Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Halloween Files: Kolchak: the Night Stalker

Last year around this time I paid tribute to the classic horror TV series Dark Shadows. This Halloween I want to throw the spotlight on another one of the finest horror series ever, Kolchak: the Night Stalker. Derived from two TV-movies and cancelled after just one season of 20 episodes, the show is revered by horror and fantasy fans, as well it should be.
The premise was very simple: veteran reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) uncovers a different supernatural or paranormal phenomenon in every episode, cracks the story wide open, and then has his article squelched by his editor, the local authorities, or the federal government.
One of the many reasons the show is so beloved by its fans is the notion of Kolchak’s Sisyphus-like job as a reporter. It’s a given that none of his stories will ever see the light of print, yet he continues on, remaining employed strictly because his harried boss Anthony Vincenzo (sublime character actor Simon Oakland) respects him.
The show was unique in that it contained a very healthy dose of humor. Kolchak was a man out of time — a mid-Seventies reporter who wore a cheap straw hat and a seersucker suit (the out-of-date wardrobe was McGavin’s own idea — he said he saw the character as stuck in the early Sixties). He was a comic figure who inhabited a comic environment (the newsroom of INS, a lesser wire service), but who deeply believed in his profession and would do anything, including putting his life in jeopardy, to get his story.
Like the original Star Trek, the show’s strength lay in its scripting and casting. The people who have put it down over the years (more on that below) have complained about the often threadbare-looking monsters and the ridiculous idea that one reporter could encounter so many different menaces.
Well, the show’s scripters, among them David “The Sopranos” Chase (who served as the show’s story editor), a young Robert Zemeckis, and Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster (The Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein), carried it off by creating a raft of extremely imaginative threats, included monsters from Native American, Cajun, and Haitian legends. My all-time favorite (see below) is the East Indian monster who appears to you in the form of the person you trust the most, in Sangster’s episode “Horror in the Heights.”
In addition to the scripting, the show was immaculately cast with familiar faces from TV and the movies. Among the guest stars, and folks cast as Kolchak’s tipsters, in the 20 eps were Tom Skerritt, John Marley, Phil Silvers, Nina Foch, Keenan Wynn, Jan Murray, Larry Storch, Carolyn Jones, Erik Estrada, Scatman Crothers, Antonio Fargas, Lara Parker, James Gregory, Mary Wickes, J. Pat O’Malley, John Fiedler, Army Archerd, Milt Kamen, Nita Talbot, Dick Gautier, Jeanne Cooper, Richard Kiel, Alice Ghostley, Severn Darden, Julie Adams, Bernie Kopell, Jim Backus, Jesse White, Art Metrano, Jackie Vernon, Hans Conreid, Cathy Lee Crosby, and both David Doyle and Tom Bosley!
The supporting cast was also perfect for their cartoonlike roles, from Jack Grinnage's prissy reporter to Ruth McDevitt as the grandmotherly advice columnist to the sublime Simon Oakland as the long-suffering Vincenzo.
The premier casting coup, though, was the star himself. Darren McGavin positively shone in the part, as he was able to capably balance the show’s humor and chills. He also possessed a terrific voice and was one of the all-time great hardboiled voiceover men — he had formerly starred in the Mike Hammer TV show in 1958-59, where he refined his craft.
Kolchak represented a fascinating bridge between newspaper comedies of the Thirties like The Front Page, and the post-Woodward and Bernstein “reporter as free speech hero” films and TV narratives. In fact, the most interesting thing about the show was its anti-establishment stance. Carl Kolchak tries to expose the truth, but is constantly lied to by the police, politicians, and other authority figures. The killer-robot episode “Mr. R.I.N.G.” has Kolchak learning that a coverup has been put in place to uphold “national security.”
It’s refreshing to find a piece of popular entertainment that so blatantly has as one of its themes the fact that the government lies to us (a lot). One of the most common tropes in the series finds Kolchak’s photographs and audio cassettes being either confiscated by the police or destroyed. The only thing he’s left with is his trusty tape recorder, into which he recounts the full story after the menace has been disposed of.
Given the fact that that the show is held in very high regard by many horror and fantasy fans, it surprised me upon researching the series to discover that there was a very vocal minority of people who thought the series was a “mistake” — that only the two TV-movies should have been made — and that those people included the folk behind the creation of the original TV movies.
In the book Night Stalking: a 20th Anniversary Kolchak Companion, author Mark Dawidziak — who himself confesses that he thinks the series was a mistake (although he wrote not one but two books about it) — got interviews with all of the principals involved in the original pair of TV-movies, and all of them complain that the Kolchak series was completely misguided.
Scripter Richard Matheson, producer-director Dan Curtis, the creator of the Kolchak character, Jeff Rice, and Darren McGavin himself all agreed that the two TV-movies were terrific, but they disliked the notion of doing a Kolchak TV series. After the show became a massive cult hit in reruns, McGavin was fond of noting that he had a terrible time working on it because it was produced in such a last-minute fashion (the shows were shot in six days and aired in the order they were shot in, McGavin noting “We were turning in wet negatives”).
Add to the dissenting voices Stephen King, who derided the series in his book Danse Macabre We do have to keep in mind, however, that this comes from a talented craftsman who feels that every single line he writes is worthy of publication (you ain't Dostoevsky or Pynchon, Steve, you're a goddamned genre novelist!). As for film/TV entertainment, remember that King felt that the Kubrick Shining could be improved upon by a meager U.S. TV miniseries; he thought a similarly anemic rewrite of von Trier’s sensational The Kingdom was necessary; and he botched the EC formula for horror in his tribute to those classic comics, Creepshow.
The Dawidziak book (written in 1991) also contains statements in praise of the show. The late mystery writer and film historian Stuart Kaminsky and several TV critics, including NPR’s David Bianculli, go on the record proclaiming the show to be one of the best fantasy series ever to air on American TV. At this point, you could definitely add to that chorus producer-writer Chris Carter, who has professed a major love for the show and has stated that it was one of the key inspirations for his X-Files — since Kolchak was the first TV character to notice that “there's something out there.”
I fall in with the latter camp. I think Kolchak: the Night Stalker was one of the best horror series ever and was also a triumph when it came to mixing horror and humor. Sure, the monsters were often super-cheap looking, but a good deal of the low-budget sci-fi and horror films of the Fifties and Sixties contain bargain-basement creatures.
Thus, I urge you to check out the series and the two telefilms, all of which are currently online for free, thanks to three very generous posters, “naysgrace” and “Ocean71fvr” having posted the bulk of the series, with “wgdvds” picking up the slack and posting the remaining eps. Below I choose the must-see ten of the 22 Kolchak adventures.
No one – including the dogmatic and all-too-wordy Stephen King – disputes that the original Night Stalker TV-movie from 1972 is a classic of its kind. When we first meet Carl Kolchak, he's working in Las Vegas and the menace he uncovers is a vampire (Barry Atwater):
The second Kolchak TV-movie, The Night Strangler (1973) finds Carl in Seattle investigating an immortal strangler. The supporting cast in this telefilm is filled with familiar faces:
The first episode of the Kolchak TV series establishes that Carl and his boss have set down roots in Chicago. The first menace encountered there is a killer who may be Jack the Ripper:
The second episode pits Carl against a zombie killer, resurrected by voodoo (the Mafia are also involved, and the chief don insults Kolchak's “two dollar hat”). One of the standard plot devices in the series was for Carl to discover an arcane ritual that would kill the monster in question; this episode contains one of the best death-rituals in the entire series:
One of the best traditional monster tales in the series was the fourth episode, “The Vampire,” in which Carl hunts down a vampiress in Los Angeles (who happens to have been “turned” by the vampire in the original Night Stalker TV-movie):
Dark Shadows' Lara Parker is a fashion model who just happens to be a witch in the lively episode “The Trevi Collection”:
“Firefall” contains one of the images from the series that has haunted me since childhood. Kolchak hiding in a church as a deadly doppelganger bangs at a high church window trying to get at him. In this case, the doppelganger looks like an orchestra conductor and set his victims on fire:
I will close out with three of the best paranoia scenarios. The first is a UFO saga in which Carl finds out that the government has covered up the fact that killer aliens (who live by sucking bone marrow out of their victims) have landed on Earth. The title of the episode is the rather portentous “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be....”:
A Cajun man involved in a sleep experiment unleashes a swamp monster in Chicago in “The Spanish Moss Murders.”
And finally, my all-time favorite episode in the series, “Horror in the Heights.” Here grisly killings take place when an ancient Indian monster assumes the form of the person most trusted by its victims. Phil Silvers guest stars, and Jimmy Sangster's tight and imaginative script shows how good the series could be when all the elements were at their best:

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Goodbye, Emmanuelle: Deceased Artiste Sylvia Kristel

Sylvia Kristel’s death last week at the relatively young age of 60 as a result of complications from a long battle with lung cancer brought back memories to many of us of her mid-Seventies heyday as the softcore sex queen. An extremely attractive, but refreshingly not “bodacious,” presence, she was genuinely sexy, and although she lamented in later years that her acting career had never gone quite where she wanted it to, her triumph was always in exuding sensuality without seeming either phony or forced.

Dutch by nationality but always mistaken for French because of her best-known film work, Kristel had been a secretary and a beauty contest winner before she took the plunge and starred in Just Jaeckin’s landmark softcore feature Emmanuelle in 1974.

The posters quietly stated, “X was never like this,” and it was indeed true: the film ranked alongside Radley Metzger’s features as being one of the classiest bits of film erotica ever. It thus garnered several distinctions. Among them was the fact that it played in Paris not in a porn house, but in a theater on the Champs-Elysees, and in America it was shown not in grindhouses but in arthouses thanks to its being distributed (with subtitles yet!) by Columbia Pictures.

Shortly after her “Emmanuelle” fame, Kristel was cast by two auteurs (Chabrol and Robbe-Grillet, more on this below), but the majority of the films she worked in in both French and English were either “Euro chic” (read: safe for couples) softcore — Lady Chatterly’s Lover 1981), Mata Hari (1985) — or lame, leering American sex comedies, the biggest hit being Private Lessons (1981). One of her weirder assignments was a supporting role in the really horrible Get Smart feature The Nude Bomb (1980).

She later discussed in her autobiography Undressing Emmanuelle the highs and lows that movie stardom conferred upon her in the late Seventies and early Eighties. She dated gents like Vadim, Depardieu, and Beatty as she made the move from France to L.A. She also cultivated a cocaine habit, had trouble with alcohol, and entered various relationships looking for a “father figure.” The most salient quote she provided for this period comes from her autobio: “sooner or later the debt must be paid... women are charged a great deal for having been beautiful, unfairly different, attractive, for provoking unsatisfied desire.”

She remained a very good-looking woman up until her death, but those of us who continued to watch her movies throught the Eighties and Nineites were well aware that she was that was making horrible choices in both her life and her career — especially when you see her in absolute L.A.-made straight-to-video crap like Beauty School (1993). The film was clearly made to be funny but, as the trailer indicates, it’s just fuckin’ awful.

Her rather wild lifestyle did begin to make her look slightly older onscreen — especially when she suddenly appeared with curly hair, dyed red, in no-budget potboilers. I did actually pay to see the first few Emmanuelle sequels in theaters and, as is true of every series, they got worse as they went along.

Emmanuelle: The Joys of a Woman (a much better title than the original “Emmanuelle 2”) led to Goodbye, Emmanuelle, which was just absolutely awful. The only thing I remembered about the film was its very catchy theme song. Years later I discovered that the song had been written by Serge Gainsbourg and performed by Serge and Jane Birkin. This is definitely the best thing about the third installment:

Kristel still looked very good in 1984, but the time had come, apparently, to find a newer Emmanuelle. Instead of simply replacing her outright, it seemed that the producers wanted to publicly humiliate her by having her appear in the dreadful Emmanuelle 4 as a woman named Sylvia who flees her boyfriend by going to Brazil and getting “extensive plastic surgery” (so sez the Wiki for the film; I seem to remember her entering some kind of chamber or something).

When she emerges with her new (younger, natch) face, she is “Emmanuelle,” played by the actress Mia Nyrgren. I was embarrassed for Kristel when I saw the picture (which was shot to be shown in 3D and had “explicit” scenes included in its European and VHS versions).

Little did I know that she reprised her most famous role again, several times, in a made-for-cable series of films made in 1993-94, in which she was actually billed as “Old Emmanuelle” — the sex scenes were undertaken by an actress playing the younger Emmanuelle (and one of the costars was the one-time-only Bond, George Lazenby). I should note that when she did Emmanuelle 4 she was 32, and when she was “Old Emmanuelle” she was exactly 41.

Therefore, it makes perfect sense that Sylvia went back to the Netherlands and continued to work as an actress in less racy material. She was an avid painter and directed a short cartoon in 2004 about the ways in which her mentor, artist Roland Topor, changed her life (you can see two minutes of the cartoon on her IMDB page).

Some of the obits for Sylvia referred to her as having been “the world's most famous porn star” at one time. She was never a porn star, she was an actress who was as sexy and elegant in clothes as she was out of them.

I found many wonderful video tributes to Sylvia online, including this one (scored to Serge and Jane). The gentleman who runs the Sylvia Kristel fans blogspot has let us hear the lady speak for herself, with uploads of interview footage from the extras on the Emmanuelle DVDs:

The first Emmanuelle was the sexiest film she was ever in, but it was one of two films she was in that did phenomenally over here. The other one was the coyly sleazy Private Lessons. Here is the famous scene where she undresses to excite a young boy, carefully edited of course to remove any nudity (YouTube is an American-owned company, and as such can't deal with the sight of the human body).

It's a really goofy scene, with dippy music, but Sylvia does look wonderful, and I have the uncanny feeling that no film like this could be made in the American mainstream anymore, since we've gotten to be an even more Puritanical society in this, the age of the Internet:

The best musical number I found by her on the Net was this nice bossa nova tune, “Changes,” performed by Sylvia with the Eddy De Clercq Quartet:

I decided to close out this tribute with three clips that I couldn't find anywhere online, so I uploaded them myself. The first is her entire appearance from the Alain Robbe-Grillet film Le Jeu Avec Le Feu (aka “Playing with Fire,” 1975).(Thanks much to Paul G.)

Robbe-Grillet's films are odd affairs that use the cyclical, open-ended construction of his nouveau roman novels, but they also have several sequences in which women are seen tied up. In this instance Sylvia is the victim and, although she looks lovely, she is shamelessly thrown in and then tossed out of the picture. NOTE: The English subtitles for this film make no sense, but that shouldn't affect your viewing experience.

The second film represents her most notable starring turn for an “auteur,” Claude Chabrol's Alice ou la derniere fugue (1977). The film is intriguing and downright bizarre at times, but is mostly notable for being the only adaptation of Lewis Carroll in which Alice is alone for long periods of time and only encounters a small handful of not-so-colorful characters! (But yes, she is naked here, so the clip briefly becomes NFSW).

And finally, my favorite moment from the “lower end” of Sylvia's career, her attack on Linda Blair at the end of the women-in-prison pic Red Heat (1985). The film is ridiculous, but wonderfully so at times. The scene that ends this montage is one of those times.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Take the ride: Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors”

Leos Carax burst on the film scene back in 1984 with his debut feature, Boy Meets Girl, a quiet, charming work that signaled that a major talent had arrived. In the 21 years since his exquisite third film, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991), Carax has turned out only a short and two features, and each has been highly anticipated by his growing fan base.

His latest feature, Holy Motors, which opened this week, is an incredibly ambitious yet playful work that finds his immaculately talented onscreen alter-ego, actor Denis Lavant, assuming a variety of roles as a mysterious man who tackles a number of “jobs” (each requiring a different identity) in the span of a single day.

Carax structured the film so that his protagonist can move easily from genre to genre. The only information we're given about him at the outset (which may or may not be the reality of his life) is that he's a rich man who is picked up in the morning by a chauffeur (Edith Scob) who transports him to each of his assignments. Thus, Lavant slides into a number of different personas: a pathetic homeless man, an impossibly limber motion-capture model, an urban dad with a shy teenage daughter, an old man ready to die, a hitman, a forlorn lover and, most memorably, a sewer-dwelling troglodyte who terrorizes Paris and claims as his prize a hot model (Eva Mendes).

And there I dispense with plot, as I'm sure Carax wanted to do in the creation of this picture. The list above leaves out an absolutely wonderful musical interlude where, apropos of nothing, Lavant leads a motley (but killer) accordion band through what looks to be an abandoned church. Throughout the picture, Carax connects with a number of movie genres, from Jacques Demy-like romance to Ishiro Honda-inspired city-trashing, having fun all the way. The main virtue of Holy Motors is its wild unpredictability.

Although this is his first feature shot on digital, Carax puts his love of film at the forefront, starting the proceedings with a Lavant-less prologue in which he, Leos, makes up and wanders in his pajamas into a movie palace filled with immobile, seemingly sleeping, patrons. When a filmmaker acknowledges at the outset that the film we're watching is his dream, absolutely anything is possible.

Like the anthology features made in recent years by Wong Kar-Wai, Jim Jarmusch, and Takeshi Kitano, the film plays at first like an “interim” work, which has fortunately spawned some bravura set-pieces that rank with the best of Carax's work. The vignettes each have their virtues, with the troglodyte segment (spun out of Carax's contribution to the anthology feature Tokyo!) being the most feverishly weird and entertaining, and the sequence in which Lavant plays a dying old man feeling the hardest to wade through – especially since its dour tone is shortly followed by two broadly comic moments.

As noted above, the film provides a tour-de force showcase for Lavant. We see him applying and removing makeup in the limo, but once he appears in each vignette, he is fully transformed and demonstrates that he’s a character actor extraordinaire (who can also be a very unconventional leading man). There is literally nothing out of the range of his small frame and visage.

As a further homage to the glories of cinema past, the supporting cast has some very familiar faces. Besides Eva Mendes (whose job as “Beauty” is to simply attract Lavant’s Beast), Carax has scored a cameo by the legendary Michel Piccoli, who costarred in his terrific evocation of silent cinema and the French New Wave, Mauvais Sang (1986). Piccoli is one of the few actors still alive (besides, obviously, Moreau and Leaud) who carries with him a wealth of French cinematic references – from Le Mepris to Belle du Jour and on and on.

Also offering cinematic echoes of her own is the actress playing the dutiful chauffeur. Edith Scob dons a white mask in one of the film’s final scenes, evoking her unforgettable starring role in George Franju’s horror classic Eyes Without a Face (1960). On a lesser level, Kylie Minogue appears in the segment intended to evoke Demy, bringing with her a pop stardom that echoes that of the ye-ye girls and “dollybird” singers who appeared in Sixties comedies and pop fantasies.

What some sour souls may see as the deficits in Holy Motors — its jumps in tone, its expectation that the viewer will follow along from scene to scene, its very odd payoff(s) — makes it one of the most adventurous films to appear in some time (from a director not named von Trier) and a very rewarding head trip.

I’ve been talking about Carax’s work on the Funhouse TV show for several years now. The first episode I did about him was back in 1995. Foremost among the items shown at that time were his musical moments, beginning with this lovely visualization of a number by the “Anthony Newley-era” David Bowie from Boy Meets Girl (1984):

Carax does indeed do miraculous work visualizing pop music (yet has never made a music-video yet, bless ’im). One his best-ever moments is this mega-kinetic celebration of the joy of love, enacted by Lavant in Mauvais Sang (1986):

The film that “broke” Carax in France, but has since become a beloved cult film (and is thus far his masterwork) is the very unique love story Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991), aka “Lovers on the Bridge” on American DVD. Here is the trailer (and, yes, that is Juliette Binoche waterskiing on the Seine):

Pola X (1999) was his return to filmmaking after the difficulties caused by Les Amants. It’s the most difficult of his five features (the whole film is available in French here) and contains several moments that are intended to be highly jarring, like this dream sequence:

I interviewed Carax in conjunction with opening of Pola X in 2000. Here is a slice of him meditating on his inability to get films made:

Here is the trailer for Holy Motors:

And I can’t resist adding the German trailer, which is structured around the band-in-church musical sequence:

Thursday, October 11, 2012

An echo chamber in his larynx: Deceased Artiste Andy Williams (part two of two)

Since I’ve discussed what was utterly misguided on The Andy Williams Show — but is compellingly watchable in many instances as Sixties TV kitsch — I have to talk about what did work wonderfully. The show’s best element was the many duos and trios that Andy did with singers who were of his “generation” (and older). As a quick fer-instance, he did two incredibly smooth duets with Brazilian singers, “The Girl from Ipanema” with Antonio Carlos Jobim, and the less-often-heard but equally beautiful “Samba de Verao” (Summer Song) with Marcos Valle: 

Given his background as a “boy singer” backing up Kay Thompson, it makes perfect sense that he dueted well with female singers, and that he did with Peggy Lee and the one and only Lady Ella. His duet with Aretha Franklin doesn’t hit the right note, to the point that Andy has to make fun of how un-soulful he is (to see a white variety-show host keep up with Aretha, check out Tom Jones’s wonderful duet with her).
One of my favorite under-appreciated performers was singer-songwriter Roger Miller, who came up with a string of great fast-paced, humorous country singles in the Sixties (and the timeless “King of the Road”). Andy and he dueted on “In the Summertime (You Don’t Want My Love).” Roger handles the humor on that one (replete with eefin’ action!).
More appropriate for Andy are the times he sang opposite other male singers, including the leagues of great male lounge-MOR performers of the Sixties. Like all the other middle-aged balladeers, he had the opportunity to work with the guy who influenced them all, Bing Crosby. He also did a spirited duet with the eternally smooth Tony Bennett on “This Could Be the Start of Something Big” (written by his former mentor Steve Allen, and performed here with the Count Basie band).
The most energetic numbers Andy performed are the show were always in the company of two other male singers (shades of his work with his brothers?). This set-up happened frequently on the show, usually with Bobby Darin in the trio. This occurred with Tony Martin and Eddie Fisher as the third side of the triangle. The oddest combo has got to be Darin and the always-amazing Anthony Newley (who has “long hair” for a 1966 variety show). Both Bobby and Tony seem to be into goofin’ around:
Also of note to me (and Funhouse folk who love this guy’s ultra-lounge-iness) is Andy’s warbling with the always amazin’ Buddy Greco. Trini Lopez is the third side in this instance, doing the full version of “America” (which seems rather odd out of context):
Sammy Davis Jr. was a ubiquitous presence on variety shows, and never, ever gave a less than energetic performance. Here he joins Andy to sing “Breezin’ Along with the Breeze”:
And of course, Funhouse viewers know I am fixated by the comedian everyone hates to love and loves to hate, the one and only Jerry Lewis. The most interesting exchange here occurs when Jerry is shouting his lines as usual, and Andy notes, “I’m not used to being yelled at.” Jer’s reply? “That’s how I lost my partner…”
Leaving behind Williams’ variety show, I move back to his recording career and must point out the fact that, after a certain point in time, it seemed like Williams was always singing instrumentals. Perfoming what sounded like a hastily-lyricized vocal version of an instrumental was a staple of most singers’ repertoire at that time, but it did seem like Andy did a LOT of those prefabricated tunes. The MOR station my family listened to during the day, WNEW-AM, was constantly debuting Williams doing a vocal version of a popular instrumental, usually a movie theme.
Thus, Andy could be heard warbling “the Exodus theme,” “A Summer Place,” “Charade,” “More,” his big hit “The Days of Wine and Roses, “A Time for Us,” and the very, very smarmy “Love Story theme.” Probably the last in the decade-plus series of movie themes sung by Andy was the Godfather theme, “Speak Softly Love.” A great movie theme, but a rather lame song (sorry, Al Martino).
One of the sorriest excuses for a lyric has got to be the set of verses written to be sung to the “Love Theme” originally recorded and brought to No. 1 in 1974 by the Love Unlimited Orchestra, a Barry White project. I remember thinking even as a child that it was a pretty sorry excuse for a song – and little did I know there was a disco remix of Andy's version:
The single best adaptation of an instrumental ever sung by Williams was most definitely “Music To Watch Girl By,” which is emblematic of the MOR Sixties in ways I can't even describe. Feast:
Like a lot of MOR singers, Williams covered a whole bunch of contemporary songs in order to find a new hit or fill up his albums (most likely both). Many of the songs weren't right for his musical style, but that makes them all the more fun to listen to now.
For a long time it was rumored that the version of “Aquarius” from Hair sung by Andy and the Osmond Brothers was left on the moon by Neil Armstrong as a strange souvenir of planet Earth. This story is debunked in this article on the Check the Evidence site. However, the recording still remains a wonderful relic of the time that “old” met “new” and the result was wonderfully cheesy:
Andy recorded a lot of songs that seem really fucking odd when heard in his echo-y silken style. Among them is the Classics IV hit “Spooky”:
After his variety show left the air, Williams continued to appear on network TV. Some of those appearances made sense (as with the homepsun Xmas specials). And some were very, very strange, as when he sang Randy Newman's “Short People” with singer-songwriter Paul Williams:
I started this tribute out by noting that there are some Andy Williams songs that make me cringe (“The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”) and others that I never tire of listening to. The two that dwarf all others in the latter category (standing tall beside “Music to Watch Girls By”) are his catchiest pop singles.
The first is “Can't Get Used to Losing You” (1963), written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. Covered wonderfully by the English Beat in 1980 (with an echo-ridden sound that seems to duplicate Williams' original, with a great ska backbeat), the song is one of the catchiest and best things Williams ever sang:
And finally, the Williams record that is surely his best-ever serving of “pure pop for now people” (thanks, Nick). It's upbeat, fully orchestrated, and uses Andy's self-generated echo chamber to best advantage. Danny Boyle used it brilliantly in a mocking sense as the end theme for his 1994 dog-eat-dog thriller Shallow Grave (watch it here, but you spoiler-shy cowards may not want to partake before seeing the whole flick).
The song remains a pure delight and a kick-ass bit of an AM radio timewarp :

Sunday, October 7, 2012

An echo chamber in his larynx: Deceased Artiste Andy Williams (part one of two)

I've mentioned Andy Williams on this blog before in different contexts. I have a conflict about Andy's mega-mellow, super-easy-listening sounds. On the one hand, certain songs of his (one in particular!) make me cringe; on the other, I could listen to certain of his MOR hits over and over again and never get tired of them. It's all related of course to my chronological “relation” to his music (read: I heard it as a kid, and that music never ceases to have a primal pull on ya). I'll cover both “sides” of the Williams phenomenon, as well as spotlight some of the wonderful clips from his variety show, in this post.
First, for a little context. Much was made about Williams being one of the last “crooners.” Well, he definitely fit in that smooth-as-silk style, but I've always felt that the thing that distinguished him was the fact that his voice sounded like it was emerging from an echo chamber even when he was singing acapella. He was thus perfect for the MOR “sound” on unamplified, impure, and often crackly AM radio, and also on the non-stereo TVs folks had before the Eighties.
So who was this latter-day crooner who never, ever embraced that noisy rock and roll stuff? (Although he experimented with a LOT of pop-rock, as we shall see.) He was born in 1927 in Iowa, attended HS in Cincinatti, and then finally made it to L.A., He and his three siblings quickly landed movie and record gigs (including singing background on Bing Crosby's “Swinging on a Star”) as the Williams Brothers.
He was mentored by the actress-author Kay Thompson, who took a personal interest in him when he and his brothers broke up the act (Thompson and Williams had an affair when she was 38, he was 19). She did enough finagling to get him a lot of important gigs, including the one that broke him for real, his stint as the “boy singer” on Steve Allen's Tonight Show (the other boy singer was Steve Lawrence, who now stands along with Tony Bennett as the very last of a certain kind of male balladeer).
I knew none of this when I saw Williams on TV. I viewed him merely as the host of a number of programs — first a variety series (which ran nine years, from '62-'71), then a number of homespun, family-deified Xmas specials. As a TV host, Williams was slightly hipper (definitely younger) than Perry Como, but his mellowness didn't exactly make him a natural comedian (as Crosby could be when he was with Hope, and as Dean Martin always could be — Sinatra, btw, pretty meager comedian...).
Andy was a devout “square” in an era when rock and roll became common currency. In going through his credits, I was surprised to find that “Moon River,” thought to be his biggest hit, was never a single at the time it was released (1962, after he sang it at the Oscars; Jerry Butler actually had the single hit with the vocal version of the song). He did, however, reach No. 4 on the charts with the pop tune “Butterfly,” which is in the mode of Guy Mitchell's “Singing the Blues.”
To get a serious dose of some pop-rock Andy Williams kitsch, I HEAVILY recommend this sucker, a cha-cha number originally sung by Earl Grant and released by Andy in '58. It will blow your mind, daddio... (it's also catchy as fuck)
But what did I know about this stuff when I was a little kid? I think the thing I enjoyed the most about his show (but also puzzled over) was a bear that wanted cookies all the time (yes, there was an overlap with Sesame Street).
There are two actors listed as being in the bear suit on the show in the IMDB listing, the most prominent being the “furry emeritus” Janos Prohaska. I'm not sure which actor is in the suit in this clip, which also features American instituion (and non-red-hot-mama) Kate Smith:
Williams became inextricably linked in the minds of a lot of Americans with Christmas — and in fact his music is played on mainstream radio *only* at that time of the year these days (but that is because American radio is a sad cadaver that only digs out old music when the Yuletide season comes around). This is where I'll bring in the cringing I sometimes do when confronted with Williams' music.
His Xmas shows were indeed so homespun they could make ya choke, and they definitely overplayed the Currier and Ives adorable Americana aspect. For example, here, with a nice fake blue-screen (it was blue-screen back then) is Andy taking a sleigh ride with his singers.
And then of course there's his many fireside moments with his then-wife Claudine Longet — the two continued to appear together on the later Xmas specials, even though the public knew they were divorced in real life (admittedly, it was less unctuous and pathetic than Sonny and Cher when they returned to the air to argue as a divorced couple in the mid-Seventies).
Longet, who is still alive, is most infamous for having shot her lover Vladimir “Spider” Sabich. Her claim was that the gun accidentally discharged into him when he was showing her how it worked — this was countered by evidence that noted that he was across the room from her and turned away at the time of the shot.
Also, there was a diary she kept in which she documented how the relationship wasn't going well — and thus, in one of those nice quirky twists of justice, she served 30 days in prison and paid a fine (she also got to choose which 30 days she spent, they were not consecutive). How extreme!
Anyway, what the Williams clan showed each Xmas was a united front — Andy and his brothers would reunite, Claudine and the kids would be together with him, and as many other relatives and guest stars as could be crammed onto the roster would appear in one cozy-home setting. But there was also THAT SONG...
Written for Williams' 1963 Xmas LP by Edward Pola and George Wyle (who was the vocal director for Williams' TV show), "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" caught on in the years that followed, thanks to Andy performing it every year on his show, and the fact that it is the single most lying-est goddamned Xmas song ever.
Think about it. “White Christmas,” “Blue Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Christmas Waltz” — most of the modern Xmas songs are pretty down-hearted, but Andy's tune is a celebration of everything that exists purely in holiday-fantasy-land.
It's a catchy, hooky, upbeat Xmas nightmare and it literally HAUNTS the fuck out of all of us each Yuletide. It is a Christmas ritual, and these days I know that shopkeepers have decided the Xmas season is ON (usually the day after Halloween) when I hear this song coming out over a supermarket or convenience store speaker system. Abandon hope, all ye who hear Andy's merry declaration:
The Andy Williams Show was yet another of the mind-bogglingly odd and amorphous variety shows in the Sixties that mixed the “old” and the “new” in stranger and stranger ways. As the “youth revolution” of the time was going on, these shows hugged tightly to the old, familiar ways of show biz.
Let's put it this way — Johnny Cash was perhaps the smartest of all the singers who hosted a variety show when he contracted to appear in no comedy sketches. Aside from Dean Martin (whose sketches ran the gamut from amusing to dowrnight godawful), the singers who hosted variety shows were not good comedians, and their writing staffs were mandated to write family-friendly comedy that was, to be kind, mediocre.
I submit as evidence this clip from The Andy Williams Show that begins with an awesome bit of Jonathan Winters ad-libbing with Andy, but then swiftly degenerates into a terrible sketch about a no-budget local TV station featuring Winters, Ozzie and Harriet, and Karen Carpenter (on drums!). The frame from Jonathan is great, the sketch is just unbelievable:
The clash of the “new” and the “old” was never as jarring and entertaining as it was in this appearance by Bette Davis, who sings a specially-written song to promote Baby Jane (it's a fucking twisting song!). Given that the film is a totally brilliantly deranged horror film/character study, this bit of odd promotion becomes even odder:
And what better to follow that than Miss Davis with the New Christy Minstrels and Andy singing “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore.” Variety shows were wildly unpredictable at times:
Andy was indeed awful at comedy, but he did have some good comedians on his show. The only problem was that, for some reason, his producers thought it wise that he stay on the stage with them as sort of a straight man or a talk-show type inquisitor. He stays onstage for the opening of this appearance by Vaughn Meader, and is a wholly unnecessary interlocutor for a young Woody Allen:
This “why is Andy on the stage with these people?” factor also comes up when one watches him singing along with the younger musical acts of the Sixties. His becoming a fourth member of Peter, Paul and Mary kind of works, but him insinuating himself into Simon and Garfunkel is oh-so-pointless.
Add to that his odd musical number with the Carpenters, a rather clunky rewrite of the Beatles “Ticket to Ride” in the first-person plural (“We've got a ticket to ride, and we don't care...”). And what can be said about Andy becoming a part of the Ike and Tina Turner Review, doing a duet with Tina?
One of the cases where Andy was included in a rousing closer number is fascinating, in that he's not completely unnecessary, he's just the “lowest voice” on stage that serves to lead to the louder singers assembled around him: Mama Cass, a young Elton John, and Ray Charles. The last-mentioned duo play piano on the pop-gospel number “Heaven Help Us All”:
Thankfully, the Williams show featured younger performers on their own before they were forcibly detained with Andy. There are memorable turns online by Elton John, The Jackson 5, and Andy's label mates, the utterly awesome Sly and the Family Stone:

Further proof of the wondrous weirdness that was the Sixties is this terrific turn by Tiny Tim singing “I’m a Lonely Little Teardrop":

to be continued...