogey Man, where he went on the PGA tour.  He also had a minor acting career, claimed the title of “Fireworks Commissioner of New York City,” and tended to pop up as one of the few intellectuals that the general public liked to see.  He died in 2003.

*As they called it at the time.

**He had been suspended for betting on games.

***Wearing the number “0.”

****Robert Alda, who created the role of Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Special Notice: Staroamer's Fate -- win a free copy! is excerpting my novel, Staroamer's Fate this week. Read the excerpt and then comment.  Two commenters -- one from the US and one from outside the US -- will win a copy of the book.

If you like science fiction space opera, give it a look.

Contest ends Saturday, January 26, so hurry!  (You must register for the site to comment.  It's free!)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Charles Lane (actor)

Charles Lane(1905-2007)
IMDB Entry

Charles Lane was the king of the bit players.  It wasn’t until late in life that he had a role he could be identified with, but from the 30s to the 60s he was one of the busiest names in Hollywood:  he appeared in 10 films in 1939 alone.

Lane was born in San Francisco and started out as an insurance salesman.  But the stage beckoned.  Lane made an impression and started appearing in films in 1931.  He became a reliable actor for bit parts; many of his early work only required one or two lines. 

Lane’s appearance stood him in good stead.  Even when young, he had a hawklike profile and a scowl and facial shape that made him stand out. His voice was distinctive – an unforgettable gravelly snarl.  You can often pick out his early appearances by his voice alone. 

He worked hard.  He has talked about how he would sometimes show up in the morning on the set for one movie, say his one line, then go to another studio in the afternoon to do the same thing. 

Some of the classic films he appeared in include 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Twentieth Century, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Nothing Sacred, You Can’t Take it With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ball of Fire, and It’s a Wonderful Life.*

Lane usually played crotchety characters, and when TV came into play, he moved over seamlessly. Whenever someone needed a crusty authority figure to be exasperated by the show’s star, Lane would get the part.  He appeared in most comedies of the 60s, the first person producers called when they needed a curmudgeon.

It wasn’t until 1963 that he got an identifiable role as Homer Bedloe in Petticoat Junction.  Bedloe was always trying to shut down the Cannonball and made a wonderful foil – gruff and sarcastic and always thwarted.  In real life, though, Lane was known to be just the opposite as his sourpuss screen presence – which makes sense; you don’t get that many roles if people don’t like you. 

Off-screen, he was one of the founders of the Screen Actors Guild.

Lane stopped getting roles when he reached his 90s (though even at age 100, he announced he was still available, and his last screen credit -- narrating a short film – was in 2006).  He died at age 102, leaving behind over three times that number of performances to savor.

*As one of Potter’s yes men.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Blue Water, White Death

Directed by
Peter Gimbel, James Lipscomb
Writer Peter Gimbel
Starring Tom Chapin, Phil Clarkson, Stuart Cody, Peter Lake, Peter Gimbel, James Lipscomb
IMDB Entry

Sharks! People are fascinated by them these days, so much so that the Discovery Channel can get high ratings by running a yearly “shark week” of shows about them.  People trace this back to Jaws, which certainly made sharks into a terror even to people who were a long way from any ocean.  But before Jaws, the movie that brought the shark to the theater was Blue Water, White Death.

The film was a documentary, showing the attempts by a crew of marine biologists trying to get footage of the great white shark in action for the first time.  They travel to South Africa and work to get the shots.

The technique probably gives current-day conservationists the chills:  they follow whaling ships and, when a whale is killed, they go into the bloody water to shoot the feeding frenzy.

The pace of the movie is slow – deliberately so.  It’s not supposed to be nonstop shark action; the process of finding the sharks is shown in detail, and the journey takes eight months before the great white is found. We spend a lot of time with the shark hunters as they talk about what it is like facing a shark.

Some of the ideas seemed extremely foolhardy at the time, when the habits of the great white were not well known.  For instance, they decide at one point to get out of the shark cage and shoot unprotected in the middle of a feeding frenzy.

The footage was sensational for its time and still holds the power to fascinate.  Steven Spielberg must have liked it:  he hired some of the crew to set up the shark effects on Jaws.*

The most successful entertainer in the film was Tom Chapin, who was a part of the surface crew.  Tom was the brother of Harry Chapin and has had a Grammy-winning career as a performer of children’s music. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Strange Case of the End of Civilization As We Know It (TV)

Strange Case(1977)
Directed by
Joseph McGrath
Written by  John Cleese, Jack Hobbs, Joseph McGrath; Original idea by Hobbs and McGrath
Starring John Cleese, Arthur Lowe, Ron Moody, Connie Booth, Denholm Elliott, Stratford Johns
IMDB Entry
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is sensational with its reimagining of Holmes in the modern day.  This isn’t the first, of course – Basil Rathbone had modern day adventures in the 40s, but had little critical favor.  And, in 1977, an obscure BBC film also showed a present-day Holmes – to comic effect.
The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It, was a short TV film with John Cleese as Holmes’s grandson, brought in for a case where the great detectives of the world are being killed off, as a plot by Moriarty to end Civilization as We Know It.

The film had a lot of things going for it.  There’s Cleese as Holmes, of course, as well as Arthur Lowe’s Watson.  Watson is often portrayed as being a little bit slow on the uptake (though not recently), and Lowe is by far the slowest.  Every one of Holmes’s comments – no matter how mundane -- were greeted by comments about  how clever Holmes was.
Despite some great moments, though, the film is uneven and wears badly.  There was a ton of topical humor, and many of the references are pretty obscure today.  Even worse, the direction is deadly slow.  The jokes are funny (if a bit broad), but there’s too much waiting between things.
Still, there’s plenty of funny moments.  My favorite is when Watson reads off crossword puzzle clues to Holmes (read them aloud if you don’t get the joke):
Watson: 1 Across. A simple source of citrus fruit, 1, 5, 4.
Holmes: A lemon tree, my dear Watson.
Watson: 2 Down. Conservative pays ex-wife maintenance. 7, 5.
Holmes: Alimony...alimony Tory, my dear Watson.
Watson: 2 Down. Southern California style. 1, 2, 8.
Holmes: A la Monterrey, my dear Watson.
Watson: 4 Down. Burglar's entrance
Holmes: Alarm entry, my dear Watson
Watson: That's rather poor, isn't it, Holmes? Right. One to go. A cowardly fish with a sting in its tail.
Holmes: Yellow manta ray, my dear Watson
Watson: Brilliant, Holmes
The show appeared once or twice in the US and UK, and then was quickly forgotten.  It’s certainly not genius on the level of Monty Python or Fawlty Towers, but it’s a very funny sidelight to the careers of the Pythons.