Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Scariest Jerry Lewis tribute. Ever.

I can't really add anything to this, except that the song is quite lengthy and staring at the image made me "trip." In a very bad way.

And if you enjoyed that clip (I really don't know if that verb could ever cover it), please check out this poster's other offerings. He has done tribute songs for Marilyn, Jackie O., Ben Franklin, Diderot, Blaze Starr, JFK, Elvis, Voltaire, and Che Guevara. King Frederick of Prussia and Lyndon Johnson "singing" are indeed great, but MLK is a personal fave of mine.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Jerry's live 1963 TV show — with amazing guest star Muhammad Ali

Even a Jerry Lewis fan can still be surprised. I discovered that when I finally saw a kinescope of one of the episodes of his ill-fated 1963 live TV experiment called, appropriately enough, The Jerry Lewis Show. Much has been said about the show, but only when you've seen it can you judge how much of a massive indulgence it really was. The biographies of Jerry note that he demanded full artistic control of the show from ABC, as well as a central Saturday primetime slot and that it be aired live from a theater to be constructed especially for the program (later renamed the "Hollywood Palace," it is of course the source of one of Dean's nastiest bon mots, the opening line from the first Hollywood Palace ep he hosted, wherein he thanked "Jerry, for building this lovely theater for me").

The program was taken off the air by ABC in a few weeks, as the ratings were dismal — Jerry never conquered TV after the Martin & Lewis teaming, even in the early Sixties when his films were riding high at the box office. However, we do have a record of this amazing (I have to use the word again, it's the only fitting one) indulgence. Here is another episode that someone has posted in its entirety on YouTube. I often mention the "old" and "new" being mingled on '60s variety series, you can't get any more hardcore than a guy who starts off his program with an up-tempo version of "When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bobbin' Along." (Jerry has never shed his utter devotion to Jolie):

And here is the moment when Jerry interviews (as the show was turned into a talk show somewhere in its short run) young dynamo Cassius Clay. Two big mouths tangle, and Jer does get "tough" with the mighty Ali, but both he and Phil Foster (not yet using the "YouthHair"!) are only teasin'. Having just finished the tough, grim, and beautifully written Nick Tosches bio The Devil and Sonny Liston, I found it interesting to hear Ali's remarks about the "big ugly bear." (He also likens Liston to a monkey, remarks that must've been enjoyed by some members of the audience who were not, let us say, sympathetic to the African-American cause):

Steve's "Letters to the Editors" with guest-star Jerry

Yes, folks, I have indeed been reviewing the Jerry Lewis footage available on YouTube. I must point you to Jer appearing with one of my major heroes, Steve Allen, aiding him in the terrific "Letters to the Editor" bit.

And since we're on the topic of Jer, who doesn't wanna hear what Joey Piscopo (son of Joe) has to say about Joseph Levitch? Here Joey reveals that his dad's heroes besides the obvious (Jerry and Sinatra) are Peter Sellers and Alec Guiness. (Can ya hear the sound of the versatile dead Brits revolving in their coffins?)

Politically correct comedy from Dean and Jer

Yes, it's Labor Day time again, folks, so the Jer footage must flow. Here is a rarity from The Colgate Comedy Hour that I've never seen included on the VHS and DVD compilations thus far issued. It will become obvious why very early on in the routine.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Kubrick's "missing" debut Fear and Desire up on YouTube

Now explain this one to me. Stanley Kubrick spent the better part of his life burying his first feature, the perfectly fine fledgling effort Fear and Desire (1953). I remember he was rather furious when it played at the Film Forum sometime in the 1990s, as he was loathe to have it seen in public.

After his death, the story I heard was that his family permitted the film to be seen once on a European TV channel (can’t confirm or deny this). In any case, it’s noted online that a print of it is held by the Eastman House in Rochester, and it’s obvious that it has done the rep circuit. A few years back, bootlegs of it started appearing for sale, although most were grainy, bleary-looking, and most bounced. Now, it has been pointed out to me by illustrator and fellow blogger Stephen Kroninger that the whole damned thing is up on YouTube in its bleary, crappy-lookin’ state, and has been for, oh, ten months!

The odd part about this is that this must have been brought to the attention of the Kubrick estate, which is looking the other way. A very cool and wonderful maneuver, but wouldn’t it make sense to just make the film publicly available in a pristine print from dad’s own archives? (You just know that Stan had a copy sitting around somewhere in his British archive.) Perhaps Kubrick put some provision in his legal papers to keep the thing from ever coming out, but it’s strange that it has surfaced so readily, when we all still are waitin’ to see those goofy pie-fight scenes from Dr. Strangelove that reportedly exist in British archives but are, natch, legally barred from being shown in public.

I haven’t seen the film since it played Film Forum, but my take on it was that it’s a very competent first effort, plagued by only some corny narration and a pat screenplay. It plays like a “student film” (though made at a time when there were no film schools), and shows Kubrick’s debt to the Soviet masters and other “noble peasant” pictures. It’s actually not that bad at all — but you’d be hard pressed to know that from this print.

Doo Dah Doo Dah: the Sensational Seventies

It’s coming onto that special time of the year when Jerry Lewis hosts the telethon, and once again we can hear the strains of music made famous by the late, great Al Jolson (Jerry will never forsake of his love of Jolie). I thought Jer’s Jolie-medleys were the height of rarified pop-culture… and then I discovered the clip below. Unfortunately, it cuts off before the medley is finished, but yes, it’s from a Johnny Cash special where Big John wanted to pay tribute to the South. Thus, he and his guests Roy Clark and Funhouse deity Tony Orlando do a selection of songs by Stephen Foster. There is no blackface, but the spirit of minstrelsy lived on quite well in the Seventies variety show and holiday special.

Hal Willner, king of the summer freebie concerts in NYC

NYC in the summer is strictly unpleasant — sticky, muggy, humid and vastly over-priced. However… (as the living legend Professor Irwin is wont to say), it can be a sacred little locale for a few hours at select spots in the City, thanks to the free summer concerts series that occur around town.

For those who make a habit of attending these shows, the name Hal Willner looms larger than large: the celebrated record producer/musical guru puts on at least one blow-out musical marathon each year (three hours long!), and it is always a once-in-a-lifetime affair, crammed to capacity with (gasp) quality muzik. I know that Willner has put on these tribute concerts in other other cities (L.A., London, Sydney), but we have been particularly blessed to have played host to celebrations of uncommonly great tunesmiths, usually in the “Celebrate Brooklyn” series at Prospect Park.

This summer Willner put on two overstuffed concerts in the City. Although I am currently steeped in personal difficulties which I’m not going to get into now, I made sure to play “hooky” from the travails to see both shows, and am very glad I did. The first concert was a tribute to the work of Bill Withers. One’s first impulse is to say “Bill Withers?” Willner answered that question for three hours-plus on Saturday, presenting as he always does a simply gorgeous (no choice but to use Vin Scelsa’s favorite overused adjective) collection of vocal stylists singings Withers’ songs, making the argument that his work is worth exploring well beyond the mega-hits “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine…”

The show turned out to be a sort-of-milestone in Willner trib-history, as the guest of honor showed up, and proved to be a ham who misses being on stage (Withers quit the biz in the 1980s and hasn’t returned since). He’s also hesitant to sing again in public — although he spontaneously joined guitarist Cornell Dupree on a tuneful version of his “Grandma’s Hands,” he would not (repeat, would not) take the hint and join his daughter on the obvious duet set-up “Just the Two of Us” (his daughter obviously hoping for a pre-mortem variation on the Nat/Natalie Cole “Unforgettable” business). Check out Bill at his Seventies’ best for a minute:

The Withers show was a solid evening of terrific music and standout performances by both “name” performers and folks I’d never heard of. Willner’s shows thus serve not only as an exploration of the honoree’s work, but also provide a valuable first look for many of us at performers with killer voices (like the “gay Joe Cocker,” the amazing Antony). Heavily recommended is the close-up happy but musically exquisite concert pic Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, which shows one of the Willner tribute shows.

Last night I attended the second Willner show in five days, a tribute to jazz and pop record producer Joel Dorn. The show was an unusual one for a Willner presentation, as it was both a de facto memorial service, as Dorn died just a few months back, and it was a celebration of a man who never wrote the music he’s associated with. Willner has assembled tribute albums to Nino Rota, Kurt Weill, Disney music, and Mingus; his tribute concerts have saluted Doc Pomus (twice!), Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, et al.).

The fact that Dorn was a producer in fact made his tribute the most eclectic Willner show I’ve seen to date. The performances ranged from top-notch jazz (Jacob Fred’s Jazz Odyssey covering Rahsaan Roland Kirk, surprise guest Hugh Masekela) to doo-wop (The Persuasions’ “Ten Commandments of Love”) to ballad perfection (Roberta Flack doing the Dorn-produced classic “The First Time Ever (I Saw Your Face)”) to New Orleans gold (Dr. John tackling “April Showers”) to some guy playing a fuckin’ killer electric guitar rendition of the “Spiderman theme” (augmented with the Green Hornet’s bumblebee flight).

The performances were, dare I use the word again, killer. The nicest touches during the evening were moments in which we were played records produced by Dorn (Yusef Lateef’s “In a Spanish Town” conjured up happy memories for me of Buster Keaton; Aaron’s Neville’s “Mona Lisa” was broadcast from the near side of Heaven).

The Funhouse is all about juxtapositions, so I will note that Willner’s shows are chockfull of beauts, and the Dorn tribute had tucked away in it an absolute joy: a short-lived ’70s funk band, Black Heat, reunited to perform their one hit “No Time to Burn,” turning this mutha out, and then cabaret singer Jane Monheit offerd a flawless, emotional “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Some impresarios might’ve put the funk band after the cabaret babe, but Willner takes chances with the audience’s attention and commitment, and for this he deserves massive plaudits.

And when ya consider that you can’t even sit in the rafters of the Beacon or MSG these days for less than a hundred (and the tourist-trap theme restaurants provide a 20-dollar show for 50), the Willner musical lovefests are all the more remarkable.

The Dorn show ended with Les McCann reprising this 1969 gem, “Compared to What?”

Thursday, August 7, 2008

"You Have to Know a Man Like a Brother to Kill Him": review of Blast of Silence (1961)

For film noir fans, one of the most significant recent DVD releases was the Criterion Collection editon of Blast of Silence. The 1962 film has never been legally available before on either VHS or DVD, and is without question one of the very last great noirs made in the U.S.

I say “last” because film noir has been best defined (by Raymond Durgnat and Paul Schrader, among others) as a cycle rather than a genre, and the start/stop dates of the production of purebred noirs is generally thought to be 1944-55. A few gems came after ’55, including Robert Wise’s quietly beautiful Odds Against Tomorrow and Orson’s absolutely perfect Touch of Evil. By 1962, the date of Blast, however, noir had disappeared from movie screens and was seen to best advantage on the TV series Naked City. The cycle may have been over, but filmmaker-star Allen Baron supplied it with a beautiful coda with the exquisitely cold, visually gorgeous Blast.

The film follows hitman Frankie Bono (Baron) as he returns to New York City to take out a mobster. From the start, we know Frankie is a doomed man (see my previous entry on Classe Tous Risques) and to add insult to injury, he’s an unrepentant tough guy who, like all hitmen, is all business and would not make a very good drinking buddy.

The low-budget NYC production pretty much flew under the radar upon its initial release — though lauded (natch) in Europe, Blast was dropped on double bills by Universal, its distributor. The complete saga of the film is recounted in a very in-depth German-produced video documentary (insanely detailed, with a full tour of the NYC locations) included on this disc. What made the film such a cult hit on the rep circuit (I first saw it at the Thalia Soho in the late ’80s), is its pitch-perfect combination of elements.

The cast are all “no-names” except for Larry Tucker (seen in Shock Corridor, and a Paul Mazursky collaborator), but they perfectly incarnate the shady characters moving around the indelibly real NYC locations (the film was made on a meager budget; as with the Italian Neo-Realists and the French New Wave, poverty is the mother of cinematic invention).

But then you’ve got the piece de resistance, the narration. Credited to “Mel Davenport,” the second-person narration, which directly addresses our antihero (“baby boy Frankie Bono, out of Cleveland”), was written by the brilliant blacklisted screenwriter Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy, Serpico, Coming Home). And it is delivered by the most hardboiled voice ever, Lionel Stander. Stander isn’t credited, Baron reveals in the documentary, because he said he’d need more money if they used his name on-screen (which seems odd, as he too was blacklisted at the time the film came out), but his voice lends an unmistakably grim yet compelling tone to the proceedings — there is no question, the guy sounds like the tough-as-nails, no-bullshit conscience of Frankie Bono. He also dispenses with philosophical statements and no-exit existential reflections on mankind that must’ve surely thrilled the French, and linked Blast close to another late-late hitman noir, Irving Lerner’s terrific Murder by Contract (1958) (DVD release, please!).

Noir fans owe it to themselves to see and re-see the picture, but it always brings up a serious question: why didn’t we hear more from Baron as a filmmaker, noir or otherwise? Well, he is quite open in the documentary included here about the fact that Hollywood beckoned, and he answered the call. He only made two theatrical features after Blast (neither of which I’ve seen, so I can’t judge if they are in the BOS ballpark), but he worked steadily for decades on successful but formulaic series television (Charlie’s Angels, Dukes of Hazzard, my favorite non-guilty pleasure, Fantasy Island, and the immortal Kolchak: the Night Stalker). We’ll never know what Baron might’ve created if he had stayed an indie working on the East instead of West Coast, but we do have Blast, and is a serious dose of hardcore noir. Rent it, and lose yourself in the tunnel of desperation that comprises the life of “baby boy Frankie Bono” — and check out Manhattan back when it was a noir paradise.

Some helpful poster put up the film’s trailer:

These scenes, though, illustrate best what the film is all about. First its stark opening:

And then a beautiful bit of noir Christmas, as Baron’s character walks through Rockefeller Center at Christmas. This truly is the lonely poetry that best defines the film noir:

Haircut 101

Pop culture is all about personal taste, so I might as well declare that I think the 20th century started seriously sucking — in terms of film, music, and television — in the Eighties, and it has never quite recovered. Yes, I guess love of pop is always a generational thing (you will over-romanticize the period you grew up in, or "just missed" growing up in), but jeez, just look at the slide from “pure pop (for now people)” to pure pap, and you’ll realize the Reagan era did us mediaholics in but good. More choices, but the mainstream got awful, incredibly awful.... I like plenty of current-era items, but the move from quality pop culture being actually (ahem) popular to being niche or "alternative" that started in the Eighties and was thoroughly defined in the Nineties was an insidious one.

I say this because I have been revisiting my old records in the weeks past, and once again have been lost in the joys of songs you just can’t get outta your head. And yes, the occasional item does come from those Madonna/Reagan-mediocre Eighties. As is the case with the 1982 single, Haircut 100’s “Love Plus One.” The video for this catchy-as-hell tune can be found here and here and here.

As an aside, I’m fascinated by posters on YouTube who don’t allow for embedding, as is the case with the three people who put up the "Love Plus One" vid. I don’t think it really fakes out the copyright holders at all (does it indeed? I’d be interested to hear if this is the one way to keep things from being taken down but still properly i.d.’ed). Thus, the posters seemingly don’t want us blog-folk to share ’em. Well, clicking through is still allowed, so just go ahead and enjoy the song….

Friday, August 1, 2008

Magnificent Mabel: review of The Extra Girl

To continue the discussion of brilliant woman comedians/comic actresses (see below), I thought I should move back a bit from the Seventies. Actually quite a bit — let’s talk about the Twenties and the absolutely adorable comic pioneer Mabel Normand.

I do this on the occasion of the Kino release of one of her best features, The Extra Girl (1923). There is an excellent biography (Mabel by Betty Harper Fussell) and a really good tribute site that outlines her place in movie history, so I’ll just emphasize that she was a crucial part of Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio, directed some of her own movies (making her the first comedienne to do so, predating Mae West’s screenwriting by two decades), and had a completely winning presence on camera. She was an attractive woman who most likely could have “gone straight” at any time in her short career (1910-27) but wisely followed the example of her Keystone partner Charlie Chaplin, and continued to make comedies with strategically-placed bursts of pathos.

The plot of The Extra Girl offers just such melodramatic moments: Mabel is a small town girl who dreams of movie stardom, but is being forced by her parents to marry a drip. Through characteristically goofy circumstances, she wins a contest and winds up working in a Hollywood studio in the wardrobe dept (no matter the title — she never works as an extra), and is later “discovered.”

These days silent comedy is seen as a very rarified taste, fit for only two hours on TCM every few Sunday nights. I believe that there is something incredibly pure about silent comedy, and some of the purest silent comedies came from Mack Sennett and Keystone. Mack was the master of shooting on the spur of the moment and the early Keystones are an absolute joy (and remarkable slices of L.A. county history) for this very reason.

The bios of Sennett stress his complicated love for Mabel (and hers for him); it’s also noted that he financially undervalued his stars, and kept having them plucked from under his nose. In The Extra Girl he provides an excellent showcase for Mabel’s talents, preparing her for later features like Mickey and The Nickel Hopper, both of which deserve legal releases on DVD (especially the last-mentioned).

Mabel was a subtle comic actress who could camp it up when the scene required, as at the end of the Keystone short included as a bonus on this disc, The Gusher (1913). She also presents an array of “smaller” gestures to match the situation. In The Extra Girl the most famous sequence finds her dragging around a lion that she believes is a dog in a lion suit. The situation is ridiculous, but she keeps the deadpan for the duration and carries it off beautifully (she is actually together with the lion in just about two shots; the sequence is carefully edited so she wasn’t in too much danger).

Kino has been doing exemplary work in issuing silent cinema for many years now. The company’s supreme achievements have been the Art of Buster Keaton collection and their release of German Expressionist classics. Their “Slapstick Symposium” series of releases are proving to be as fascinating and indispensable as their “Slapstick Encyclopedia” releases were on VHS (that set is now available on DVD through Image). Separate “Symposium” releases are each devoted to the work of a silent comedian (Lloyd, Langdon, the underrated Charley Chase, solo Laurel, solo Hardy), and The Extra Girl now breaks the gender line and shows off to good advantage the funniest (and one of the cutest) ladies in the silent era.