Monday, August 29, 2011

The Wham of Sham: Deceased Artiste Shammi Kapoor

I know very little about Bollywood cinema, but what I have seen I've loved. During the early years of the Funhouse TV show (which began in 1993 — comin’ up on 18 years, folks!) I showed and re-showed a small handful of B’wood musical numbers I taped off PBS, several of which involved the inimitable Mr. Shammi Kapoor, who died on Aug. 14 at the age of 79.

A four-part series about Indian cinema aired on PBS in the late 1980s, and the two episodes that melted my mind in wondrous ways were something called “Dance Invasion” and another that profiled Shammi. These programs have never been rerun since to my knowledge, but I believe “Dance Invasion” was seen by the folks who did Ghost World, as the Bye Bye Byrdie-ish rockin’ clip from the thriller Gumnaam (1965) that starts off that film also started off the “Dance Invasion” special (and was later reshown on a Manhattan access show, again from the DI special).

The carefully chosen B’wood clips in that series were a revelation to me, and the performer who simply blew me away was Kapoor. I was struck at first by how feverishly he danced around during the musical numbers.

In most of his best Sixties musicals he’s a somewhat chunky guy with a prominent pompadour, but he did dance moves that were, by turns, wildly funny and extremely cool. Without any ado, I give you the clip from Teesri Manzil (1966) that converted me to the cult of Kapoor. If you don’t smile when watching this, you’re officially dead. [HEAVILY RECOMMENDED]:

I watched and rewatched these clips with my friends on “video nights” back in the Eighties, and all of them were duly impressed by Shammi’s frenzied movements. The only possible way I can explain Kapoor’s dancing is to say he seemed like Dick Shawn’s long-lost Indian brother.

Shawn, of course, was a comedian-actor who danced wildly, and Kapoor was a leading man who played in dramas and comedies that were chockfull of musical numbers. Both men were far more uninhibited in their gyrations than Elvis — Kapoor in fact was dubbed “the Elvis of India” in the late Fifties. They both were also high-key performers who were unashamed of looking silly onscreen and were totally in control of the film frames they inhabited.

On this last point, it should be noted that Kapoor may have seemed like he was shakin’ out of control onscreen, but in that PBS profile I taped, he spoke at length about how he planned his wild, uninhibited dances. He discussed how he knew exactly when to quickly exit the frame on a beat and when to reappear in another set-up (thus putting him in the class of comedian-filmmakers from the silent era). This resulted in some kinetically edited musical sequences like this one (no I can’t explain why the schoolchildren get involved) or this playful number. This item, also from Teesri Manzil, is a delightful bit of song-seduction with a refrain that sounds like “peachy, peachy”:

For some seriously frenzied rockin’ out from Shammi, here is yet another scene from Teesri Manzil that seems modeled on the “What I Say” scene in Viva Las Vegas [RECOMMENDED]:

The most interesting thing to keep in mind when discussing the musical sequences in B’wood productions is that the actors rarely if ever sang their own songs, thus spawning an entire industry of Marni Nixon-like “playback singers.” Shammi’s primary playback singer was a legend in the annals of B’wood, Mohammed Rafi — who, according to various Internet sources, sang in 15 Indian languages and dialects, as well as English and several European languages, and recorded over 25,000 songs!

In his online vlog entry about Rafi, Kapoor maintained that he would talk to Rafi about what he was going to be doing physically during a given musical number. Rafi didn’t look like a rocker at all (see above), but he matched Shammi’s energy levels with his rockabilly-styled vocals.

Here is another of their collaborations, a low-key number from Kashmir Ki Kali (1964) that Shammi performs in an empty bar (Frank called ’em “saloon songs”) with a sax player in attendance:

Kapoor of course performed many low-key ballad-type songs in his movie career but, again, my focus here is on his upbeat moments. I still am blown away by his energy, particularly as he put on weight as the Sixties turned into the Seventies. I do occasionally laugh out loud at his dancing and gesticulations, but I think that would be okay with the man himself (especially given the impression of him one receives in his vlogs).

He was so into what he was doing onscreen that to laugh while watching him is to merely acknowledge that he was having a GREAT time performing a given number (and/or flirting with his delightfully pretty costars). Kapoor was unafraid of looking silly onscreen, which is a rare quality among film stars — unless they are comedians or actors who are known for musical-comedy performances (Zero Mostel, Bert Lahr).

Shammi was truly one of a kind and, although I know quite little about his personal life and the incredible cinematic legacy of his family (the Kapoors were/are indeed a “dynasty” that have been quite important in the history of Bollywood), I feel that I got to know him a little better by watching the aforementioned video blogs, called ”Shammi Kapoor Unplugged.” (He apparently came up with the name, as he says it on-camera proudly in each entry, further proving his Cool Old Guy status.)

Uploaded to YouTube by three separate posters, they constitute a very informal personal history of a performer’s career. Kapoor was a Net addict in his later years (he talks about it here), and he understood how to communicate with the average Net-surfer, who is not likely to read a bulky show-biz memoir, but will surely watch a superstar sharing his favorite anecdotes on camera. Here is one of my favorite entries, proving that Shammi definitely had a sense of humor about what he was doing:

You can see Shammi as a thin matinee idol in this 1962 clip. From the same film, Dil Tera Diwana, here is a classic Bollywood number in which both hero and heroine get soaking wet as they seduce/sing to each other:

Shammi does some more classic seduction with ebullient dance movements (in a boat, yet!), in Kashmir Ki Kali:

Perhaps the most energetic scene that Shammi took part in didn’t involve dancing — it was this number in which he hangs from a low-flying helicopter (in a bathrobe!) from the 1967 film An Evening in Paris.

The best part about rewatching these Kapoor musical numbers is being reminded of the catch-phrases that he had as wild choruses in his songs, as in this rockabilly number from China Town (1962) in which he repeatedly intones a phrase burnt into my brain, “Tally-ho!” [RECOMMENDED]:

A number that is blatantly comedic from Dil Tera Diwana, which includes the phrase “woof!” Yes, Shammi is singing to a man in drag:

One of the films that made him into a star was Junglee (1961). Here’s a killer number from that film in which the phrase “Yahoo!” is screamed (not by Shammi, or by the singer Rafi, according to Shammi, but by another actor who had a deeper voice). [RECOMMENDED]:

Another number in which Shammi is a bona fide wildman. I can’t tell what he’s screaming at the opening, but the song is another high-energy rouser. From Tumse Achha Kaun Hai (1969):

And a last unforgettable catchphrase, “Suku suku,” from Junglee again. This scene reflects the B’wood passion for Russian and Spanish dancing (I’m not sure why these two cultures fascinated the makers of B’wood pics, but they did). The female lead in the film, who gets more screen time here than Shammi does, is billed as “Shashi Kala”:

Next are two oddities: first, Shammi does an entire song/dance sequence holding two bags after having exited a store (they were just tryin’ ta slow him down, but the man could not be slowed down!). From Professor (1962):

And, yes, although he was called the “Elvis of India,” Shammi did do one Beatles number. It’s a Hindi version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (!). The Nehru jacket comes home in this number, which was shot months before George discovered the sitar on the set of Help! From Janwar (1965); sung, of course, by Mohammed Rafi:

I have to close this tribute out with a another killer number. This one comes from Tumse Achha Kaun Hai. It has a Big Bopper-esque beginning, a heavily rockin’ sound, a sailor in blackface (or is it greenface — I can’t tell if this is racist or just insane), cute girls in brightly colored dresses, and Shammi providing a super-energetic performance of a hyperventilating vocal by Rafi. [HEAVILY RECOMMENDED]:

Thanks to Charles Frenkel for passing on the fact that Kapoor had died. One of the best comments I read about his passing was from one of his directors: “Don’t mourn Shammi, envy him!” The gent seemed to have had a very nice life, and continues to entertain his countrymen and those foreigners like myself who stumble across his work and are duly impressed. Mourning does seem beside the point. Tally-ho!!!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The MTA’s wet dream come true: the subway is shut down!

As I write this, an unprecedented event is taking place in New York City: the entire mass-transit system is closing down, in order to better “deal with” (read: not deal with, extreme weather has clearly never been prepared for or even taken into consideration!) the onset of Hurricane Irene. It may sound to those outside the city like we’ve finally become the kind of urban dystopia depicted in “near future” novels and movies, like The Warriors and Streets of Fire. A city where the subway doesn’t run, where the leaders are ineffectual or aren’t even present, where the police have graphic closed-circuit camera footage of people committing violent crimes, and they still can’t catch ’em to save their life. Oh wait, that last actually reflects several real news events in NYC in the last few months….

The dirty secret of Bloomberg’s New York is that we already are that kind of city. Class distinctions are getting sharper than ever, and the billionaire mayor-who-flies-to-Bermuda-every-weekend (yes, it’s true, it’s very true) has two things on his mind: making the city safer and more amenable to his rich brethren, and bringing in millions more rich tourists to drop cash. Oh, and to smooth over that rough patch that occurred when he was in Bermuda during the big weekend snow storm a few months back, and he didn’t move fast enough to plough the boroughs at all (not enough rich people living there!). Mustn’t give that kind of impression again….

So there he is, on my TV set, on the 24-hour news nets, “Mayor Mike” telling people in various districts in the five boroughs that they have to vacate where they live. He’s only trying to help them, isn’t he? Well, the ones who were journeying out to the Hamptons and Connecticut on the news reports I saw are his kind of people. And they have somewhere to go to. The other people, those who only have a primary residence, a rented apartment that constitutes the parameters of their existence, those who are elderly, (gasp) poor, in massive debt, where should they go? Well, it’s no matter of the “Fun City” mayor, he’ll be back in Bermuda next weekend when this mess is all cleaned up. (Even if it isn't, most likely.)

But Bloomberg didn’t order the full MTA shutdown for the dreaded hurricane that is headed our way (I get images of The Wizard of Oz as well as The Warriors — “it’s a twister, it’s a twister!”). Governor Cuomo did. Because he doesn’t live here, and most likely isn’t tethered to the subway as most of us are, has more than likely not taken it on a daily basis in a few decades (Bloomberg’s daily “show” of taking it is a pathetic spectacle that speaks to how sad the man really is, and how stupid he really thinks we can be).

The subway is the lifeline, the bloodline of the city, and you’ve got to keep it functioning for as long as you can, no matter what the circumstances — if the circumstances are indeed too extreme, you systematically shut the thing down, “zone” by “zone” (NYC is being discussed that way on local cable news today). As it stands, it runs very well during the two rush-hour periods every day, and wanes and rumbles along at very odd, completely unpredictable times the rest of the day. Those who have to get to and from their job on the weekends or in the late evening hours must deal with the fact that they will stand on the platform for close to forever.

Thus, the joke can be made that how could one even TELL if the NYC subway and bus system is closed down on weekends? The way the MTA has run mass-transit here, they rule with an iron fist, are massively (and I do mean massively, and have detailed it in past blog entries) corrupt, and are not confronted at any pass by any government official. They are a fiefdom that can easily paralyze the city, and in fact do on a regular basis. But those who are not either the rich brethren of Bloomberg or a wealthy tourist *need* the buses and subways, and need them bad.

But, surely, you say, everyone will be hiding indoors today and tomorrow, sequestering themselves to avoid the storm that could indeed “hit us more powerfully than we’ve ever been hit before”? That is the plan, yes. But there are the poor and elderly, those who will still have to get to work, there is the matter of the city actually functioning on a weekend (life can’t, and won’t stop, no matter the doom-ridden weather predictions).

As I currently look out my window, it is 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, there isn’t a single drop of rain falling, but our PANIC-stricken officials (their determined calm doesn’t hide the panic and fear-mongering in their words) have okayed the closing down of the subway system. There will be rain later, there will be a hurricane, but right now the subways and buses are taking their last fares, and there is not a drop of rain comin’ down, folks…

So, in a nutshell:
-The shutdown, if it is indeed necessary (and no one knows yet whether it is, or isn’t), could’ve been done systematically over the weekend, as events dictated. You can tell me otherwise, but precautions for “extreme weather” should have been considered at every step of the game. The MTA *has* the money, no matter what they say publicly.

-Again, the measured words being used by Bloomberg, Cuomo, the MTA head, and various others betray utter PANIC. Foreign powers who are none too thrilled with the U.S. must take major delight in seeing the way New Yorkers scramble in fear like scalded puppies when extreme situations are proposed. The words of Little Lord Fauntleroy… er, “Mayor Mike” must please them no end. What was that some commentators said when the U.S. assassinated bin Laden? Oh yeah, “given the state of fear and civil-rights privacy breaches in this country currently — he already won….”

-If Emperor Bloomie is grounded in this city that he likes to fly away from every single weekend, you have to be grounded too. Stay in your room, and do your homework!

-Class distinctions are definitely being further defined and reinforced by many of the decisions made by our lovely mayor and, yes, even by our liberal governor. One can see Blade Runner in the city already, as the homeless try to take the seats left empty in the “Bloomberg beach” areas that clog up Times Square and Herald Square. They are chased by the cops. The police are there to protect us — aren’t they?

-The real, true reason given for the subway shutdown in The New York Times is that the tunnels needed to be shut down so the trains could be store “indoors” in the tunnels in which the trains normally run on. This, of course, indicates that the MTA has never taken measures to deal with “extreme weather” (this comes up every fucking time it snows these days).

The question arises: since they run on two sets of books, and are constantly and unwaveringly allowed to increase the fare price, WHERE DOES ALL THE MONEY GO? Oh, into the pockets of the crook leaders and the overpaid union members who work for them. I forgot. Sorry.

-The MTA hasn’t noted when it would turn back *on* the mass transit system if the hurricane dies back down sometime on Sunday. Direct quote from The New York Times : “[The MTA] declined to speculate about whether the shutdown would be canceled if the threat diminished.” They don’t have to — I’ve already noted countless times that they answer to no one at all in the city.

Since this is occurring on a weekend, I can’t help but feel that rush hour on Monday morning will be an absolute mess. When you render an incredibly complicated system utterly inactive on what is a time off for most employees (or double time, if we’re talking union), it will most likely not be possible to smoothly and easily get it back to functioning by a given hour. Thus, no time at all has been stated, and the MTA will do what it wants to. Just like it always does.

-The last point, but the most important, in my mind: this sets a precedent. In “extreme weather” conditions, subway and bus service in all five boroughs can now be shut down completely. It’s the first time this has EVER happened in the history of the NYC mass-transit system, but I guarantee it will not be the last. If you are tethered to them by your low financial status, they run roughshod over your life and will continue to do, with opposition from no one.

Although it may not sound like it from the above, I still love this city and want to stay here. That is why I'm so concerned and frustrated when extreme decisions are made that will set a precedent for future life in this burg.

“Warriors, come out to play….”

UPDATE: At the end of the next day, I can report that it rained a lot, rained heavily at times, and there were heavy winds. There was flooding in a few parts of the five boroughs, and a few thousand people lost their electricity, as happens when any extreme weather hits NYC — no preparation is done for extreme weather in this town, it’s just to be accepted you’re losin’ power if there’s a heavy fucking rain or snowfall (especially in the boroughs, which Bloomberg does not care about, not one little bit).

The storm didn’t hit until a good 7-8 hours after the subway and buses were shut down. The entire weather incident was over on Sunday afternoon, but the MTA didn’t quite know how to start the system up again — it was reported on local cable news that they’d have to reshuffle the trains they had secreted away in various tunnels (“the Brooklyn trains will have to be brought back to Brooklyn…”). It was done for our own good, and various drone-like locals were seen on the news saying that they were glad the subway had been shut down, because “I mean… you never know…”

It was a miserable precedent to set for a system that is run incompetently, apathetically, and most important, in a wildly corrupt fashion. But hey, you never know….

ANOTHER UPDATE: We really ain't too far from Warriors turf. First time I've ever read this. Nostalgia for the Seventies, or just disintegration?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

“Silence is death”: Hangin’ out with John Cassavetes

The clip below comes from a 1965 documentary included in the French TV series Cineastes de Notre Temps, since French and British critics were far more supportive of John Cassavetes’ filmmaking efforts than those here at home. It’s a wonderful little time capsule from the decade that truly qualifies as “the gift that keeps on giving” (and giving and giving….).

What comes across is that Cassavetes was one hell of a cool character. The contemporary idea of a “cool filmmaker” is someone like Quentin Tarantino who essays the part of the film geek and appears extremely enthusiastic and energetic. His hyper behavior contrasts completely with Cassavetes’ assuredness — what strikes you in watching interviews with him is that he was certain he was right about what he was doing, and the passage of time has indeed proven that he was creating groundbreaking and rough-edged, wholly original works.

Tarantino is a talented genre filmmaker who indulges the public’s (and his own) lust for crazy, imaginative violence. Cassavetes was pretty much a prude when it came to violence and sex on screen (he disliked Rosemary’s Baby and The Dirty Dozen, both of which he starred in for other directors). On a personal level, he appears to have had no indulgences but alcohol — how much he indulged in that is something that appears to be spoken of only in individual anecdotes (none of which are sanctioned by his family), but drink did bring about his premature death.

None of that diminishes what he accomplished during this lifetime, and what he was doing at the end of it (I am particularly fascinated by his last, “magical realist” works). He created a style that was then completely new and innovative, and wasn't the result of him stringing together citations from other pictures. (Of course, Godard and Scorsese strung together citations from other films in their groundbreaking works, but were creating something entirely new in cinema while doing so.)

Cassavetes also worked in commercial mainstream fodder to fund his independent films. He chose to make things the studios didn’t necessarily want (even with a then big-name star like Peter Falk) because he felt the films had to be made. On the way, he was slagged mercilessly by American critics and reviewers, while the critical establishment now prematurely hails as geniuses filmmakers like Tarantino, the Anderson guys (not related, but I always lump Wes and Paul Thomas in together), Sofia Coppola, whomever.

I believe that one of the many things that strengthened Cassavetes and Altman as filmmakers were the drubbings they received from the critics when many of their best works came out. It’s surely not a good thing for an artist to receive instant, unanimous praise for their early works and to have shrines built to them as they crank out solid but entirely un-exceptional work.

Cassavetes was indeed an extremely cool character, and watching him here one can only envy those who got to know and work with him. Take a little cruise in his car, and marvel at what comes on the AM radio:

The whole documentary can be found on YT here. Thanks to Rich Brown for leading me to this gem.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Dishin' it: DVD reviews

I should probably connect the dots here and direct readers of this blog to some of my other recent writing. I’ve been reviewing DVDs for Disc Dish since its inception; the site is the brainchild of two of the editors I worked with at the sorely missed trade mag Video Business, Laurence Lerman and Samantha Clark.

My writing for DD is a bit more formal than it is in the entries here, but I’m proud of the reviews, as they include a little background, a little historical context, and a note or two on the supplements that appear on the discs, as well as any missing elements or special marketing maneuvers made by the DVD companies.

I know lots and lots of folks are doing the streaming thing these days — I can’t even imagine having another reason to be tethered to my computer — but the little silver discs are still being produced on a weekly basis, and there are some wonders to be found thereupon. For example:

The 1980 new wave music pic Breaking Glass

The Ernie Kovacs Collection

Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

Francois Ozon’s Potiche

One word: Skidoo

The box set of the Seventies TV show Celebrity Bowling

Fassbinder’s I Only Want You To Love Me

Ozon’s Hideaway (Francois has been a busy guy!)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

On Jerry Lewis being booted from "the Jerry Lewis telethon"

Well, the expected event has occurred, but before we thought it would (a lousy month before): the MDA has announced that Jerry Lewis has “completed his run” (nice ex-employer wording!) as National Chairman and won’t be hosting this year’s Telethon. Clearly the crazy and idiosyncratic press conference Jerry held last week — recounted to best effect here — spelled the end of Jer’s tenure at the MDA.

He stated at that conference that he would explain his so-called “retirement” from the show at a press conference after the ’Thon was over, and inferred that this wouldn’t be his last year as the show’s host, by using a reference to what he referred to as the “The New York Times ‘Dewey Wins!’ headline” (that most likely went over the heads of the younger journalists in the room — and it was actually the Chicago Daily Tribune proclaiming “Dewey Beats Truman”).

Jerry has always been a loose cannon, and that’s been the delight of watching the telethon. In an era when nothing unpredictable ever happens on live television (even on the talking-head political shows that are theoretically “unpredictable”), watching Jerry be so blatantly arrogant, rude, giddy, sentimental, and emotionally overwhelmed provided one of the last pieces of genuine (and genuinely bizarre) TV entertainment to be found.

As I noted in my last post about Jerry’s leaving the telethon, it was pretty evident that he was being ousted by the MDA when the two press releases announcing the telethon being cut back to six hours and Jerry’s “retirement” as host of the show didn’t include a single quote from the man himself.

So, as I did in the last post, let me acknowledge that the MDA’s main goal is to raise money to pay for research and items to help those afflicted with the disease. (Jerry has always spoken about a cure, whereas I don’t know if the MDA ever goes near such a notion.) Jerry’s “pity-based” way of raising money is from another era, when it was okay to diminish those who suffer from the disease. The famous “half-a –person” quote comes into the argument here. Warning: this clip includes "Angry Jer":

But, then again, the central reason most folks have even heard of the MDA is because of Jerry’s work as the National Chairman for the past few decades. You can argue that he made the telethon the main focus of his career because his movie career died in the late Sixties (and his TV career never, ever took off after the breakup with Dean).

Still, as the National Chairman and host of the Telethon, he has raised millions (actually $2.6 billion cumulatively). Here is a great example of the aforementioned “pity-based” fundraising that I uploaded to YT several years ago. It seems very corny and clichéd these days, but it did raise big dough from the time that the Telethon became an annual occurence, back in 1966:

So should the MDA have ousted him so unceremoniously? On the pragmatic level, you can’t have the host of your annual telethon badmouthing the organization on national TV (or whatever remains of “the Love Network”). But when your official spokesman has been Jerry Lewis, you’ve already made a Faustian bargain (shades of Damn Yankees!) — since Jerry was never going to be a Danny Thomas-like, friendly “face of charity.”

The MDA has pitched Jerry out in order to “rebrand” the franchise, but it has made a perennially angry senior citizen FURIOUS. And, whatever they may’ve thought they were doing, they did indeed muddy the organization’s image (unless they go the limit and change the name from MDA), since those who have heard of it to this date would most likely identify it with “that all-night TV show with that old comedian” — who, as much as he may be hated by some, is respected, revered, and beloved by others.

Neither option benefits the MDA in the long run — for surely the Telethon will be gone in a year or two at most, as the very notion of a telethon is something that appeals only to older viewers. Younger viewers brought up on the Internet (and those clunky two-hour celeb-filled approximations of telethons) have no referent for it, nor should they — since, as Jerry pointed out in a far brusquer fashion at his press conference last week, “appointment television” no longer exists, except for sporting events, award shows, or the occasional news phenomenon (like the recent Casey Anthony trial).

Those who have followed Jerry’s career over the years (either as a function of worship or derision) are obviously waiting to see how long it takes him to address the situation publicly (he is not the kind of person who could be bribed to shut up). I expect that an “exclusive interview” (or two or three) will find him, if he’s wise, playing the injured senior whose pet charity (which he’s raised billions for!) has thrown him out with the trash. If he plays the role properly (and the “I raised billions for them” aspect is obviously true), Jerry could be viewed in the public eye in a way he’s rarely (if ever) been seen before: sympathetically.

Since the tradition of watching Jerry on Labor Day has now officially been killed by the forward-thinking types at the MDA (that tradition, by the way, *won’t* end on the Funhouse TV show), let’s take a little trip back to the earliest surviving record of a Martin and Lewis telethon-type show.

For trivia buffs, the very first M&L-hosted telethon occurred in March 1952 (they also guested on the very first telethon ever, for the Damon Runyon Foundation, hosted by Milton Berle). The 1952 show lasted from midnight until the afternoon of the following day, and the proceeds were split between a cardiac hospital and muscular dystrophy research.

The official start date for the telethon as we know it was 1966 — but Jerry apparently did local ones in between the early Fifties and then, if this piece of footage of a “1959 telethon” isn’t mislabeled. The first surviving footage we have of a TV show done by M&L to benefit muscular dystrophy comes, however, from a two-hour show that aired on November 25, 1953, and was called “The Television Party for Muscular Dystrophy” (!):

Labor Day just won’t be the same without ’im.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The urban neurotic Garbo: Barbara Harris

While I always enjoy celebrating the careers of performers and artists who’ve left this mortal coil, I also do want to salute those who are still with us. And this week, on the occasion of a very nice discovery (two very nice discoveries) on YouTube, and apropos of nothing at all (fortunately not a demise), I am happy to salute the work of an actress who has been forgotten by most folks, but who gave us a handful of wonderfully indelible performances.

This fascination began when I first saw one of my favorite films, A Thousand Clowns (1965). It's possible to "fall" for that film in several ways: devotions can be developed to the super-charismatic Jason Robards, the gorgeously epigrammatic writer Herb Gardner, the manic Gene Saks, or the the wonderful BH. Harris was cast in the film instead of Sandy Dennis (whom I also love, but that’s a story for another post), who had played the female lead onstage. Harris's performance in the film causes one to wonder, “who is this adorable woman, who can be cute but not cloying and impish but not off-putting?”

If you climb with me on the relatively small bandwagon of diehard Barbara Harris fans (not to be confused with the bandwagon for the lead singer of the girl group the Toys, or any of the many other Barbara Harrises who’ve worked in show biz in the last half-century), you’ll discover a small number (18) of terrific performances in both landmark movies and ones that only the true aficionado of late-night TV (or, these days, obscure old VHS tapes and the occasional TCM airing) knows about.

At various points in the Sixties and Seventies, Harris was perched on the brink of superstardom, but didn’t have much interest in it (in that regard, she is a “legit” theater, less sex-kittenish version of the wonderfully hesitant Tuesday Weld). The only trace of a recent interview with her on the Net, from 2002, finds her saying she didn’t have an impulse to keep acting, and she has in fact been an acting teacher for the past few decades — before, during, and after the final flourish in the Eighties and Nineties where she played a few moms onscreen.

So who is this “mystery” performer who was marvelously endearing onscreen, but deliberately forsook fame and wealth at just about every turn? The basic facts of her life are available in the usual places online. She was born in Evanston, Illinois in 1935, and found her first great foothold as a performer in a troupe called the Playwrights Theatre; other members of the troupe included Ed Asner, and Nichols and May. She graduated from there to the Compass, which is best known for serving as a springboard for both the aforementioned comedy team (whose three LPs never, ever go outta date) and Shelley Berman (whose wonderfully paranoid visions also never, ever date). The group was run by her first husband, Paul Sills, one of the true legends of American improv comedy.

The first cast of the Second City.
The Compass, in turn, grew into a troupe called “The Second City,” with Barbara being one of the two women in the initial ensemble (Mina Kolb was the other). The troupe brought its sketches to the Broadway stage in 1961 (in From the Second City), and Harris distinguished herself in a number of roles, including a housewife seduced by a beatnik (Alan Arkin) in a sketch called, simply enough, “Museum Piece.” A video exists of this sketch and appears in a CBC documentary about the history of the two Second City troupes (it is time for someone to get the full sketch online!).

The Second City's Broadway run was Barbara's ticket to fame in legit theater. She appeared in the off-Broadway hit Oh Dad, Poor Dad… in 1962, then costarred in Mother Courage on Broadway in ’63, and wound up having the distinction of Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane writing her a musical — On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (pictured) was written explicitly for her. Her big number later became an AM radio staple for singers like Eydie Gorme, “What Did I Have That I Don't Have?”

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
Barbara repeated her off-B'way role in Oh Dad, Poor Dad... in the wildly uneven 1967 film adaptation (her sole overtly sexy role, with even a bikini scene thrown in, to wake the audience up) and won a Tony for her next musical, the critically hailed three-part show The Apple Tree ('66-'67) with Alan Alda and Larry Blyden.

At this point, the story gets a little fuzzy — I distinctly remember looking her up in the Lincoln Center Library to find out where she “went” after the big films of the Seventies and discovering an article in a theater magazine that mentioned that she had scuttled her Broadway career by having a night where she went “dry” onstage and abruptly left a show in mid-run (I believe the show was Apple Tree). I’m told by many people that “everything you need to know is available on the Net,” but the name of that particular show is mentioned nowhere online, nor is her supposed “nervous breakdown” confirmed or denied anywhere.

The cast of The Apple Tree.
Whatever troubles she had in the late Sixties were totally wiped away by her successes in the Seventies. She came back with a one-two punch, two roles in two very significant films, both of which feature finales that pivot entirely around her. The first is, of course, Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), and the second is Alfred Hitchock’s Family Plot (1976). Hitch thought enough of Barbara to end the film (and thus, unwittingly, his career) with her winking at the camera. An adorable gesture in a very enjoyable but not perfect film.

Family Plot
It’s almost inconceivable that Harris didn’t go on to instant fame after those two films. Imagine — to have Altman’s critically-lauded tapestry end with a performer absolutely nailing a killer song by Keith Carradine (which pretty much sums up what Altman was trying to say about America and apathy in a few verses), and then for that same performer to be the very last person seen in the very last Hitchcock film, winking at the camera (Hitch himself winked at his audience in the Family Plot poster, meaning Barbara was most definitely his surrogate). And then the lady appears in one very popular film — the first (and much-too-copied) modern-era “body-switch” comedy Freaky Friday (1976). She follows this with a few more umemorable movies, withdraws to teach somewhere along the way, does a few more supporting "mom" roles (and a scene in the, again, wildly uneven, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)), and is never heard from publicly again (unless you took her classes, of course).

Harris is indeed an enigma of sorts — the Garbo of adorable urban neurotic Sixties actresses. We don’t know anything about her private life, which is fine (I was intrigued, though, to see Robert Klein mention in his autobiography that he had a crush on her when they worked together in The Apple Tree). But we also don’t know much about her as a performer, except for the work that was preserved onscreen.

The book The Nashville Chronicles by Jan Stuart reveals that, early on, she thought her performance in Altman's epic tapestry was terrible (she initially had another song in the film, one by Chicago friend Shel Silverstein). Altman told her she was wrong, but she begged him to let her buy and destroy the rushes of her initial scenes. He wouldn’t let her, and thus we still have her performance as Altman intended it — but the other song hit the cutting room floor, so that Altman could properly tease out the fact that her character indeed *could* sing….

So Harris is an actress who left us with some superb starring and supporting performances on film, some well-remembered but ephemeral theater and TV work (out of which only a jarringly disturbing and brilliant Naked City episode exists on DVD), and a bunch of unsubstantiated show-biz-style rumors (another one appears on the always-unreliable IMDB, but I will only refer to the ones I’ve actually read in print sources). Of course what it comes down to is that Harris’s personal reputation, whatever that may have been, has been washed away by the sands of time and what we’re left with are the performances, for which I am incredibly grateful.

Since A Thousand Clowns, Nashville, Family Plot, and Freaky Friday are all imminently available, let me just direct you to the nicest rarities that appear online. First, audio tracks of an ill-fated, off-B’way revival of Brecht’s Mahagonny starring Harris and Estelle Parsons. Then the underrated (okay, forgotten) Herb Gardner character masterwork Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971). Harris has a bravura scene that earned her an Oscar nomination. She is utterly sublime.

Jerry Schatzberg’s The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979) is remembered primarily for its early starring performance by Meryl Streep, but Harris is equally wonderful. The trailer can be seen here.

The only Harris film I’ve yet to see — and I'm certain it will appear on the Net in some fashion — is Hal Ashby’s 1981 picture Second Hand Hearts (originally called “The Hamster of Happiness” — I’m not kidding!). A fan of the film put up a clip here.

The Apple Tree
I close with the two clips that kicked off this whole musing on the wonderful Ms. Harris, two segments from her work in Broadway musicals, as captured for TV. I was surprised by these clips for two reasons: because I NEVER thought I’d see her work on Broadway on video; and because she worked in a quiet and nuanced fashion in the movies, but is definitely using what they call “heightened realism” in these clips (or, more apt, cartoonlike caricature for broadly cartoonish musicals).

She also played “split” characters in both shows, so she affects a very cute and somewhat silly voice for each introverted personality. Here she is on the Tony Awards performing a scene from The Apple Tree where she plays the Jules Feiffer character “Passionella,” who wants to be a “beautiful, glamorous, radiant, ravishing… movie star!” Check out the ultra-quick costume change:

And please let us not speak of forthcoming revivals with Harry Connick Jr., or overblown Minnelli movies with Streisand (was there a movie musical with Streisand that was not overblown?), Yves Montand, and a young (singing — yes, I’ve got the LP with the outtake) Jack Nicholson. Here are the original stars of On a Clear Day…, John Cullum and Barbara on The Bell Telephone Hour’s 1966 special “The Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner.” On a Clear Day… is very much of its era (the lyrics get into very cutesy places, as when "bestir" is rhymed with "disinter"), and I have no idea how it will be packaged as a revival, and I don’t care, because I won’t see it. This is the real deal:

Wherever you are, Ms. Harris, thanks for the performances. You did turn out to be a very different sort of “radiant, ravishing movie star,” and are not forgotten.

Update: My Deceased Artiste tribute to Barbara Harris can be found here. RIP.