Saturday, September 29, 2007
I'm in New York City, my proper home when I'm not pretending to live in Los Angeles. And it's impossible to wander around this incredible place without imagining whatever you're looking at as it might have looked one hundred or more years ago. I find this phenomenon to be specific to certain places (London, San Francisco, certainly all of Italy) but never a more enticing pastime than it is in Manhattan. Walking down Fifth Avenue, near the Metropolitan Museam, I can envision the same scene in, say 1920, or 1940, or 1890.
The below clip is a wonderful piece of found footage. It's two camera angles--mostly the first is featured--of daily life in New York City at the turn of the century (the date is estimated at 1903). The automobile is not yet a fact of life. No matter how windy it is--and it was quite windy on this particular day--everyone must wear a bowler hat. The more you watch this clip, the more you'll see and learn: a good many passing pedestrians stare suspiciously at the camera. To me their expressions go beyond "what's a camera doing here?" into "what's that machine on stilts?" It's likely that most of these folks had never seen a movie camera before in their lives.
There is also a cop with a handlebar mustache who passes by at about one minute, twenty seconds. Yes, they really did where them--not just in movies about the "gay nineties" made by Warner Brothers in the forties.
Finally, this is the corner near the Flatiron Building--the V shape created a wind tunnel which led to women's skirts being blown freely up and away, pre-Marilyn Monrow. Fifth Avenue and Twenty-Third Street. The building of course still stands.
Look at these long dead, long forgotten folks bustling along, on that long forgotten day, busy to get where they were going, their minds filled with their own lives...and now look at yourself and see if--internet and e-mail aside--you're life is any different, any less busy, any less self-consumed...Ah, the cosmic blackness of it all, as revealed by a piece of mute film, one hundred and four years old!
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
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 pissed 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". 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 and her wealthy father passed away and somehow left the family with nothing. You see, everything about Tuesday Weld is written IN CAPITALS--and ITALICIZED. When she bursts on the scene, the by-then decrepit Louella Parsons is astonished enough at Tuesday's free-living shenanigans to proclaim "Miss Weld is not a very good representative of the motion picture industry." (Louella then flung her pince nez into her soup, crushed her cigarette out in the soft-boiled eggs, gulped down 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 his 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's got 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 an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for "Looking For Mr. Goodbar"--now there's a seventies title, along side William Freidkin's "Cruising" 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 late sixties, 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 are two very disturbing clips from George Axelrod's very Sunset Strippy mid-sixties comedy, "Lord Love A Duck"--the infamous "12 cashmere sweaters" scene with the great Max Showalter as Tuesday's "daddy". Ai, yi, yi...
Monday, September 24, 2007
The more I think about it, the more I want to see "Pete Kelly's Blues" again. This may be Jack Webb's real masterwork--or at least his bid at being taken seriously as an auteur. Written by Richard L. Breen and produced and directed by Webb who also starred in it, the film is tough, funny and filled with good music. It doesn't appear to be on DVD--anyone know about it's availability?--nor does it turn up, at least not with any regularity, on the usual channels. Is there something about Jack Webb and his estate that's gumming up the works? I haven't seen "Dragnet" or "30" or "The D.I." turn up either.
And I wonder what the critical reception for "PKB" was at the time--was it negative and did this put Webb off from trying ever more ambitious works? Certainly the snoot factor against television and its new stars was riding high in the mid-fifties and Webb was television glory incarnate. So perhaps his film was poo-poohed..but "Pete Kelly's Blues", for which Peggy Lee was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress, should have paved the way for more ambitious things.
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--a jazz fanatic--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.
The below is not from the movie itself but a promotional clip featuring the great Ella Fitzgerald singing the title song with the full-tilt Warner Brothers orchestra.
Saturday, September 22, 2007
Thoughts of Julie London the other day naturally stirred the ghost of her first husband, the deeply misanthropic maverick television auteur, Jack Webb. In fact, his ghost practically kicked me in the ass this morning and told me the pussycats could wait another day--as he still hasn't gotten his due, twenty-five years after his death. Alas, he's correct. Most people know him either from the many "Dragnet" parodies (including the atrocious Dan Ackroyd "comedy" remake) or from Webb's own worst endeavor, 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--the Chief Parker years, remember) 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 verbal (and never to be topped) drill instructor. The camera is as fixed, monotonal and unforgiving as Webb's dialogue and delivery. Even the introduction of Webb (this is the opening scene of the film and the first we see of him is the back of his neck) carries this attitude with it.
Webb was a California kid--born in Santa Monica, 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 somewhat limited abilities and quickly fashioned a series of vehicles tailored to his strengths. "Pete Kelly's Blues" is a very underrated mid-fifties (set in the twenties) gangland saga, featuring a really 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. "30" is also well worth a second look--I haven't seen it for years and, like Webb's other movies, it is strangely absent from the cable line-ups.
I wish Webb had directed more movies--he had his own tough, articulate 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--no doubt without surprise and with a certain perverse inner satisfaction--to a heart attack that took him out of the game that he'd mastered once and for all.
Friday, September 21, 2007
Above is the new poster art for my film, "Tis Autumn: The Search For Jackie Paris". The film will open in New York at the Cinema Village on December 7th of this year. After that, who knows? Hopefully runs in other major cities--keep checking the Myspace page or the Hangover Lounge website for information. (Both are accessible via this blog--just go directly to the right of these words and click.)
The concept for this artwork was to emulate the old Blue Note record label covers--very good job, I think. Unfortunately the first copy of this sent to me via the internet was too massive to fit on this blog (and I'm too lame to know how to resize it.) That led to this version, which is to small to properly read the credits. For this, I fault my producer for not trying harder, for being sloppy with the details and overall for allowing this project to go on when it long should have been aborted.
More pussycats on their way...
Thursday, September 20, 2007
The ridiculously sultry and talented Julie London didn't even begin her singing career proper until after a short career in b-movies and a marriage to Jack Webb 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 the Troup's were there dining with Webb--and this absolutely fascinated and scandalized my parents, though I had no real understanding of why. Forgive them, they grew up in the Bronx where couples don't divorce much less socialize with each other if the woman has been with each of the...you know what I'm saying.In any event, even though "Emergency" is probably what most people know Julie London from, I first got hip to her and Troup watching the afternoon game show "Tattletales"--every afternoon at three pm. Bert Convy was the host and it was all married couples. Jack Carter and his wife Dixie were regulars. So were Bobby Van and Elaine Joyce. But for the life of me I can't remember the format of the game or how it worked. I just remember thinking that Julie London looked a hell of a lot hotter than those other wives.
Below is, of course, from Frank Tashlin's "The Girl Can't Help It"--the drunk hallucinating about Julie is the great and mostly forgotten Tom Ewell. And there's another Julie clip that I've added--a ColorSonics (not Scopitone) short of Julie singing "Daddy"--joined by some other lovely pussycats of the Sunset Strip whose names are lost to history (unless somebody reading this recognizes their mother...) "Daddy" was written by Bobby Troup long before he met London--in fact he was a college freshman in the early forties when the song became his first hit. Troup died in 1999. Julie followed him a year later.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Apparently a writer named Joseph Dougherty (lots of TV credits--"thirtysomething", "Judging Amy") has written a book called "Comfort and Joi"--and guess who the title refers to?
It appears to be much more of a personal rumination on show-biz, mid-life and other unsolvable dilemmas, using Ms. Lansing as a focal point--apparently Dougherty long was fascinated with her.
A little Lansinana as we wrap out our visit to this departed pussycat of the Sunset Strip: she appears in a corner of the screen in "Singing In The Rain" (not sure which scene though); when she turned up for the audition of her other most famous film, "Touch OF Evil", Orson Welles supposedly said: "Where have you been? Tell all the other girls to go!"; and at the time of her final illness, she was supposedly cast in "Follies" which was about to begin previews. Sondheim's "Follies"? Can this be true? Can't quite imagine what role she was going to do, but if this is correct it stands as the final irony in Lansing's life: she finally landed a plum part in a prestige project only to have illness take the chance from her.
Below is Joi's "The One I Love Belongs To Somebody Else"--another Scopitone.
Monday, September 17, 2007
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 a little unearthly--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 a long affair with Sinatra (why not?) and turns up "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? For real?) 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"--don't blame the poor lipsycing on Joi, these youtube clips tend to slide quite seriously out of sync. Scopitone was another, more successful, jukebox industry pre-MTV attempt to marry hit songs and visuals- just like the ColorSonics Robert Altman short (see previous post). But many more Scopitones were made and they seem to have been preserved on DVD's for ...people who like this stuff? Joi Lansing fanatics? I'm not sure who buys the whole set, but I hereby say thanks for posting them for me to ransack.
Saturday, September 15, 2007
My blatherings about the 1920's, silent and early sound film, old performers etc. are temporarily being put on hold due to a wonderful piece of film from the 1960's that I found on youtube which has led to a very enjoyable waste of an afternoon looking at other, related items from the same time period.
So, much as I love the twenties--let's leave them in the trunk for awhile. Instead, welcome to Hollywood, 1966. This is a short film called "The Party" that Robert Altman made at his house in Mandeville Canyon. Commissioned by a company making films for viewing in jukeboxes called ColorSonics, it is literally a "home movie"--Altman was famous for throwing parties on the weekend and on this particular weekend he shot a short. Set to "Whipped Cream" by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, the film might well be considered a pre-MTV music video--by nature it's plotless, surreal, driven by the music and leeringly misogynistic in all the right ways. It ends with some trick-underwater photography that I can't figure out how the hell they did. Did he perhaps have one of those underground "poolrooms" next to the pool? (As a kid I knew someone who had one--you could go downstairs, look through a window and see underwater...) By the way, the "lead" is Robert Fortier who Altman used a number of times--they met in the "Combat" TV days and later he turned up in "Three Women", "Health", and "Popeye."
I met Altman a handful of times and found him to be terribly funny and qenuinely outrageous in his opinions. When Spike Lee failed to be nominated as best director for "Malcolm X", Lee said publicly that he thought the Academy was prejudiced. This appalled just about everyone except Altman. He was nominated the same year (1992) for "The Player", and when asked by some E.T. style interview show how it felt being up for a nomination, Altman replied "I think Spike's right--they're all a bunch of racists." And that was him on a mild day. For some reason, I liked bringing up his most obscure work and asking him about it--which both annoyed and charmed him. Twice I pestered him to see his print of "The Delinquents" (he insisted he kept it precisely to keep people like me from seeing it) and I once asked him about the film he made right before "Mash", a Sandy Dennis movie called "That Cold Day In The Park." He got a strange faraway look in his eyes and said, "I don't believe anyone can see that film. It's lost." Imagine. He also asked me about an actress in my film "Two Family House", Kelly McDonald. "Why did you use her? What was she like?" Lots of quearies along those lines. The next year, Kelly turned up in "Gosford Park" and I felt unjustifiably proud.
The below short is set in the LA world that I remember as a kid--the canapes, the ciagrettes, the poolside party-down dolce vita lifestyle. A version of it must still exist--though perhaps what's missing is the genuine feeling that everyone is "out here" because it's a better life.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
The movie "Broadway" was based on a hit play of the same name which opened in the fall of 1926. Written by George Abbott and Phillip Dunning, and presented by Jed Harris, it is difficult to now to comprehend the enormous cultural impact of this rather modest little play. (I saw a production of it ten or so years ago--fun, once, but certainly not something that can be viewed as anything but a window onto the time period in which it was created). The only thing I can liken it to in modern-day terms is, probably, "Pulp Fiction"--it was a piece of entertainment that became a must-see part of the cultural to-do list, leading to its becoming a catchword in the zetigeist. For years after it opened, people as varied as Winston Churchill, Alexander Woolcott and James J. Walker still referred to it as the greatest and most exciting evening they'd ever spent in the theater. It "made" the careers of everyone involved--Abbott, of course, continued on past the age of one-hundred as a major force in the Broadway theater, and Harris became, for a time, the greatest star producer Broadway had ever known. More on Harris in the next post.
The play was, apparently, the first to deal with the times that people were in the midst of living in--it's original title was, in fact, "The Roaring Twenties" (this is interesting because I would have assumed the twenties were assigned their "roaring" value once they were over--but apparently people knew exactly the kind of madness they were living through--there was a self-consciousness to the twenties that one doesn't often hear discussed). It deals with nightclubs, gangsters, bootleg hooch, hoofers--the whole nine yards and is filled with excellent period talk. (To dine with someone is to "tie on the feedbag." Etc.) I have a fine, first edition of the published playscript, with a preface by Alexander Woolcott, who makes claims for the plays greatness and certain classic status that, alas, cannot be taken seriously anymore. Indeed, the whole enterprise now is of interest largely because of the movie made from it in 1929--which (re: yesterdays post) has been recently re-discovered and, as you'll see in the clip below, is filled with some of the most breathtaking sets, effects and camera moves you will ever see in a film from this time.
Pay close to attention to the shot that begins outside the club and moves indoors--I think I see the device that conceals the cut and allows it to look like one continuous movement, but it's still damn well done. Apparently, Paul Fejos had a special crane built capable of moving the burdensome camreras (which were enlcosed in sound proof booths) at great speed, with great felicity. Why the hell didn't anyone else use it? By the way, the movie was made available in both silent and sound versions and this appears to be a silent section that the correct soundtrack was synced to. For the silent version, many of the production numbers were cut or abridged--thus the choppy nature of the muscial sequences.
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Question: Name the movie director who began his career as a bacteriologist, became a set designer for Murnau and Fritz Lang, and directed two groundbreaking end of the silent era/beginning of the sound era works before abandoning his film career to take up anthropology, becoming one of the world's most respected figures in that fascinating field?
If you guessed "Paul Fejos" (and I assume you did--not least because he's the subject of this post) you're right. This fascinating figure's life is worth more than a cursory glance--and a lot more than this sorry little post. There are several sites devoted to him and I urge you to click on this one. (Oh, he also married a journalist who appeared with Hitler at the Summer Olympics in 1936, then slept with John F. Kennedy in 1941--leading the FBI to begin their file on him--and later married the actor Tim McCoy. Her name was Inga Arvad and her life is well worth a second looks as well.)
This Friday evening, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills will be screening a new, restored print of Fejos' 1928 masterpiece, "Lonesome"--click here for screening information. It will be my first viewing of this groundbreaking film--indeed it will be the first Fejos film I've ever seen in full. Below, however, is a clip from his equally groundbreaking (and long thought to be lost) film of the great stage hit "Broadway", from 1929. A print evidently turned up last year in Hungary--note the titles in Hungarian. (These clips come courtesy of stjn00--the invaluble Swedish youtuber who posts lots of amazing things along these lines.)
Unlike a lot of the other early talkie material I've been posting--which I love because of the clumsy, fumbling nature due to the early adjustment to sound--these clips show that it was possible to make a "talkie" that actually didn't look like it was photogrphed by a rhinocerous. (As Groucho might say: "I'm sorry I said that. It's an insult to all the other rhinocerouses.") Indeed, Fejos work is startling in its fluidity, it's use of color (this is two-strip technicolor--an early aborted system that has its own art deco charm) and the dynamic sense of staging. The below is the opening of the film and is still incredibly fresh and quite startling in its use of miniatures, elaborate sets, surreal super-impositions...you'll see.
Fejos was apparently unhappy working in America and returned to Europe, making his last film in 1941 and chucking it all for his aforementioned fascination with anthropology. Good for him! Most directors stay too long at the fair. Probably Fejos saw the writing on the wall--had he stayed, Universal would have James Whaled him, assigning him ever cheaper B-unit fair until, in the 1950's, Fejos might have turned to the tube, where he would have been lucky to have nabbed a couple of episodes of "My Little Margie." Take your pick: A life of globe-trotting anthropological adventuring, or Gale Storm and the Hollywood General Service Studios lot?
More on Fejos, "Broadway", and "Lonesome" in the next few days.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Below is a fascinating find, freshly posted by the nicely named SergioOliver (from Spain no less). It's a ten minute--documentary, I guess you'd call it--about the Hollywood Premiere of the 1932 MGM version of "Grand Hotel" featuring most of the stars on the lot at the time.
Yesterday, in speaking about Robert Wise's career, I made reference to the fact that Hollywood in the thirties was a factory town--and that atmostphere is very nicely captured in this filmed record of a night out during that time period. Yes, movies still have premiere's (often in the same place as this one--Hollywood Blvd.) and yes, fans still crowd the event and stars still blather a few platitudes for the camera's on the way in...but there's something different about the way things are handled here. For one thing, the company--MGM--really is the star here. (Note how many mentions of how wonderful MGM is come tumbling forth from every conceivable mouth.) But there is also a calmness to the proceedings--a lack of hype, I suppose-- that bespeaks a prosperous, well organized and very proud company town (as opposed to the have/have not, chaotic and deeply ashamed business that has replaced it). This is a portrait of a system that works, and the beneficiaries of that system willingly acknowledge their gratitude. Of course, if they didn't they probably would have gone on suspension--but you get my drift.
Why was this film made? It doesn't appear to be a proper newsreel--it's too long and uneventful really. It offers some fine period night shots of Hollywood Blvd and a couple of odd moments where "the crowd surges out of control" (looks a little phony to me). Mostly it's just a recording of the stars showing up and "signing in"--wonder who has that guest book now? Could this have been for one of those MGM sales conventions (where they would entertain the exhibitors once a year with hooch and loose women? Anyone read that great Vanity Fair article a couple of years ago about the rape cover-up at one of those shindigs?) Some fun things along the way to look for: Clark Gable, without moustache and not yet a big enough star to speak; he stands mute watching Norma Shearer blather on. Also Marlene Dietrich rushes by with her husband Rudolph Sieber--the one she kept hidden away in the Valley while she practiced global promiscuity with the elite. And Louis B. Mayer talks quite a bit--I don't know that I've ever actually heard the man before. Directors who appear are the dashing Edmund Goulding (who directed GH) and the silent master Fred Niblo.
Monday, September 10, 2007
The great director, Robert Wise, was born this day in 1914 and passed from this world two years ago, age ninety-one. I was privleged to know him for much of my life--when I was barely a teenager he directed the film "Audrey Rose" which was based on a novel by my father, Frank De Felitta. I was on the set for much of the shoot at the old MGM (now Sony) studios and learned how to make a film by watching Bob shoot that movie. Almost thirty years later, my wife and I introduced our one year old son to him just weeks before his death.
There can never be a career like his again, because the world that he came up in and personified is, alas, gone forever. That is the studio world--the Hollywood of the twenties, thirties, forties and fifties--which was, in essence, a factory town where an ambitious outsider could climb the ladder and, if talented, industrious and focused could--courtesy of a couple of breaks--make it big in show-biz. Yet there was nothing 'show biz' about Bob; he was a sober, gentle mid-westerner who came to Hollywood during the depression and literally started in the projection rooms at RKO, gradually working his way up the rung as an editor, eventually cutting "CItizen Kane" and being handed the ultimate reward of a b-movie of his own to direct. I won't tell his life story here--suffice it to say that he invested in the system and the system paid him back handsomely--in his later years he was old Hollywood's official statesmen, the head of the DGA, AMPAS, all kinds of committees. Unlike others, though, who might have retreated bitterly from activity and simply used these honorary posts as filler, Bob fervently believed in his service to all of these institutions and was devoted to helping start up film education programs--as he saw it (and without a trace of irony) the movies had been nothing but good to him, so why not spread the wealth? Such genuine and uncomplicated feelings toward the movie business are awfully rare to come by. At my most despondant (and there are days) I try to channel his optimism and belief that making pictures is actually worth the struggle.
As a director, he was best when matched with emotionally intense material--'I Want To Live", "The Set-Up", "West Side Story'" --which may seem something of an anomoly given his calm and almost passive nature. Yet I think that his strongest attribute was persistance--and so perhaps its not so odd that he rose to those occasions with the fervor that he displayed. He loved getting his teeth into something and really working it hard. (Other excellent but less well known intense Bob films to check out: "Run Silent, Run Deep", "Odds Against Tomorrow", "Captive City".) He was endlessly patient and thorough in his shooting methods, enjoyed painstakingly working out the set-ups for complicated sequences, and never wavered in his determination to get something right. Nothing and nobody intimidated him either--he was unmoved by worried executives as he knew that later they would thank him when they saw the finished product (he went rather famously overbudget and schedule on "West Side Story"--but not in a "nutty director" way. Instead, he simply kept explaining to the Mirischs why the movie required the time and money that it did. It worked!). And except for his occasionally fractious relationship with Steve McQueen on "Sand Pebbles" (a very fine, very underrated picture) he had actors in the grip of his calm and persuasive palm. So raise a glass (preferably a dry Martini--Bombay Gin I believe was his preferred) to a great craftsman and a genuinely peaceful, lovely individual. Happy Birthday, Bob. I hope by now you and Orson Welles have made it up to each other over "Ambersons."
Below are two clips. First a short (one minute) piece of "The Set Up"--one of the best boxing movies ever made (the fine cinematography is by Milton Krasner). And the thrilling (and meticulously staged and covered) "America" from "West Side Story."
Sunday, September 9, 2007
Check out the above site. If that's you're idea of a good time.
I could get hung up with Jerry for days--weeks, months?--but why alienate the few devoted readers I have? Instead, lets close with this modest clip from Jerry's first film as a director (and co-writer, and producer, and star...) "The Bellboy." Made for a pittance (according to Jerry) to prove to Paramount that he was capable of being an autuer--and shot mostly on location at the Fountainbleu Hotel in Miami, "The Bellboy" is certainly one of Lewis's best outings as a performer, filmmaker and entrepenuer. The whole film still has a largely experimental feel to it-it's not burdened by any sort of real plot or, from Lewis, a contrived star performance. It's modesty is, in fact, it's greatest asset.
Yet when you watch the below clip (and I don't wish to oversell it--it's only modestly amusing) you'll see that as a director Lewis was more than a Chaplin who pointed the camera at himself and did nothing interesting with the technology--he was early on looking for ways to make the fact that it was a movie matter. As a kid, I always looked forward to this movie (on KTTV quite often--along with "The Errand Boy") and always was puzzled and bemused by the below scene. Given the year it was made (1960) the joke-effect in it wasn't quite as easy to accomplish as it would be now. Indeed it appears to involve a lock-down, a new set-up and a view of the moon that I suppose is real--thought it's interesting that the camera has to pan to include it.
Friday, September 7, 2007
And now, after a decade of keeping it locked in a dark vault as if it were the mutant child of a royal family, Showtime is bringing back my first feature, "Cafe Society". It will air this Sunday evening at ten pm. Is that time Eastern or Pacific? I don't know. And which of the many Showtime channels will it air on? I'm not sure. If a tree falls in a forest and there is nobody around, does it make a noise? No. It doesn't.
"Cafe Society" is the nifty true story of Mickey Jelke, heir to an oleomargerine fortune, who was arrested and convicted in 1952 on charges of heading Manhattan's biggest call-girl ring--just for kicks, of course, since he had plenty of dough. The great Frank Whaley plays Jelke, the marvelous Peter Gallagher plays the undercover cop who stings him and the mysterious Lara Flynn Boyle plays Jelkes consort, Patricia Ward--a girl from the lower east side (back then the wrong side of the tracks--nowadays studio apartments are two million dollars) who becomes Mickey's loveslave/whore. (Where is Lara Flynn Boyle these days, anyway? An excellent actress, a joy to work with and versatile--able to do the quirky young thing as well as the smoky noir thing. ) It's a lurid, fun movie with lots of cigarettes, drinks, nasty dialogue and absolutely no redemptive message.
We shot it at the end of 1994, over the Christmas/New Years Holiday, in twenty-two days in an abandoned gentleman's club in lower Manhattan. There was less than two million dollars to work with--though you'd never know it from the sets and costumes, which look excellent. Also in the cast is the late John Spencer--who wound up running the White House on 'The West Wing' before succumbing to a heart attack at the too young age of 59. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in Director's Fortnight the following year--quite an experience for a twenty-nine year old filmmaker...but then Todd McCarthy gave it a middling review in Variety and the interested buyer (I believe it was Sony) suddenly vanished. It was sold to Showtime as a "Showtime Premiere" movie and a couple of years later I opened it theatrically (with my own money--which I probably should have invested in AOL) in Manhattan, at the now defunct "Screening Room", a lovely bar/restaturant/cinema that was on Canal Street. If for some bizarre reason you'd like to read Roger Ebert's, Leonard Maltin's and Stephen Holden's very charming reviews of the film, go to my website and follow the not very complicated path to the 'Cafe Society' page. Enjoy, I hope....
Thursday, September 6, 2007
I thought that Jerry Lewis would be a temporary stop on Monday--his telethon having drawn my attention etc. But there is much more to say (and see) than I properly would have imagined. And, upon reflection, I've been seriously fascinated by this gifted, paradoxical creature for many many years.
The paradox in Lewis is, you might say, the classic comic's paradox: how can sombody so funny be such a repugnant shit? Lewis can be outwardly warm and expressive when he chooses to be--and can also be famously rude and cold. Years ago, a friend of mine--who was also a big Jerry fan-- worked as a P.A. on the "Today Show" and excitedly told me that Lewis was appearing as a guest. When the day came, my friend waited for Jerry's interview to be over and approached him. "Mr. Lewis, I just wanted to tell you what a big fan--" And this was as far as he got. Lewis spun on him and said, "How dare you bother me? Can't you see I'm busy?"
Awful though the story was (and lousy though my friend felt) something in me loved Lewis for his nutty star attitude. The monstrous egoist and the innocent boychick truly exist side by side in this man. Need I mention his comment on women comedians? ("That sets me back a bit...I think of them as baby-producing machines.") And the other night, apparently, at hour eighteen on his telethon, he called somebody's son a "fag." (Glaad got on his ass immediately. He apologized immediately.) Still, I believe deeply in his concern for and desire to help the sick and needy--I never bought the 'he's only doing it for his image' response. And I also believe he'd fire his own kid if he felt like it. (In fact I think he's estranged from more than one of his children). In Peter Bogdanovich's new book about actors, "Who The Hell Is In It", the Lewis section (which is for my money the most interesting section of this very interesting book) contains several rather...strange lines that one could only imagine Lewis saying. For instance, he talks openly about his womanzing in his early days (despite his famous "perfect marriage" to Patty that produced his first six kids) and off-handedly mentions having sex with a different woman every morning in his dressing room before getting down to work. "Just to get the poison out...", he adds. WHHHAAT?
Clearly the negative image drowned Lewis in the public opinion polls--by the late sixties he was finished as a movie star and his directing career never really took off. The telethon became his main gig. It took the Eddie Murphy remake of "Nutty Professor" to bring him back to the zeitgeist--and it apparently bailed him out financially. Lewis's deal with Paramount gave him the ownership of his old movies back after thirty years, which means that Paramount had to pay him a fortune to remake a film that they'd produced in the first place.
Lewis and his craziness can't really be seperated. With Sinatra, one must ignore the images of his thugs beating up his fans for looking at the Man the wrong way and just listen to the voice. But with Lewis, the ugliness is part of his charisma--danger is very much a part of his act. Below is from the "Colgate Comedy Hour." This is brilliant, vintage, truly out of control (and scary) Lewis--the highs and lows of his vocal gymnastics, the never-ending facial contortions, the bossing around of the floor staff (you can see he's the boss even when he's doing his little boy shtick) and the very clever camera-switching routine which feels more Ernie Kovacs-like than Jerry Lewis-like. But that's another thing about Jerry that just doesn't get mentioned enough. He didn't just rely on shtick; he tried ideas--often quite sophisticated (for their time) visual ones, more and more as he began directing. But that's for another day.
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
As I mentioned the other day, the charm of Martin and Lewis completely eluded me for years, having only seen their relentlessly trashy movies and therefore not having grasped their real appeal. With the release of their Colgate Comedy TV shows on DVD, however, one gets a glimpse (at the end of every show) of the nightclub act that wowed the audience at the Copacabana in the late 1940's and put them on the map as America's biggest, newest (and scareiest) entertainers. That act is, essentially, what they did to close every Colgate TV show--a free-form , improvisatory, free-association, no-rules melange of jokes, impressions, dancing, and insults hurled at the band, the audience members and each other.
In the vaudeville years, comedians were either about "polish" (the ones who wore tuxes and prided themselves on their monologue skills) or scruff (the one's who did bum/clown/drunk acts). Martin and Lewis's singular innovation was in combing the roughhouse, often tasteless, style of the latter--with the tuxedo's of the former. Lewis makes this point in his very good new book, "Dean And Jerry"--saying that early on he realized that he and Dean could do any sort of insane thing they wanted too--but if they were in tuxes the audience would somehow trust them more. He also says that, no matter how free-form and chaotic things could get, it was always important to end with a slickly rehearsed dance number--thereby showing the audience that they really were "pros".
The below clip, which runs just over five minutes, encapsulates every one of these points. Here, the show has apparently run short and Dean and Jerry have to dip into their nightclub bag to pad an extra five minutes of airtime. (Though I suspect this may have simply been a ruse to get the home audience to buy into watching their act. In any event, most of the Colgate shows end with material like this.) Watch now as Jerry kisses Dean on the mouth, insults the floor staff of the tv show for encouraging applause at inoppurtune moments, dances with Dean and calls his partner's impression of Cary Grant "terrible".
Clearly the electricity these two set off in crowds was something all new and never before seen. You can still feel it emanating from this old clip...
Monday, September 3, 2007
Labor Day Monday, in my childhood at least, meant only one thing: staying up with Jerry and watching the "stars come out." Even as the years progressed and the biggest names on the show were Buddy Greco and Constance Towers, I hung in with my Labor Day ritual for a simple reason; my undying love and admiration for one of our greatest comics and filmmakers, Jerry Lewis.
So why I am still ashamed and defensive about my fondness--idolatry, really--for this great American institution? Perhaps because he is still, as far as I can tell, generally loathed and disliked in a way that absolutely stumps me. Was he crazy? Certainly. A big ego? The biggest. Insufferably self-centered and filled with self-love and willing to go to extraordinary lengths to convince us that he was somehow Christlike in his devotion to the muscular-dystrophy community? Yes, yes to all the above charges!
Still, Jerry Lewis is a comedy genius and one of the last living BIG STAR links to the show-biz world of the early and middle twentieth century. (Kirk Douglas is the only other male movie star of the period still breathing. Who am I missing, male or female? Can't think of any others). I have a sorry feeling that the love for Jerry will return once he's no longer here--to quote Orson Welles, who we must remember was looked upon quite condescendingly in his later years for his wine commercials and fatness--"Oh how they'll love me when I'm gone!"
As a kid, I passed over the Martin and Lewis movies not understanding their charm (they're still pretty charmless: its the Martin and Lewis nightclub act stuff--which can be seen at the end of their Colgate Comedy Hour TV shows which are now on DVD --that really shows off their delightfully wacked out and still oddly emotional act). Instead I went straight for the Jerry Lewis solo movies--the ones he directed and co-wrote with Bill Richmond were my favorites--"The Bellboy". "The Ladies Man" and the still brilliantly funny "The Errand Boy." Frankly the egg-head approved "Nutty Professor" had too much plot for me--and that awful last apologia speech which still makes me cringe for Jerry. He had a tin ear in a lot of respects--his telethon ramblings were sometimes so painful as to take one into a whole other realm of humor, one in which you were viewing a genuine show-biz monster melting down in a fit of self-love...but something in me even liked that part of Jerry.
Below is a great little clip from "The Errand Boy." In it, Jerry dreams of being "the boss." The funny thing is, this is actually who he was--a demanding movie business tyrant who ordered his lackeys about and laughed at his own jokes. Which to me means that the real art of Jerry Lewis is partly self-reflexive. He always knew that a big part of his act was that we all knew the score; behind the "little lost boy" a not terribly well-hidden monster lurked. And when he accessed that monster, he could be truly, devilishly funny. I haven't watched the telethon in years--perhaps because he's not really a part of it anymore. His book, "Dean and Jerry", is highly reccommended--much more honest and insightful than one might imagine. I love you, Jer. Keep swinging, baby. Jesus. What's happening to me? I must be turning into Buddy Love...