Posted in Movie Reviews

The Dark Medium

Remembering Andy Griffith and his incredible performance in 1957’s “A Face in the Crowd” reminds us that once upon a time social issues played a major role in popular entertainment. The result wasn’t always successful in terms of dollars and cents, but more often than not it satisfied on many levels. “A Face in the Crowd”, directed by Elia Kazan, from a script by Budd Schulberg, sounded an early alarm about the dangers of television image-making. Almost twenty years later came a more successful film offering a variation on that theme, Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network”, directed by Sidney Lumet. However, the engines that make these vehicles go are very different. One shows a man-made monster; the other says the audience has made itself the monster by its own willful ignorance.

Cracker Barrel Wisdom, Pre-Implosion

Budd Schulberg’s screenplay, based on his novella “Your Arkansas Traveler”, is the story of a demagogue who buys and sells love through what was then called the “boob tube”. Discovered by a local radio producer, Marcia Jeffries, who in essence creates him—she dubs him “Lonesome” Rhodes (his real name is Larry) and nurtures his folksy on-air persona—he calculatingly woos the housewives in his audience, moving on to a larger radio station and then making the significant jump to television. Lonesome may play the hayseed, but he’s a cunning sharpie. Behind the scenes he’s a user who dumps his first manager, but on camera he’s everybody’s friend, every mother’s loveable, rascally son, and every girl’s dream. While he entertains by taking on the stuffed shirts, we see what television has enabled him to do. He’s in his audience’s living rooms, in their faces and making it impossible for them to deny him. And Lonesome Rhodes plays that for all it’s worth, craving and receiving love and trust from his viewers.

But Rhodes turns ratings into political power when his t.v. sponsor, a would-be kingmaker, seeks his help in coaching a reactionary senator into the White House. His variety show isn’t a big enough platform—he demands a bully pulpit, a second show called “Lonesome Rhodes’s Cracker Barrel”. This section of the film is chilling–Lonesome’s authority is evident in every move, from the way he gently chides Senator Fuller on the air for using a five-buck word like “obsession” and even more, when he turns to the camera, grinning in self-congratulation, when Fuller re-phrases with slang. And the conclusion of “Cracker Barrel” is classic—Lonesome piously reminding his audience that “The family that prays together, stays together” and ending with a rendition of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”.

As the “demagogue in denim” brought to earth, Andy Griffith deserves all the praise he’s received. He’s matched (and then some) by Patricia Neal as his long-suffering discoverer, Marcia Jeffries. Her scenes cut close to the bone—her dealings with Rhodes’s estranged wife (the wonderful Kay Medford), her humiliating retreat at the airport upon learning of Lonesome’s marriage to the baton-twirling Betty Lou, followed by her self-disgust when she demands a large financial share in Lonesome Rhodes, Inc. The rest of the cast is amazing—Lee Remick, in her first film, as Betty Lou; Anthony Franciosa as that shark, Joey DePalma; Paul McGrath as the ad man, Macey; and a bookishly attractive Walter Matthau in the almost thankless role of Mel Miller (“Vanderbilt ’44”), Schulberg’s mouthpiece. How refreshing to see brains at work in a movie.

“A Face in the Crowd” blames ego run amok for the creation of Lonesome Rhodes. “Network”, on the other hand, blames the audience’s indifference for creating dumbed-down television. Paddy Chayefsky starts us off with a bland, over-the-hill news anchor named Howard Beale (Peter Finch) who’s about to be yanked off the air for poor ratings. His parting shot, an on-camera threat to commit suicide, makes him a hot ticket overnight. His growing derangement (he hears a voice asking him to deliver a message on-air “because you’re on television, dummy”) and subsequent on-camera rants (the classic “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” speech) play right into the ambitions of Diana Christensen, the new head of network programming (Faye Dunaway).  She creates a news hour featuring sideshow attractions which in 1975 seemed laughable, but have since become all-too real—“Sybil the Soothsayer”, “It’s the Emmes Truth Department” and  “Miss Mata Hari and Her Skeletons in the Closet”, all presided over by that Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, Howard Beale:

“Network”, while as prescient as “A Face in the Crowd”, is a very different experience. In the first place, it’s funny as hell. People screaming out of windows in response to Howard Beale’s rant against indifference (“First you’ve got to get mad!”), Diana Christensen in cahoots with an Angela Davis-type to create “The Mao Tse Tung Hour” and the resulting haggling over residuals with the Great Ahmed Khan (was it an inside joke that Kathy Cronkite, Walter’s daughter, was cast as the Patty Hearst character?). But the film takes a more serious turn when we meet the head of the corporation that owns the network, Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty). I suspect it was no accident that in this film, with his build and the mustache he sports, Beatty comes across as a dead ringer for Teddy Roosevelt. Despite his cuddly appearance, Jensen relays a chilling message—while we’ve been sopping up the bread and circuses offered by mindless entertainment, we’ve lost our individuality, our souls and our country. When Howard Beale asks why he’s been selected to give this testimony on air, we come full circle with Jensen’s perfectly timed response: “Because you’re on television, dummy”.

Two great films, both of which are–scarily– more relevant now than ever.

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Posted in Music

In Praise of 50’s Pop

If you’re fond of sand dunes, and salty air
Quaint little villages, here and there
You’re sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod…

True confessions time again. Are you ready? I totally adore 50’s pop. I could say it’s my guilty pleasure, only I don’t feel guilty in the slightest. Keep in mind I’m talking pop here—not rock ‘n roll, much as I love 50’s oldies. This is Hit Parade stuff—the Tony Bennett–June Christy–Tony Martin–Peggy Lee–Patti Page (she of the aforementioned overdubbed “Old Cape Cod”)–Rosemary Clooney–Perry Como–Johnny Desmond variety. And a bit later, Bobby Darin, Johnny Mathis and Sarah Vaughn. And let’s not forget the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra, who, though he sang his best in the 50’s, is really timeless.

I can hear the groans now. Too boring. The age of Pat Boone. I’ll grant you Boone, but there were so many others who were incredibly engaging. Exhibit A: Les Paul and Mary Ford. No one took better advantage of all that was made possible by developments in sound and production, and Les Paul continued to push the outside of that envelope his entire career. Aside from his innovative recording techniques and guitar designs, the man was one hell of a musician who influenced jazz, pop and rock for decades to come.

50’s pop just adored drama with a capital D. You find it over and over again—Miss Toni Fisher singing “The Big Hurt”, which introduced phasing as a recording technique (in this case achieved by pressing on the tape head) and Her Nibs, Miss Georgia Gibbs, ramping it up with “Kiss of Fire.” Drama! Tangos! Paso dobles! And it wasn’t just the ladies. Has anyone ever topped Frankie Laine?

This was the heyday of top-notch arrangers like Nelson Riddle, Billy May and Axel Stordahl, all of whom were served by great studio musicians and backup singers who in most cases sight-read these charts in the recording booth. One of the best examples of session-day virtuosity is Jane Morgan’s “The Day the Rains Came”. By the way, if the lyrics sound like the Farmer’s Almanac, it’s probably because of a misguided translation of the original Gilbert Bécaud song (If you think this is bad, try a literal translation of Charles Trenet’s “La Mer”. Bobby Darin’s version, “Beyond the Sea”, actually did us all a favor). I love the blowsy French horns and trombones at the start of the number and the tremendous string arrangement that follows, but there’s even better to come. Listen closely to the bridge, beginning with “A robin sang a song of love…”. That’s some wicked harmony, topped by a soprano descant that shadows Jane Morgan’s voice into the next A section of the song. It’s the musical equivalent of backlighting. Then it’s all stops out for the backup singers leading into the finale, “ooohing” and “aahing” for all they’re worth. A terrific job all around.

A number of the best ’50’s singers were veterans of the Big Band Era who had learned their trade through exhausting tours and one-night stands, but most of all, by performing with some great musicians. Jo Stafford, who along with Frank Sinatra had sung with Tommy Dorsey’s band, was one of the best. In addition to having perfect pitch, her breath control was astonishing. Listen to “Symphony” or better yet, “The Nearness of You”, in which she carries the bridge of the song directly into the final A section in one breath (“…come true/I need no soft lights to enchant me…”). Her filmed performances are rare, but I really like this one because the song is one of my favorites—Rodgers & Hammerstein being unusually sophisticated, from their show “Allegro”:

I can’t end this post without mentioning the many groups that proliferated during the ’50’s—The Four Freshman, The Four Aces, The Ames Brothers, The Crew Cuts, among a multitude of others (A recent play, “Forever Plaid”, is a fond tribute and send-up of these performers and their music, not to mention their clothes). But the best of these, by far, was The Hi-Lo’s, who were in another league entirely. Blessed with four great voices, a distinctive top to their sound supplied by Clark Burroughs and stupendous arrangements by Gene Puerling, their recordings remain as fresh as ever. Just for starters, listen to “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?”

The longer this post gets, the more 50’s tunes I remember. I could go on and on like the Energizer Bunny. But I’ll leave you with one final goodie for now. Did you know that Dean Martin could really sing? Not drunk-sing, not “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime” sing. If your only knowledge of the man is derived from the Rat Pack jokester, you’re in for a shock. Lend your ears to“Sway”.

Next time, all. Come on-a my house!

Posted in Baseball, Books, Movie Reviews, Music

Brain Bits on a Summer Sunday

Urban Shocker (Photo by Charles Conlon)

We’re in the midst of our second heat wave of this still-young summer, but the iced tea is flowing and the baseball is plentiful. It’s a great time to delve into a wonderful new book, “The Big Show: Charles M. Conlon’s Golden Age Baseball Photographs” by Neal McCabe and Constance McCabe. Conlon was a newspaper printer and proofreader whose photography yielded some of the most memorable baseball images ever created. Not just that iconic photo of Ty Cobb sliding into third, dirt spraying from his spikes, that we’ve all seen, but portraits and action poses of the famous and the forgotten—and in many cases, the “never wases”. As you turn the pages, you’re constantly reminded of Norma Desmond’s line in “Sunset Boulevard”—“We had faces then!”—and these players surely did. Neal McCabe, baseball historian, supplies the accompanying text discussing each player’s career and personality; his sister Constance, head of the Photograph Conservation Department at the National Gallery of Art, saw to the arresting appearance of these images in printed form. Covering the years from the turn of the century to the early 1940’s, “The Big Show” reminds us how hard baseball life used to be. Many of the players Conlon photographed lasted only a season or two in the majors before blowing their arms out, ruining themselves with booze, or just turning out to be one-note wonders. Although a surprising number of these players were college men, for the majority this was still a time when their baseball pay was awful and an off-season job, no matter how dangerous, was essential to feed themselves and their families. In an age of multi-year, multimillion dollar contracts, it’s good to remember how things once were. Whether as baseball history or photography collection, “The Big Show” is a wonderful experience—I can’t recommend it more highly.

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Gentleman’s Agreement

I treated myself to a 20th Century Fox Studio Classics multi-pack from my local Costco this week in order to enjoy several films I hadn’t seen in a very long time—“Gentleman’s Agreement”, “Anastasia”, “The Ox-Bow Incident” and “The Snake Pit”. I’ve already revisited the first two and they’re both still worth watching.

“Gentleman’s Agreement”, based on the novel by Laura Z. Hobson, was one of the great message movies of the 1940’s. It won Oscars in 1947 for Best Picture, Director (Elia Kazan) and Supporting Actress (Celeste Holm), yet the mechanism by which the plot turned (journalist Gregory Peck masquerades as a Jew for eight weeks to expose antisemitism) makes the story creak. Nevertheless, despite the Nuremberg Trials and the death camps, it was the one non-Jewish studio boss, Darryl Zanuck, who insisted on making the picture.  Yes, it’s preachy as all get-out, but there’s a surprising amount of meat on those bones. John Garfield can’t be better as Gregory Peck’s boyhood friend, who finds himself on the verge of losing the civilian job of a lifetime because restricted housing makes it impossible for him to relocate. The restaurant scene where he’s insulted by a drunk (“I can’t stand officers…’specially when they’re Yids”) brings some welcome heat to the film, as does the classic sequence at the oh-so tony Flume Inn, where Peck, confronting the resort’s manager, demands to know whether the place is restricted. June Havoc absolutely knocks it out of the park as Peck’s secretary, Miss Wales, the former Estelle Wilensky, who pridefully passes herself off as a WASP.  While Dorothy McGuire has the thankless job of playing Peck’s continually preached-to fiancée, Jane Wyatt fortunately gets the leeway to give a wonderfully subtle performance as her politely bigoted sister.  It’s fun to see some vintage New York location shots, accompanied by Alfred Newman’s “Street Scene” theme, and to recognize a young Gene Nelson, sans tap shoes, as the antisemitic drunk’s pal. For the fashion-conscious, the New Look is in full bloom here—Celeste Holm wears the most alarming shoulder pads I’ve ever seen in my life (check the photo). And the manners! People were polite in 1947. They actually addressed each other as  “Mr.” and “Miss”. All the time! At present, when every phone solicitor and 10-year-old routinely first-names even the oldest senior citizens, this alone makes “Gentleman’s Agreement” refreshing indeed.

“Anastasia” is still the height of movie romance, even after the discovery of Romanov remains and the discrediting of Anna Anderson as the surviving Grand Duchess. A woman who doesn’t know who she is is rescued by a shady bunch of White Russians eager to find someone whom they can pass off as the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II in order to obtain a piece of the £10 million Romanov inheritance. While Anna Anderson is the springboard of the story, the liveliest aspects of the film are pure invention—Yul Brynner’s commanding Bounine; Akim Tamiroff and Sacha Pitoeff as his committee of “investors”; and Martita Hunt as the giddy lady-in-waiting, Baroness von Livenbaum. I had forgotten that Arthur Laurents did the script, based on a play by Marcelle Maurette; only he could have written one of the best put-downs in screen history, when the Dowager Empress (wonderfully played by Helen Hayes) rebukes her lady-in-waiting’s too-obvious fancy of Bounine with “Livenbaum, at your age sex should mean nothing more than gender.” But this is Ingrid Bergman’s show (her performance won the 1956 Best Actress Oscar), and she brilliantly plays the ambiguity of her character’s identity. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an actor display a mix of emotions as convincingly as she does when she ends this scene with “And I’m the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nicolaevna!”

Unfortunately, “Gentleman’s Agreement” does not have a commentary track. But the “Anastasia” DVD does, and it’s terrific— Arthur Laurents; James MacArthur; John Burlingame on Alfred Newman’s wonderful score and the source music in the film; and Sylvia Stoddard on Anna Anderson, Romanov history and the production of the movie. One thing to keep in mind: the commentary was apparently recorded between the discovery of the first and second graves containing the remains of the Tsar’s family. Since then DNA testing has accounted for all four Grand Duchesses, the Tsarevich and their parents. Somehow, though, the world seems poorer with this bit of romance gone and the mystery solved.