8/2/07

MOVIES 'TIL DAWN--WALLER EDITION

I wrote earlier this week about the film education one could get from watching local LA television, pre-cable, in the 1970's. But I neglected--on purpose--to mention my favorite secret memory of my television-centric youth. It was the discovery of an all night movie program--I forget which channel, but my guess is KTTV--called Movies 'Til Dawn. The lonely stillness of the logo --a picture of the lights of LA at night, sans music--that would suddenly interrupt a movie in mid-scene so spooked and moved me that the name of the program came to be synonomous in my young mind with a shadowy, secret and glamourously unknowable world (in black and white) that could only be contemplated properly at four AM. I named my first CD of original music after this program. And, of course, this weblog. "Movies 'Til Dawn" still conveys to me a sense of private nocturnal musings on secret obsessional pursuits. Like being nine years old and sneaking off to watch an old movie on TV by yourself.

Here is how I discovered the program. The combination of my early love of jazz and old film led me to a book called "Jazz In The Movies" by David Meeker. (Recently I was delighted to get a very friendly and complimentary e-mail from Mr. Meeker about our Jackie Paris documentary, which he seems to have enjoyed greatly.) This fine reference work provided me with loads of titles of films that contained my favorite performers--only which rarely seemed to play on TV. Duke Ellington in "Belle Of The Nineties" with Mae West would turn up on KTLA sometime, though with most of his numbers excised (I finally saw a complete print years later and realized this for the first time) and of course the 1956 "High Society'" with Sinatra and Crosby featured Louis Armstrong but somehow didn't really count--because it was in color? Because the big song was "Now You HAS Jazz"--which even then grated on my ears? Anway, those aside, nothing much else, jazz-wise, turned up. In particular I was desperate to see a film called "Stormy Weather", which not only featured Lena Horne, Cab Calloway and Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, but my favorite jazz pianist and singer from early childhood Thomas 'Fats' Waller whose records I had been obsessed with since age five or six.


One night, the miracle happened. After months of assiduously searching the TV Guide, "Stormy Weather" turned up-at three am on a weeknight (school night, that is). I didn't bother discussing it with my parents--I simply set my alarm, padded into the den (furthest away from my parents room) and sat in ghostly light watching the great Fats Waller for the first time in live action. Below is the clip from the film that I remember seeing that long-forgotten dawn in the mid-1970's.

In it, Fats is thirty-nine years old (!) and death hides in plain sight--he is just months away from his untimely demise aboard a train heading east from Hollywood to New York, a victim of every kind of compulsive activity--work, fun, food, gin, gambling, girls, poverty, success...and the no doubt inescapable and poignant pressure to be both clown and artist, genius and jester.

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