Thursday, August 21, 2014

LIVE FROM SPAIN...IT'S ORSON WELLES

Blogging from European airports is always a delight, for reasons that I've never fully been able to pin down. Perhaps it's the combination of the remoteness of the on-line world with the remoteness of a foreign airport, the mid-journey lost-ness of it all, that sends me into weirdly euphoric states such as the one I'm in now. That, plus the eleven AM glass of Chardonnay which I've liberally helped myself too, courtesy of the Marco Polo lounge at Marco Polo airport, Venice, Italy.

Speaking of which: here is wonderful little film that I recently ran across on the now by-now indispensable Youtube. It's basically a pitch reel by Orson Welles shot in Spain (where he then lived) sometime in the 1960s (I think mid-decade, based on Welles weight). In it, he tells a group of unidentified people about a film he wants to make, concerning bullfighting and an aging filmmaker. It sounds like an early sketch of "The Other Side Of The Wind" except for the bullfighting stuff--Jake Hanneford, played by John Huston in OSOTW, is clearly being tried out here as a character Welles is interested in developing.

Welles describes to the seemingly agreeable (although perhaps slightly perplexed) audience the new method that he wants to deploy in making the film. Essentially: he wants to script a story but not share the script with actors. Instead he'll tell them each scene as they come to it and get them to improvise and respond realistically to each other within the framework of the scene that Welles has in mind. It's a very new-wave kind of idea, one that alas shows both Welles strengths and weaknesses at the same time; for though it's a wonderfully innovative and unusual approach to making a narrative film, it's also the kind of thing one doesn't necessarily lead with in a pitch. Indeed, one of the audience asks Welles if he isn't worried about this approach leading to "chaos". Welles brusquely assures the person that it will not, without explaining why it won't. The fact that the film never materialized perhaps can be accounted for by the very content of this pitch reel. Welles was never his own best salesman. Peter Bogdanovich once asked him why, with his considerable charm, he couldn't squeeze more money out of people. "I'm not a con-man," Welles replied, "I'm an escape artist!"

At this point in his career, Welles was scrambling for financing, a mission he would soon mostly abandon as he moved into self-financing his later works. Clearly this little reel didn't do the trick he'd hoped--was it ever shown to anyone? Who did he make this for? But it remains a wonderful look at the filmmaker as huckster, a genius coming up with yet another way to display his wares, hoping to generate enough excitement to once again practice his craft, as his road, never typical, grows rougher and rougher.




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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

LOGOS AND BUMPERS (AND HOW MUCH OF MY LIFE THEY CONSUMED)


Recently I wrote about the fabulous film school education I receieved--not at the American Film Institute (whose masters graciously bestowed an MFA upon me before tossing me into the mean streets of early 1990's Hollywood)--but from staring glassy-eyed, hour after hour, at local Los Angeles television in the 1970's and early 80's. Every local station aired movies--old features, old shorts, good and bad fifties and sixties television. In the days before cable, it was possible to catch almost all the necessary-to-be-seen movies on local TV--brutally cut up and, if in Scope, featuring horrible pan-and-scan work. (I often wondered if the job of panning-and-scanning the scope prints fell to the drunks...it seems like the kind of job somebody would be able to perform while inebriated and if they were no good at it, who could say? For there is truly no such things as a "good" pan-and-scan).

What I didn't realize until recently was how emotional my identification with the actual stations that showed these movies was. It makes sense, I suppose, that a young television watcher would find comfort and familiarity with certain trademarks that indicate that something enjoyable is coming up. But until discovering the following cache of logos, I.D.s and intros to movie shows, I had no idea that my real nostalgia for my childhood was centered on something so bitesized, so unsubstantial, so utterly without true artistic redemption. And yet, judging by the number of hits a lot of these clips get on Youtube, apparently I'm not the only child of television eager to revisit these iconographic snatches of the pre-cable, pre-DVD, pre-internet, pre-Iphone, pre-Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/Obama years.

First up is the ID from what I considered my "home station"--KTTV, Metromedia Channel 11. Although the below is technically from a mid-western affiliate, it's the same logo and music that I recall from thirty years ago. Viz:



Ahhhh, those pulsating "eleven, eleven, elevens". I am twelve and eating a complete box of doughnuts, drinking a carton of chocolate milk and awaiting "I Love Lucy". KTTV also had a strange sign-on, filled with facts and figures about their transmission which I used to occasionally catch--if awake too early or up too late--and was always perversely thrilled by. Did I ever think, though, that I would be watching this again, aged fifty...and on a computer? (Warning: it's proceeded by a commercial for a gambling/dining establishment in Gardena, California that runs a brief forty-five seconds.)


KHJ, channel 9, hosted an eight-o-clock movie as well as did KTLA, channel 5. Even though I preferred the latter (as it was heavy on Paramount movies from the 30' and 40's) I occasionally dabbled in the usually Universal Studios-based movies generally presented on KHJ. And on sick days, you could catch the KHJ Midday Movie--in case Ben Hunter was presenting something a little too lame on KTTV.



Here's a nice old KTLA Channel Five logo/bumper that makes me feel truly warm and fuzzy. I always liked the use of "Golden West Broadcasters" in the announcement, accompanied by the golden Channel five logo. Get it? Golden? And Golden?



I'll close this increasingly suspect trip down memory lane with the coolest of all opening movie-program bumpers--which happened to be for the worst of all movie programs. At 4:30 in the afternoons, ABC used to air a two hour movie in a ninety minute time slot with a half hour of commericals. Thus did I see any number of films--mostly sixties product and a good helping of Jerry Lewis (and strangely the George Hamilton starring "Evil Knievel" which seemed to never stop airing)--in "tab" versions. Imagine, editing a film down by fifty percent? The results were toothpicks out of what had once been wooden furniture--the films made little sense and often times the combination of late afternoon sloth, un-followable narrative and constant commericials, led me to simply doze through what was left of the movie. Nevertheless, the intro--and my desire to avoid Algebra homework--kept me coming back for more:


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Thursday, July 24, 2014

JACK WEBB: AMERICAN AUTEUR

What do we really know (or care) about the deeply misanthropic maverick television auteur, Jack   Webb? Mostly that he was Joe Friday on Dragnet. Perhaps that he created Dragnet as well. Some might even know that he was the creative force behind the bland and stupid "Adam-12", which he produced but didn't act in--and which bares little resemblance to the Webb-i-tude of the fifties and early sixties.

And what was that Webb-i-tude, exactly? Well, in my opinion, Jack Webb was the man James Ellroy dearly wishes to be and whose personality he adopts in his non-fiction writing. The crew-cut, tough-ass be-bopper who loves jazz, hates hippies, is one with Los Angeles cops, and takes no b.s. from anyone--unless it's a blonde and he might get laid. The mix of hard-core right wing values (very LA in the fifties) and smoked-out nights staring into drinks in which the ice has melted at Nickodells...you get the idea. Webb elevated squareness and it's icons (cops, military etc.) to a level of super-square that became hep, riffing relentlessly in his trademark monotone and using the camera as a sort of visual partner in his patter --dig the below clip from one of my old KTTV afternoon favorites, "The D.I.", where he plays a relentlessly abusive drill instructor. The camera is as fixed, monotonal and unforgiving as Webb's dialogue and delivery.



Webb was a California kid, born in Santa Monica and raised in Downtown LA, and was living in San Francisco at the time of his 'break'--some sort of radio announcer gig which he adroitly manipulated into a show called "Pat Novak For Hire," a radio series that presaged his later themes of straight but irreverent law enforcers talking turkey to a world full of liars. Indeed, Webb appears to have been something of a fearless self-starter. "Dragnet," which he created for himself, soon followed (after a few movie parts--he's the nice-guy assistant director who William Holden cuckolds in "Sunset Blvd."--a very un-Webbian part) and amazingly, within a couple of years of "Dragnet's" success, Webb was writing, directing, producing and starring in his own movies. He seemed to have no doubt about his abilities and quickly fashioned a series of vehicles tailored to his strengths. There simply were no other American auteurs around at that time--Webb was a one-man band who truly possessed a vision.

Probably his best, from my standpoint, is "Pete Kelly's Blues",  a very underrated mid-fifties (set in the twenties) gangland saga, featuring a fine perfomance (Oscar nominated) by the great Peggy Lee. (Other jazz greats can be seen in the film--Webb was a major jazz fan--including Ella Fitzgerald).

It was also something of a cottage industry for Webb. Apparently it began as a radio show which aired as a summer replacement show in 1951, then became the movie, then later a television series and of course spawned two albums which Webb produced--the above soundtrack featuring Peggy Lee and another called "Pete Kelly Lets His Hair Down". This later appeared as part of a compilation which Webb released, called "Just The Tracks, Maam". Which is further proof of my theory that Webb was, above all, a comedian at heart, one who enjoyed twisting the world to his own darkly humourous viewpoint and seeing who, if anyone, was hip to his game.

For awhile in the early fifties, Webb was married to the  ridiculously sultry and talented Julie London, a union which produced two daughters. After their divorce, she began recording albums and was groomed (I suppose you'd say) and managed by the singer/songwriter Bobby Troup. Then they got married. And they had kids. And then Jack Webb hired them both to be in his TV show "Emergency", which doesn't sound so weird now but forty years ago was about as tois as a menage could get and not be in violation of a morals clause. 

Does that sound extreme? Well dig this. When I was a kid growing up in LA, there was a restaurant on the Sunset Strip called the "Cock and Bull"--an English pub sort of place where they served really good, rare, roast beef. (When the nice, aging black guy in the big white hat cut your slice for you, he'd ask, "Old Jews?" Eventually we realized he was offering au jus...) Oftentimes we'd go there on a Sunday and there would be Jack Webb, sitting at the bar drinking and smoking. I recognized him from Dragnet, of course. (An important detail that for some reason caught my youthful eyes: he had two packs of cigarettes open on the bar. One regular and one menthol). Anyway one day my parents and I went for brunch and there, in plain sight, sat the Troup's dining with Webbs--and this absolutely fascinated my parents, who, despite being pretty hip themselves, were shocked that divorced couples could be socializing openly. I suppose it gave rise to thoughts of swapping, thoughts which perhaps were valid. 

I wish Webb had directed more movies--he had his own tough, articulate directorial style and I see and feel a humor in the entrenched humorlessness that can only be the deep, grimly knowing laugh of the true misanthrope. Alas, he made his fortune in television, producing boring seventies series like "Emergency", "Mobile One" and the aforementioned "Adam-12". These shows have none of Webb's own singular style--only his late sixites revival of "Dragnet" (the color version with Harry Morgan as his sidekick) brought back Webb in all his terse glory. And after all those cigarettes and drinks, Webb only made it to age sixty-two before succumbing to a heart attack that took him out of the game that he'd mastered once and for all. Below is the proof that deep down Webb knew it was all a bit of a sham. It's the classic "Copper Clapper Caper" bit that he did with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show in the early seventies.



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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

L.A. TELEVISION OF THE 70s: A COMPLETE FILM EDUCATION


(The below post was originally published in 2007, shortly after I began this never-ending experiment in blogdom. I forgot all about it until recently, when somebody I didn't know e-mailed me thanking me for having written this piece which brought back so many memories etc. etc. I went back in the archives and found, somewhat remarkably, that people had been posting comments on it for a period of six years. Obviously the subject--old movies on old LA TV stations--seems to be one that elicits nostalgic interest from those of us who grew up in LA in the seventies. So I'm reposting it...largely because I'm too lazy to write a new post. KMA.)

As I found out while growing up, one could get a remarkably full film education by watching local 1970's LA television on a black and white Zenith--while being interrupted by Cal Worthington and his dog spot every ten (five?) minutes. Indeed, I find it astonishing that I was able to acquire as broad a background as I did in movies of the past (twenties, thirties, forties) while growing up in a non-digital universe. There wasn't cable yet (Z channel happened around '75, but showed only new movies at the time) and our first VCR didn't arrive until the summer of '78.

 Revival theaters were around, of course, and we occasionally went to the Vagabond Theater on Wilshire Blvd. where, one stunning night, Rita Hayworth herself Norma Desmondishly dropped in--heavily accompanied of course--to take a gander at her younger self in "Gilda". (Was she already deep into Alzheimers? Did her companions hope that seeing her old movie would spark something?) Also the Tiffany Theater on Sunset was then a revival house--it hosted the first 3D festival that I remember attending. The Vista, in Silverlake, was somehow not on our radar (too gay, perhaps?) and the New Beverly, if I'm not mistaken, was much more foreign-artsy-indie fare-ish, which I didn't get into until teenager-hood. Indeed, most of my old movie education happend via the black-and-white Zenith in my parents bedroom. In LA in the 70's, there were plenty local tv stations showing old movies--albeit of execrable print quality and mercilessly chopped up and shortened for commercials.

Cheif among them were the Ben Hunter Movie Matinee on KTTV (Ch. 11) every weekday at noon. I spent most of my summers indoors, in the air-conditioning, watching this program which was simply a different movie every day--but hosted, for some reason, by the smiling dude on the right. He smoked, drank coffee and even did a little call-you-at-home gimmick called, I think, Hunter's College of Obscure Knowlege. The KTTV library was largely MGM movies and they also had a Saturday afternoon movie which was repeated that same evening at 11PM or so. This was important because I remember the odd effect of seeing a movie in the afternoon and watching it again so close to its first viewing and being able to anticipate not just the plot but the camera angles and the cutting. My first film school? Probably. Ben Hunter's set also sticks in my mind--a faux-wood paneled den with bookshelves, leather "easy chair" and couch, none of which ever convinced me that we were anywhere but in a cheesy television studio. He interviewed people occasionally (who were they?) and use to end the show with a Laurel&Hardy short. (For a fascinating glimpse of LA TV commercials back in the day--including Ben Hunter pitching a Home Loan company--see the first video posted below.)

Then there was KTLA, Channel 5, home of Tom Hatten (and his fake projector) as well the 8PM Channel 5 movie club. This was largely the Paramount film library--or the "MCA" library as it was known thanks to a fit of house-cleaning in the early sixties, when Paramount stupidly sold all there pre-WW2 movies to MCA for a pittance who promptly slapped their logo on the beginning of all the best movies Paramount ever made--Marx Brothers, Mae West, W.C. Fields etc. Comedy wise, at KTLA the Hope-Crosby axis crossed with the Goldwyn Danny Kaye movies. (In fact, I think I remember a KTLA weekend afternoon movie program called "Goldwyn Theater.") I very definately remember seeing my first Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges movies on the Channel 5 movie club--though I rarely was able to stay awake for the ten pm finish. In fact, I didn't see the ending to "The Lost Weekend" until the early 1990s, when I saw it projected at Film Forum. (For a 1989 look at Tom Hatten in all his glory, see the second video posted below).

And KHJ, Channel 9, had "Million Dollar Movie". Which frankly was not usually as good as its competition on KTLA, though they did play the "Tara Theme" ("My Own True Love") at the beginning. Indeed, I can't remember what studios films turned up on Million Dollar Movie. But for a very nice view of some 1970s commercials that interrupt a showing on KHJ of "What's New Pussycat" see the third video posted below.

The loser station was KCOP, Channel 13, who were stuck with the Universal Library. In other words, Ma and Pa Kettle, Francis the Talking Mule, and dramatic fare like "Mississippi Gambler", starring the charisma-free  pre-'Music Man' Robert Preston. And Abbott and Costello, of course, but I seem to remember their movies programmed on weekend mornings. Early on I figured out to avoid the A&C movies where Bud had a pencil-thin moustache and spoke an octave deeper than usual--the unfortunate post 1949 crop.

Finally: KBSC, Channel 52 from Corona, of blessed memory. This strange indie station somehow controlled the Three Stooges and Our Gang--or "Little Rascals" as they were re-dubbed in their television years--movies as well as an outstanding selection of Warner Brothers 30's movies which aired weeknights at 8 PM under the banner "Hollywood Movie Classics." This was where I caught early Busby Berkeley, James Cagney/Pat O'Brien, the pre-Bowery Boys "Dead End Kids" and a pile of John Garfield/George Raft/Bette Davis/Ida Lupino stuff. Weirdly, they also showed Speed Racer as well as some very sexy women's Roller Derby on Saturday nights. All of it, I believe, uninterrupted. (Or was it? I can't remember Channel 52 having any commericials--was it a case of it being simply too obscure a station to attract any advertisers?) For a very nice 'tribute video' to KBSC, see the last video posted below.

Actually, the one commercial I remember on Channel 52 was an ad for Larry Fine's (of the Stooges) autobiography, "A Stroke Of Luck." They filmed Larry at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills and, after plugging his book, he invited any kids who were watching to come out and say hi. One long forgotten day, in 1974, my sister took me out there to meet him. But that's for another time...






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Sunday, July 6, 2014

ORSON WELLES: THE DEPRESSIVE YEARS

The setting is a Paris hotel room in 1960. What better place to find Orson Welles during this dark period of his expatriation? His comeback film,"Touch Of Evil",  had already vanished from the radar after being dumped into wide release without a press screening and having proven to be another "disappointment" for the former prodigy. The future looked gloomy. And Welles--though he does his best to remain magnetic and charming in this interview--is clearly depressed. Indeed he is very very far from  the man who later became a folk hero to the young, underground cinema freaks of the seventies. This isn't the Merv-guesting, Kermit-goofing, Dino-roasting, Jaglom-palling, Bogdanovich-raconteuring, Ma Maison-dining sage of the seventies and early eighties. That Orson was a good deal lighter in spirit and--although always wearing his 'legend' like a burdensome cape into which he might retreat at any given moment--he was somewhat more resigned in a gently philisophical way. Here, though, we see the middle-period Orson--the Welles of the frightful explosion upon re-meeting his old friend John Houseman (a few years earlier, yes, but you can picture the famous eruption coming out of this Welles--"For twenty years you've been doing everything you can to destroy me!" etc. See Thomson's "Rosebud" or Houseman's "Run-Through" or even Leaming's fawning and silly OW bio to read the complete encounter). Indeed everything about this Orson is somehow in the middle. He is exactly middle aged--forty five years old--and appears to be middle-weight (double his youthful size but shy about one hundred pounds of his magnificent blubber peak, circa late seventies). Most importantly, he is in the middle of his journey and as such has not yet settled upon the best way to play out the legend. Striking the right balance between grandiosity and sadness--without descending into self-pity--would come about ten years later. Frankly, the Welles I see in this interview is depressed, ponderous, suspicious and not a little paranoid. Would you finance this man's film?

He shamefully lets the interviewers misstatement that he wrote "Citizen Kane" by himself stand--his silence is gloomy and forbidding and an absolute slap in Herman J. Mankiewicz's dead face--and he turns on the interviewer when he discusses Chaplin and picks up on Welles own suggestion that perhaps the clown was not really his own best director. Welles, who made the point to begin with, Nixon-ishly shifts into paranoia mode and suggests that he's trying to get him to admit that he isn't his own best director..."and I'm not going to do that, I get so few chances to direct as it is". In this moment you see how dangerously Welles could turn on an innocent and credit his own dark scenarios to others--is it any wonder that the multiple explinations for who was to blame for the re-cutting of "Magnificent Ambersons" have never settled the basic question of why Welles didn't simply come back home to save his second masterpiece?

In "Rosebud", Thomson argues that the dark, middle-period Welles was the least attractive and least successful phase of his ever-evolving persona--that it made him seem 'florid' and 'out of date'--and that redemption and spiritual freedom came when Welles was brutally and publicly attacked by Pauline Kael, in her essay "Raising Kane". Thomson's thesis is that Welles--though he never gave up acting hurt by Kael's attack--was secretly relieved not to have to carry the burden of "greatness" and "profundity" that he'd worn since his youth...and that the lighter and easier-going Welles--the man I first saw on Merv and last saw in Jaglom's "Someone To Love"--is perhaps the man he'd always secretly yearned to be...a charmer and a bewitcher who preferred magic over reality and who had a bigger heart than even he knew (it must have been pretty big to have carried him along for seventy years). There is much in the below interview, though, that is wonderful--he begins to rehearse the "directing is the most over-rated profession ever invented" stuff that he pulled on Bogdanovich a few years later (see PB's indispensible "This Is Orson Welles") and he's quite delightful in his insistence that he would always choose to hire a friend over the right person for the role...which ties into his theory that he really isn't all that interested in art and isn't a true professional. "I'm an adventurer" he intones gravely and not altogether sincerely. I wonder if "Touch Of Evil" and its non-success is on his mind at this moment--he was, after all, given a mighty good chance by a Hollywood studio just two years earlier and somehow--despite the magnificent result--it hadn't worked out.

Or maybe this is Welles before he came to his own conclusion that he was, in fact, always a true independent...that it wasn't the fact that Hollywood didn't "give him the same contract" again as it did on "Kane" (as he bemoans here) so much that he was never cut out to be beholden to a larger group or to be subject to a final opinion that wasn't his own. Welles at his most successful is Welles at his free and easiest and in this way he resembles nothing so much as a classic 19th century actor-manager...picking the plays, assigning the parts, staging the show, running the whole thing and getting his troupe out of town before the sheriff catches up. That's the Welles of the 30's--the Mercury years--and that's the Welles of the later sixties and seventies, the years of the self-financed projects. (And the RKO years, of course--but let's face it, that "contract" was an anomaly and one can't hope for mistakes like that--no matter how brilliant--to be repeated). It's also the Welles of "F For Fake"--my third favorite Welles film which I implore anyone who hasn't seen to quickly find a copy of and watch. Shot in 1974, "F For Fake" is Welles at his most charming and slyly philisophical. The Welles from this period, unlike the Welles seen below, has grace and magic to spare. It is this later, gentler Orson--the goo-ier, in touch with his inner-child Orson--who made "The Other Side Of The Wind" which, from the fragments I've seen, looms (just out of reach) as, if not his masterpiece, his one truly and profoundly personal work.

Click here for the full fifty-three minute interview. Below is an excerpt.



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Monday, June 23, 2014

'THE STOLEN JOOLS': A TUBERCULAR PRODUCTION?

Long thought to be lost (and in some quarters even thought to have never existed),  "The Stolen Jools" was an all-star short comedy shot in 1931 by the National Vaudeville Artists (NVA) as part of their "relief work" for the American Tuberculosis Society. It stars...everybody, more or less, in a sincerely puzzling tale of Norma Shearer's jewels having been stolen and the quasi-investigation that follows--though that makes it sound like there is something resembling a plot line which I assure you there isn't. Really it is just an excuse to get all of the big Hollywood stars of the day on screen--sometimes for mere seconds--in blackout sketches designed to aid a good cause. The film was then shown in theaters across the country, accompanied by a live speaker from the NVA asking for donations to help cure tuberculosis. Since the film has nothing to do with anything medical, it's hard to compute quite how this convinced audience members--at the pit of the depression--to part with a few bucks (nickels? pennies?) to cure a disease that at that time didn't seem to be anywhere near being stamped out. Perhaps the dizzying presence of so many stars--Gary Cooper, Norma Shearer, Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Dix, Wallace Beery, Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, Joan Crawford, Jack Oakie and tons of others--all thrown together in a film that makes no sense and runs under twenty minutes was meant to daze and confuse the audience who, grateful that it was over, would pay for the privelege of not seeing it again. (In this way "The Stolen Jools" is a bit like the old joke about giving the sax player on the subway ten dollars--to not play.) Indeed, watching "The Stolen Jools" is reminiscent of nothing quite so much as the nightmare you might have after channel surfing through a bunch of old movies while eating a large cheese and pepperoni pizza (with plenty of cheap beer) at two am. One minute Wallace Beery is there, the next Laurel and Hardy, the next Loretta Young...all of them having little to do but being somehow connected.

Actually, I'm being hard on the poor thing. "The Stolen Jools" is certainly worth watching--primarily as an artifact of its time, as a piece of Hollywood archeology if you will. And it's plotlessness is no big deal--it's a sketch comedy one way or the other. What's curious to me, though, are the jokes that no longer make sense. A good many of the blackouts end on lines that are clearly timed to be punchlines--and which, in their day, might well have provoked belly laughs--but which now simply seem like premature fade-outs before the actual punchline has landed. In this sense, the film reminds me of a joke book that a friend of mine once gave me that dates from 1904. While there were certain old jokes in the book that still made sense, I was surprised at the number of jokes that merely seemed incoherent--as if translated (lamely) from another language. Humor, it turns out, does have an expiration date. A goodly amount of "The Stolen Jools" serves as ample proof of this fact.

Since both vaudeville and tuberculosis have, for the most part, disappeared from American life, the film raises a number of enigmatic questions none of which, I'm sorry to say, I can answer; why, for instance, was the NVA particularly interested in tuberculosis? Was the disease particularly prevalent among vaudevillians? Was tuberculosis suspected to be linked to the generally poor conditions the performers lived and worked in? And how about all that asbestos they were regularly exposed to in the theaters in which they toiled?

Also curious is the fact that the film was made "in association with Chesterfield Cigarettes". This is particularly intriguing as it's hard, at this distance, to know truly how much people knew about the connection between cigarettes and lung disease. I know the prevailing wisdom is that "people didn't know smoking was bad for them" but a cursory glance at any period magazine's cigarette advertising disproves this assumption--many cigarette ads claimed that their product was "easier on the throat" or less "cough-filled" than a rival cigarette, so it's clear that at the time the film was made there was some sort of recognition in the air about smokings harmfulness. If that's the case, was Chesterfield's participation in the making of "The Stolen Jools" an early, guilty sop intended to show "concern" on Chesterfield's part about their poisonous (and highly profitable) product? If so, this pre-dates big tobacco's recent efforts at "educating" youth about smoking by a cool seventy or so years...and gives truth to the adage that, as far as con-games go, there truly is nothing new under the sun.

"The Stolen Jools" was rediscovered in 1972 in Britain, where it had been released in 1932 as "The Slippery Pearls," one of the Masquers Club comedy series for RKO. Subsequently a U.S. print was discovered (not sure by whom or how) and eventually the film's true title, origin and purpose were at last known. Look out for some very interesting (and brief) tid-bits: a view of a studio lot (RKO perhaps?) with Richard Dix leaving a soundstage; Joan Crawford camping it up with Billy Haines--who seems absolutely one-hundred percent comfortable being totally out of the closet; Norma Shearer (to the right) looking a good deal dishier than she did after marrying Thalberg and becoming MGM's reigning "ice-queen"; a fine glimpse of the great Wheeler and Woolsey; a quite funny section with Gene Palette, Skeets Gallagher and Stu Erwin as newsmen--featuring Gary Cooper; and strangest of all Barbara Stanwyck and her then husband, vaudeville star Frank Fay--a ghost of the gay white way if ever there was one--in a truly weird bit in which Stanwyck recites poem she wrote...and is then, per Fay's request, taken outside and shot (!). Fay was a notoriously evil drunk who was intensely disliked by all of Hollywood--Stanwyck shook him fairly early on, after he threw their adopted baby into the swimming pool in a drunken rage. Many years later, after two decades of obscurity, Fay starred on Broadway in the original production of "Harvey" and once again earned everyone's enmity by associating himself--per his newly reclaimed celebrity--with a fascistic "America First" group. One of the jokes around Hollywood (recounted in Milton Berle's autobiography) at the time "The Stolen Jools" was made was: "Who's got the biggest prick in town?" Answer: "Mrs. Frank Fay."




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Monday, June 16, 2014

PUSSYCATS OF THE SUNSET STRIP: TUESDAY WELD


For years, Tuesday Weld was a major pain in the ass pussycat of the Sunset Strip, pissing off directors, gossip columnists, movie executives, turning down Warren Beatty's offer to star in "Bonnie and Clyde", having nervous breakdowns, drinking heavily, and claiming that she finally felt free because her mother died--when her mother was, in fact, alive and making an iffy living as a baby sitter to newlyweds John Astin and Patty Duke. (Mom was understandably annoyed when she heard that her famous daughter had declared her dead. At least she could have stood her the cost of the burial). By then, though, nobody thought it odd that Tuesday Weld had made up such a thing. By the early seventies, nutty Tuesday was already an old story.

Back in 1959, Danny Kaye, with whom she appeared in "The Five Pennies" said, "Tuesday Weld is fifteen going on twenty-seven". God knows what prompted this assertion but one can only imagine. This was after she had shot to nationwide stardom on TV's "Affairs of Dobie Gillis" which came about as a result of modeling work that her mother had been forcing her--er, encouraging her--to do since she was a kid, after her wealthy father passed away and somehow left the family with nothing. (His name, by the way, was Lathrop Motley Weld--a name that could only have been portrayed by Rudy Vallee in an unmade Preston Sturges movie). You see, everything about Tuesday Weld is written IN CAPITALS--and ITALICIZED. When she burst on the scene, the by-then decrepit Louella Parsons was astonished enough at Tuesday's free-living shenanigans to proclaim "Miss Weld is not a very good representative of the motion picture industry." (Presumably, Louella then flung her pince nez into her soup, crushed her cigarette out in the soft-boiled eggs, gulped her third Manhattan of the morning and ordered her secretary to get "that lovely young George Reeves on the telephone"--two years after he'd leapt out of the window). When things started going wrong with Tuesday in the late sixties, it wasn't enough for her to get divorced or turn down the string of big parts she was offered; her house also burned down. She just had that kind of--pardon the term--energy.

But, like other beautiful pain in the asses--Monroe comes to mind--she was worth (or almost worth) the trouble. Critically underrated as an actress and almost hypnotically watchable, Tuesday Weld may have lost out on the roles that would have defined her as one of the screen greats--"Lolita", the above mentioned "Bonnie and Clyde", "Rosemary's Baby", "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice"--but the many crap movies that she enlivened nonetheless showcased her quirky and deceptively deep talents to their singular advantage. And there were a few good ones along the way--"Pretty Poison", the great cult favorite which typically Tuesday detested (she said that the director, Noel Black, would ruin her day merely by saying "Good Morning") as well as "Cincinatti Kid" with Steve McQueen and the adaptation of Joan Didion's novel "Play It As It Lays", for which she won the best actress award at the Venice Film Festival. Later in the seventies, she was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for "Looking For Mr. Goodbar"--now there's a seventies title that ought to be exhumed. One gets the idea with Tuesday--later married to Dudley Moore and later still married to violinist Pinchus Zuckerman--that a very restless spirit was unable or unwilling to land in a spot long enough, or secure enough, to flourish. And that perhaps even the notion of "flourishing" was anathema to the restless Tuesday.

Now in her early seventies and divorced from Zuckerman, Tuesday is out there somewhere perhaps enjoying the relative anonymity she now possesses. I'd love to know where she is, how she is, and what she spends her days doing. I have a feeling she's a hell of a lot more interesting than just any other run-of-the-mill pussycat. Below is the infamous "12 Cashmere Sweaters" clip from George Axelrod's very Sunset Strippy mid-sixties comedy, "Lord Love A Duck". Ai, yi, yi...





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Thursday, June 12, 2014

DUKE ELLINGTON MEETS CINERAMA?


Below I've posted an extraordinary piece of filmmaking from 1935. It runs just under ten minutes but is well worth your time.

"Symphony In Black" is a short film featuring Duke Ellington and his band, with guest appeareances by Billie Holiday and Scatman Crothers, believe it or not. (Holiday sounds like herself but is otherwise unrecognizable from her later self--here she's young, plump and healthy looking. Crothers, later to become famous for his recurring role on "Chico And The Man" is twenty-five years old here and quite the dude. He's not credited, but he plays Billie's two-timing boyfriend.) There is no dialogue--it is a purely visual representation of an early extended work by Ellington which is in five short parts. If you run out of patience (which I hope wont be the case) or have to abort due to a previously scheduled event, skip to the last two minutes, the section called "Harlem Rhythm." The specialty dancer in this sequence is the great Earl "Snake Hips" Tucker. The elaborate super-impositions are still quite a thrill to watch--I wonder if there's a really proper, cleaned-up print of this film around? Being a Paramount release, one might suspect that the original negative might have been preserved.

What has this to do with Cinerama? Well: the film was directed (and I mean DIRECTED) by somebody named Fred Waller. IMDB research shows Mr. Waller to have been something of tech geek--in the twenties he was a cinematographer and designed miniatures and title sequences. In the thirties, he directed a series of musical short films for Paramount (of which this was one) all of which feature his trademark, high-style art moderne visual treatment. His real work, though, was in the development of a wide-screen projection process which led to his eleven-projector system "VITARAMA" which debuted at the 1939 New York Worlds Fair. Developed with Merian C. Cooper (another film scientist and co-creator of "King Kong"), this was the direct precursor of Cinerama, which finally premiered in 1953 at the above pictured theater on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, California. Fred Waller died one year later in 1954, aged sixty-eight. A fascinating and, as far as I can tell, largely forgotten figure.




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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

PUSSYCATS OF THE SUNSET STRIP: MEET JOI LANSING

The other day, while watching Orson Welles astoundingly good "Fountain Of Youth" television pilot, I became fixated on the female lead, the mysterious Joi Lansing. Looking her up on the internet I found that I'd written about her when this blog first came into existence. So impressed was I with my own piece that I've decided to re-post it. Joi deserves no less. Supposedly, when Welles was interviewing actresses for the pilot, he came out into the reception room, got a look at Lansing and said to his assistant: "Where did she come from? Send the other girls away."

But "The Fountain Of Youth" was, alas, her only truly notable credit. Indeed her filmography is distinguished by the sheer volume of undistinguished films she appeared in. Nonetheless, nobody who has seen Joi Lansing in any of the number of execrable movies she was consigned by fate to have appeared in can quite forget her. The va-voom factor, of course, is inescapable. But there was something oddly innocent about her that makes her special--a little "why are they all looking at me like that, I'm just a little girl from Salt Lake City" about her that seeps through even in the most atrocious of settings--"Hillbilly's In A Haunted House" anyone?

Joi was a sort of Rat Pack mascot--she supposedly had an on/off affair with Sinatra (which depresses me for some reason) and turns up in "Marriage On the Rocks" (and that's one of her A-list credits). She was always, for some reason, struggling with second-hand goods, hand-me-down roles in B and C and worse flicks which she dressed up with her mere presence--if you can call anything about her "mere". I have to assume that more than once she asked herself "Why Kim Novak and not me?" Novak, of course, got all the best possible breaks and remains, for my money, unmemorable in the extreme--except perhaps for "Vertigo." (What about Joi Lansing as 'Madeleine/Judy''? And was she, in fact, the ice-cold blonde that Hitch should have bet on, instead of Tippi Hedren?) After years of steadily working but never coming up big-time, Lansing apparently developed a nightclub act that she did quite well with. After a series of confusing marriages and multiple dating escapades (see the above link--Georgie Jessel?) she became friends with a woman named Rachel Hunter. So close were they that they were like "sisters." So why not change Rachel's last name to "Lansing". Which she did. From then on, Joi and Rachel Lansing lived together in various homes in California--I'm sorry, but what does this sound like to you? Well, why not? Men probably caused Joi enough grief in her short life. Joi developed breast cancer in her early forties and died in 1972, age 43. Rachel was at her side. They'd been living together in Marina Del Rey, as well as in Palm Springs, in a house owned by Joi's ex-husband.

Below is a Scopitone short of "Trapped In the Web Of Love." Scopitone was another, more successful, jukebox industry pre-MTV attempt to marry hit songs and visuals. But many more Scopitones were made and they seem to have been preserved on DVD's, in all their mid-sixties, Sunset Strippish-glory.




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Friday, May 30, 2014

VITAPHONE OF IT ALL PART DEUX: THE GUS ARNHEIM DANCE PARTY

Here's a very early Vitaphone short--1927--of popular bandleader Gus Arnheim and his Ambassador Hotel Orchestra. As with the short I posted the other day, you again are simply in the environment of the 1920s, as all cinematic technique is eschewed and the band is captured, impassively, as it would be seen in a hotel ballroom. I find this stuff mesmerizing and I must not be the only one since a great organization called The Vitaphone Project has made it their mission to restore these one-of-a-kind short films, which are virtually a visual history of vaudeville and popular live entertainment of the period. Click here for a history of Vitaphone and how their early sound/film system worked. It's quite unbelievable as the sound existed on a disc separate from the film. The recording playback device was attached to the projector, which somehow synced up the mute film with the record. Oy. For many years the films, thought to be worthless, were scattered to the wind and it's been the Vitaphone Projects mission to find the discs and the films that go with them (they usually wound up in different places through the years) and reunite them.

The band features, among other things, a guitar and a banjo as well as three reed players who--surprise!--jump up toward the end and form a snappy singing trio. Arnheim presides at the piano and remains wordless, taking two bows and letting the music speak for itself. I've not been able to find the names of any of the players which, in a sense, makes this film something of a ghost story; who were these men, where did they come from, how did they get hired and where did they wind up? It's just another trippy aspect of these shorts...could any of them have predicted, on the day this film was shot eighty-seven years ago, that there would be visual proof of their existences beyond whatever snapshots their family members (assuming they had any--they were musicians, after all) might have saved? And that we'd be watching it on something called a computer?

Arnheim, it turns out, wrote the popular hit song "I Cried For You" which Judy Garland sang in one of those "Babes In/On..." movies with Mickey Rooney. Surprisingly (to me), the song turns out to have been written in the early 20s, though its bigtime era was the late thirties/early forties. If you go to this site, somebody has posted a bunch of very clean recordings of Arnheim's orchestra, apparently having cleaned up the audio using a special feature on Goldwave, which takes old vinyl and tape recordings and enables noise reduction of buzz, hiss, crackles and clicks that usually mar these old records.




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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

THE VITAPHONE OF IT ALL

Having grown truly ill of seeing Arnold riding a chariot through Manhattan whenever my blog (which is my homepage) comes up...(well, it has to be somebody's homepage...) I've decided to end my self-imposed week long blogging and tweeting silence. I wish I could say that the silence was a self-enforced experiment in living off-line for awhile but it wouldn't be true. I was consumed with work--a rare enough event to be taken seriously. Also I was bored.

I've always dug the Vitaphone shorts which were mostly shot in New York (Brooklyn to be exact) at the dawn of the sound era--1928 are the earliest I believe--and moving into the mid-thirties or so. They are nothing but recordings of popular stage acts of the time--shot primitively with two or three cameras which were enclosed in enormous, immovable sound-proof booths. (This leads to some hilarious early camerawork which you'll see in the short I posted below). But its this very rawness that makes the shorts so mesmerizing. You are literally sitting in the audience at a Vaudeville house and watching an act. A complete time-capsule, with no story or normal film technique to get in the way. The one I've posted is Red Nichols and his Five Pennies and features, in addition to Nichols, the legendary Eddie Condon on banjo and vocals (and what a vocalist! Oye...) and PeeWee Russell on clarinet. I can't identify the other musicians but there is some web-based disinformation that I can refute. It is not Gene Krupa on drums as some say. Nor is it Frank Teschmacher on Clarinet. Enjoy the ghostly experience of going back to 1929, heading into an "air-cooled" (actually a block of ice and fans blowing on it through vents) Vaudeville theater in midtown Manhattan on a hot summer day and enjoying one of the many acts you could then see, before Vaudeville disappeared completely...



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Monday, May 19, 2014

HERCULES IN NEW YORK MEETS CENTRAL PARK CONSERVANCY?

Arnold Schwarzenegger's much reviled motion picture debut, "Hercules In New York", was filmed on location in 'Fun City' (as it was then being touted in an ill-fated civic-pride campaign) in 1969. Ludicrous and amateurish on all counts, the film was directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman who somehow managed to survive its wreckage (it was apparently his debut as well) to go onto a prolific career as a director in television.

There are many articles out there detailing the absurdities of this cinematic treasure so I wont go into the gory detail. (To be honest, I've never made it through the whole thing.) But the part of the film that anyone who loves seeing New York City on film will truly savior is, without a doubt. the chariot chase that progresses from midtown, heading north on Sixth Avenue (past Radio City) and into Central Park. The park is decimated by the stunt car a work, which digs deep holes into what appears to be the Sheep's Meadow. I say 'appears' not because I'm hazy on my CP geography (I'm not...in fact, I know the park backwards...so there) but because it is almost unrecognizable in contrast with its current state of ultra-sleek, super-planted, 'stay-off-the-lawn' perfection. Actually, many New Yorkers have come to regard the park as having grown progressively less charming due to its prissy-clean state. To those naysayers I would say: watch this and enjoy a look at a forgotten city, one where they'd issue a permit to shoot anything anywhere as long as the right payoffs were made...and one in which there was no such thing as the Central Park Conservancy to prevent shredding the crown jewel of Manhattan in the name of popular entertainment.



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