Sunday, February 22, 2015


Directed by
Mike Nichols
Written by Jim Harrison, Wesley Strick
Starring Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, James Spader,
Christopher Plummer, Kate Nelligan
IMDB Entry

Of the classic movie monsters, the werewolf is probably the worst served. The problem is the setup:  the man/animal dichotomy is great, but it only happens in a full moon, unlike, say Cat PeopleWolf succeeds nicely because it moves away from the literal man/wolf but also uses it as a metaphor.

Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) is an editor of a publishing house* who is bitten by a wolf after hitting it in his car.  But that’s the least of his worries.  The business has been bought out by Raymond Alden (Christopher Plummer), who ruthlessly starts making changes to make it more profitable,** including demoting Will and replacing him with Stewart Swinton (James Spader).  Angry, Will is further enraged when he picks up Stewart’s scent on his wife’s (Kate Nelligan) clothing, knowing she is having an affair with him.  He goes to confront Stewart, and ends up biting him.  Will becomes more and more wolflike, being helped out by Adler’s daughter,  Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer).

But the change also helps out Will, who starts being more cutthroat and aggressive, winning his job back and getting Stewart fired.***  But being a wolf also has its drawbacks, especially when there’s another one around.

This is the type of role in which Nicholson excels:  over-the-top but not entirely crazy, and he plays it well.  He had been wanting to make a movie of the script for years, since Jim Harrison was a friend of his. Nicholson’s background in horror also serves him well.

Spader, of course, makes a creepy bad guy, and Pfeiffer was good as usual.

The movie got mixed reviews, mostly because it’s a mixed movie.  It tries to be arty, which turned off the horror movie crowd, and a horror film, which didn’t appeal to the arty crowd.  It also plays with the tropes of the werewolves in unexpected way. 

Despite its flaws, the movie overall is something to check out.

*Since Columbia didn’t own a publishing business at the time, the went to science fiction/fantasy publisher Tor Books to supply the books needed to dress the set.  Sharp-eyed viewers can spot several volumes of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, as well as other SF/fantasy authors.

**Since I have some knowledge of the publishing business, I can say that this is harder to believe than believing in werewolves.  Book publishing even in 1994 was not that lucrative.

***Leading to this memorable scene:

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Cabin in the Sky

Cabin in the skyDirected by
Vincente Minnelli
Written by Joseph Schrank, based on the musical by Lynn Root, music by Vernon Duke
Starring Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Lena Horne, Kenneth Spencer, Rex Ingram, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington.
IMDB Entry.

Cabin in the Sky was a daring movie when it was released in 1943:  a film in 1943 with an all-Black cast.  While it wasn’t the first time this happened,* but the studios ran the risk that theaters in the South would not show it, and, though the movie may have some things that seem stereotyped today, it was a major step forward in its time – and an entertaining movie to boot.

It’s the story of Little Joe (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) and inveterate gambler who is married to the long-suffering Petunia (Ethel Waters).  Joe is shot over his gambling debts but, when he gets to heaven, the General (Kenneth Spencer) gives him another chance:  six months to straighten up his act.**  However, Lucifer, Jr. (Rex Ingram) has other plans, and sends Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) to tempt him.

The film employed just about every Black actor in Hollywood.  Though the characters were comic, they were not caricatures, and the casual racism of the time was toned down.  The script overall is witty with an studied attempt to avoid condescension and all of the human characters are portrayed a real human beings. 

Eddie “Rochester” Anderson was probably the most successful black actor of his era, primarily because of his role on the Jack Benny Show.***  He is good as Joe, and manages to be tempted without being a buffoon.

Ethel Waters gets one of her best roles here.  Her Petunia is a wonderfully sympathetic character and, of course, a great singer. 

And Lena Horne was terrific.  This was her first important acting role**** and she lights up the screen.  Her Georgia is playful, sexy, and the perfect seductress, something that probably bothered a lot of the white supremacists of the time.

This was director Vincente Minnelli’s first film.  Minnelli (Liza’s dad) made a specialty of musicals, and in this case he wanted to be respectful of the people involved.  Much of the original Vernon Duke score was removed in favor of songs by The Wizard of Oz’s Arlen and Harburg. 

The movie manages to retain its entertainment value, and is one of the few films of the era with African-Americans can be seen without wanting to cringe for them.

*The Green Pastures – not a musical, with some of the same themes (its screenwriter helped with the screenplay)  – came out in 1936 (with some of the same cast) and it’s always risky to call any movie a “first.”

**This was a common fantasy theme of the time:  people being killed but getting a second chance.  It probably had a lot to do with the fact that so many Americans were dying in the war.

***One thing about the character is that Rochester often got the better of Benny and spent much of the time ridiculing Benny’s ego.  In a time when that sort of behavior could get you lynched, it was an important milestone.

****She had appeared as a singer in two earlier films.  Ethel Waters took a dislike to her, feeling her character was not behaving like a lady.  Waters also was miffed when publicity for the movie featured Horne very prominently, even though Waters was billed above her.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Wild Thing (music, comedy)

by “Senator Bobby”/”Senator Everett McKinley” (Bill Minkin)
Wikipedia Entry

In the 60s, music still had a novelty side.  You could have a hit with a song that was purely humorous, and even if it wasn’t a song (more on that later).  And “Senator Bobby” had one with his version of “Wild Thing.”

First, a little background.  The song “Wild Thing” was a number one hit by the UK group the Troggs in 1966.  It has a catchy but heavy guitar riff behind it with a growling vocals filled with sex and menace. 

And, in 1967, Senator Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen had a surprise hit single (#16) with “Gallant Men,” a spoken word recording praising the military, a hawk’s ideal in the Vietnam era.*  That album including it won Dirksen a Grammy Award for best spoken word album.

That’s where comedian Bill Minkin came in.  He had the brilliant idea of using Dirksen’s dramatic voice to use the “let’s get sexy” lyrics of “Wild Thing,” with the nom de comedy of Senator Everett McKinley.

Of course, records needed to have two sides, so Minkin did the same thing with a more liberal senator:  Robert F. Kennedy.  Internal evidence indicates that this was supposed to be the B-Side of the record, but it was released as the A-side.  Recorded as by “Senator Bobby and the Hardly-Worthit Players,” the song reach #20.**

The Dirksen parody was not neglected, though.

(Sounds a little like Elvis, doesn’t he?)

Both songs are a bit dated, if only because of the references to political figures of the time, and the Kennedy family. 

I would also guess that the assassination of RFK put a damper on it being played, though by then the song was old news, so it didn’t affect Minkin the way Vaught Meader was affected by JFK’s death.  Minkin became friends with Martin Scorsese, with bit parts in Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.  He also hosted The King Biscuit Flower Hour for 20 years.

*It made Dirksen the oldest person to have a top 40 hit until he was surpassed by Moms Mabley two and a half years later

**Though the Senator Bobby version was released as the A-side of the single, it’s clear that it was meant to be the B-side, which included the parody of Dirksen.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Canada Lee (actor)

Canada Lee(1907-1952)
Wikipedia Page
Boxing record
IMDB Entry
Internet Broadway Database Entry

Canada Lee led a remarkable life. In his heyday, he was second only the Paul Robson* as the best Black actor on Broadway.  But the blacklist and health problems cut Lee’s career short, and his insistence on only accepting roles where he was treated with dignity made it difficult for him to get movie roels.

Lee was born Leonard Lionel Cornelius Canegata in New York City.  He knew he wanted to make a lot of himself, and ran away at 14 to be a jockey.  While there were many Black jockeys in the 19th century, they were being squeezed out of the business by the time Lee got involved.  Still, by dint of hard work, he managed to get some mounts and win a handful of races in the New York circuit before he grew too big to get mounts.

That’s when Lee took up boxing.  He had a talent for that, too, and one day a ring announcer, cold reading the name “Canagata, Lee” from a card, billed him ad Canada Lee.  Lee used that name from then on.

Boxing in the early 30s was just as segregated as the rest of society.  After Jack Johnson won the heavyweight crown, white promoters shied away from matching Black boxers with white ones.**  Lee faced the same issues, having success against other Black opponents, but finding it hard to get matches against white ones. Still, he was able to make enough money in the ring to live a prosperous lifestyle – though he never learned how to manage money, and was also very generous with it.

But the boxing came to an end when in 1929 an opponent’s blow led to Lee going blind in one eye.  He kept the injury secret in order to keep fighting, but eventually he had to give up the ring. 

Lee had played the violin as a child with some proficiency, so decided that was his next career.  With the help of columnist Ed Sullivan, he opened a night club, but never was able to make any money at it.

By 1934, Lee was broke.  He realized that he would have to give up his dreams and take a job as a laborer.  He reluctantly headed to the employment office at the Harlem YMCA and stumbled upon his true calling.

A theater group was auditioning .  Lee, to postpone the inevitable, sat in just to watch  Someone asked him to come up and read for a part.  Surprised, Lee got up on stage and got the role.

Lee took to the stage easily.  After one performance, he noticed a young man in the back of the theater being threatened by a couple of men.  He came down and chased them away, to the lasting gratitude of the other, a young man from Kansas named Orson Welles.  Welles later cast Lee as Banquo in his groundbreaking all-Black version of the Scottish Play, which instilled in Lee a love for Shakespeare and classical theater.

Slowly Lee worked his way up, and he finally achieved Broadway stardom as Bigger Thomas in the stage adaptation of Native Son in 1941.*** The play reflected Lee’s penchant for social justice and better treatment for Blacks.  And he also did a lot of radio, his voice making him an ideal announcer and even a DJ.

Lee wanted to do a movie, but he was picky:  he had no interest in playing the sort of menial roles that Blacks were stereotyped in.  Finally, in 1944, he found a role he felt was a good one:  Joe in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat.  He had to fight to avoid stereotyping even then (the script was changed after he signed on), and racism on the set, but it’s probably his most visible role today.  Even that was an issue: some publicity photos had Lee cropped out.

Lee in LifeboatHe returned to Broadway and continued his success, playing Caliban in The Tempest, and Daniel de Bosola in The Duchess of Malfi.  The latter was a milestone:  the first time a Black actor played a role that had previously only been cast for whites.  Even so, he had to wear special makeup to give him Caucasian skin tones.

Around this time, Lee started getting into trouble.  Always an activist, he often found himself at events where the Communist Party was involved.  The postwar Red Scare was coming into to play, and with it, the blacklist, and Lee was friendly with too many so-called “subversives” to miss notice.  His name appeared on a list of suspected Communists, and from then on, he had trouble finding work.****

Lee traveled to Europe and South Africa to appear in a film version of Cry the Beloved Country.  He continued to speak out against racism, and was particularly outspoken about what he saw under Apartheid.*****  

His health was failing.  He had high blood pressure, probably exacerbated by his worries over the Blacklist.  He recovered a bit in Europe, but returned to the US to promote the film.  There he found he couldn’t get work, and he was not allowed to leave the country.  Desperate and nearly broke, he died in 1952.******

Lee led a fascinating life, and I’m sure there is ample material for a movie about him.  There is a biography, Becoming Something:  The Story of Canada Lee by Mona Z. Smith.  I definitely recommend it to see a pioneer of Broadway who has been lost to time.

*Their careers had certain parallels:  both started out as athletes (Robeson was an all-American football player and considered among the best of his era), both went into acting, both had a strong social conscience, and both had their careers cut short by the Blacklist.

**Harry Wills was the #1 challenger for the heavyweight crown in the 20s, but was never given a title shot.  Jack Dempsey seemed willing, but the bout never came off.

***Also directed by Welles.

****His former friend Ed Sullivan was particularly vehement, ignoring a letter from Lee asking for help clearing his name and constantly reporting rumors of his subversion.

*****Lee himself was treated well, but he saw plenty of examples about how South African Blacks were treated, which was worse than anything Lee had seen in the US.

******He is occasionally cited as being killed by the Blacklist.  While it certainly exacerbated his problem, the high blood pressure did seem to run in his family.