Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Movies Til Dawn happily announces the beginning of production of its host's Raymond De Felitta's new film, "City Island". Which explains, partially, the paucity of posts which, in the post-happy blog world, (did I mean "post-happy" or post happy?) is easily misconstrued as disinterest, dis-engagement and--worst of all--pre-blog-abandonment laziness. (As if keeping these frigging blogs to begin with isn't its own sign of displaced laziness. I began this whole experiment as a way to justify the hours a day I lose on youtube watching cool old clips of stuff). Most importantly, when production of "City Island" begins this blog will transform itself into a daily diary of the shooting of said film. There will be commentary, clips of dailies and other ephermera. You will be able to follow the daily production of what is now laughingly referred to as an "independent film" (though we are, in fact, truly minus any studio and only up and going thanks to truly visionary private investors). Question: Is anyone else doing this? Yes? You're kidding! Who? Why? Will they give us more money?
Which is a preamble to the following: I don't have the time to write at the length I normally do, but I do wish to continue the very important (to me) relationship I've established with the readers of the site. So the answer is, I think, shorter posts with a more common theme. And what more common (and common couldn't be a more weighty and appropriate word) theme might we have then where DANCERS AND COMEDIANS INTERSECT? There are so many to choose from and the results are often horrifying, usually scary and always a delight. And the YTB is filled with them. Here, to kick off this new cycle then, is a marvelous clip of Curly Howard going to town in the early forties (he's doing the one-to-three-kick which I believe is the Conga). This is, I think, from a short, but which? This is clearly the pre-sick Curly--his timing is still sharp as you'll see. More to follow--and a further discussion of Curly's sickness and its all too apparent effect on his performances to follow.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Released in the first week of 1957, "Three Little Bops" was no doubt seen, chuckled at and as quickly dismissed as any other cartoon of the time--the time being the waning days of the Warners animation unit. Over the years, however, a rather sizable cult has grown up around the film and the jazz score that accompanies it--several bands have even performed the entire piece as a stand-alone concert work. And if the below links to a few different sites are any indication, "Three Little Bops" continues to live on in the imaginations of film buffs and provoke some rather provocative commentaries.
The film's premise is a re-telling of the three little pigs story in which the pigs are a trio of bop musicians and the big bad wolf is a square, no-talent horn player whose greatest desire is to join their band. Stan Freberg narrates the tale with a strong bop-vocal performance and apparently provided the other voices (pigs and wolf) as well. Shorty Rogers arranged the music and the line-up of musicians (if Wikipedia can be believed) is impressive: Art Pepper on sax, Pete Jolly piano, Rogers himself on trumpet and Shelly Manne on drums. The bass player is thought to be Joe Mondragon and the guitar is, alas, "unknown"--a shame as the guitar work is superb and key to the overall success of the sound which is clean, crew-cut be-bop--sort of reminiscent of the Gerry Mulligan "Jazz Goes To High School" sound.
There are any number of questions that remained unanswered, so far as I know, about how the work came into being. For instance: the cartoon's director is Friz Freleng, a wonderful and singular Warner Brothers hand. But the layout work is quite striking and unusual, provoking comparisons with Calder (the influence on the title card--above--is clear). Who's concept was this? And who really came up with the entire idea? Warren Foster, a "story by" credit on hundreds of Warner Brothers cartoons, is listed--but did he write the lyrics? Why was Freberg employed as the vocalist? The entire concept feels Freberg-ian to me--this is around the time of his hilarious record sending up the payola scandal, "The Old Payola Role Blues". I imagine he must have been in on the concept--as well as the hiring of Shorty Rogers. Also, the cartoon deploys no sound effects--only the music and the sounds the instruments make are used for effects. This also feels less standard-issue cartoon deptartment and more the work of an outsider. I imagine a simple conversation with whoever was involved who is still living (Freberg?) could clear this up. Perhaps a certain Manhattan based blogger who writes daily about jazz at jazzwax.com might take up this investigation...
If Warner Brothers cartoon directors could be compared with feature directors, I'd match Freleng with, say, Cukor at MGM--a supremely confident technician who, given the right elements, made the bubbles rise to the surface. Robert McKimson would be Michael Curtiz--dependable, stolid, knocking out the work. Chuck Jones of course is the Minnelli figure--the genuine artist as contract employee, always alert to the hidden opportunities for greatness buried in the daily grind. Tex Avery is Preston Sturges--the dangerous radical who somehow was offered a contract. Freleng (whose real name was Isadore and was occasionally billed as I. Freleng--an early sop to Hollywood's home-grown anti-semitism?) had, like Cukor, a deft touch and a better than average sense of theatricality and pace. His Bugs Bunny's are the best of the lot for me (Bugs is to Friz as Hepburn is to Cukor) and "Three Little Bops" proves his versatility at things previously untried--it is to Friz as, say, "Bowhani Junction" is To Cukor.
I was always thrilled when, as a child, I caught a showing of "Three Little Bops"--the visuals, the music and the way the characters dance were as delightful to me then as they are now. Indeed the cartoon grows richer with repeated viewings. I can't say, however, that I agree with the assertion posted on this Friz Freleng blogathonhosted by Brian of Hell On Frisco Bay that there is some color-line messaging going on in the movie...that the three little bops are all white and that they've "stolen" the wolf's music (implying I suppose that the wolf is black?) Yes, the nightclub patrons are all white, and yes they desert the dance floor when the wolf plays...but let's not go there. The very fact that a fifty year old six minute cartoon can continue to provoke speculation of this sort is, I suppose, a tribute to its originality and continued freshness. Here then, without further ado, is "Three Little Bops"...
Thursday, June 5, 2008
I've written before 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, yes, 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 drunkards...it seems like the kind of job somebody would think they 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 something enjoyable that's coming up. But until discovering, on good old youtube, the following cache of logo's, ID's and intro's to movie shows, I had no idea that my real nostalgia for my childhood was centered on something so...bitesize, unsubstantial...let's face it, so utterly without artistic redemption. And yet, judging by the number of hits a lot of these clips get, apparently I'm not the only child of television eager to revisit these iconographic snatches of the pre-cable, pre-DVD, pre-internet, pre-blackberry, pre-download, pre-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 forty-three...and on a computer? (warning: it's proceeded by a commercial for a gambling/dining establishment in Gardena, California--a brief forty-five seconds is all it runs...)
KTLA, Channel 5, had several different movie programs--the Eight O'Clock Movie was a regular evening event for me for many years, usually featuring a Paramount film from the forties or fifties. Though they retained the logo for the Channel 5 movie theater, they updated the music and the graphics in the late seventies and made an effort to show more recent films. The below is an ID during a showing of "Harry And Tonto"--not exactly a Hope/Crosby movie, though by now as distant from our current culture as H&C were from the world I was growing up in. In spite of, or perhaps because of the Georgio Moroder-influenced disco bed, the below brings me back to the "my homework's not done but screw it I'm watching whatever's on Channel 5" phase of my adolescence, circa 1978.
So deeply did I associate the theme from "Gone With The Wind" with the Channel 9 "Million Dollar Movie" theme that I apparently threw a fit when I finally saw "Gone With The Wind" because I thought they'd stolen the music from "my show", which I'd been watching for a long time prior to my first viewing of "Wind". I was a strange child in some ways.
I'll close this increasingly suspect trip down memory lane with the coolest of all opening movie-program logos--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 lawn 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:
Monday, June 2, 2008
Continuing on our unplanned but highly appropriate month long birthday tribute to Orson Welles, I've discovered two clips of an interview conducted with the big dog in 1960. Clearly this is a part of longer interview--on IMDB the film is known as "Interview With Orson Welles" (gee, they really put their heads together coming up with that title) and the running time is said to be 57 minutes. According to the only comment posted, the entire interview was screened at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in 2005. (Funny...my film, "The Thing About My Folks" was at that very festival that very year and actually won the Audience Award. Had I been there I would certainly have blown off my own screening to view this instead. Only thanks to the films writer, producer and star--a former television personality--I wasn't invited. The poor guy seemed to regard my participation in any publicity--even a local film festival--as tantamount to stealing the last droplets of water from a canteen he was clutching while wandering lost in the desert.)
(Does the above rant really belong in this posting? Why not? Our subject is, after all, Orson Welles who--let's face it--suffered every possible humiliation show-biz has to offer without ever stopping to even consider quitting...is that why he's such a hero to me?)
Anyway, back to "Interview With Orson Welles". The setting is a Paris hotel room in 1960--what better place to find OW in the richest period of his expatriation, his American comeback film "Touch Of Evil" having 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 interviewer here is the thoughtful and only occasionally goofy Bernard Braden, who I'd never heard of but who rates this quite interesting wikipedia entry. And Welles is, as always, magnetic, interesting, occasionally frightening, always outrageously sensible...and yet, and yet...
This view of Welles is simply not 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 melancholy like a cape into which he might retreat at any given moment--somewhat more resigned and gently philisophical. Instead, we see here 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 Welles 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 Braden's 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 Braden when the interviewer 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 Braden is 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 somehow 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.