Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Country Music, part 3: “The Hillbilly Shakespeare” (Florentine Films, Country Music Film Project, WETA, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night KPBS ran the third episode of Ken Burns’ eight-part mega-documentary Country Music, which I’m presuming took several years to produce since one of the interviewees was Merle Haggard, who died in 2016 (and looks pretty much like death warmed over here). This episode was called “The Hillbilly Shakespeare” — the titular backwoods bard being Hank Williams, one of the three greatest solo artists country music has ever produced (along with Jimmie Rodgers before him and Johnny Cash afterwards) and a singer-songwriter who anticipated the soft-rock guys of the 1970’s by writing songs based on his own personal experiences and the emotions he felt over them. One day, when his wife Audrey refused to kiss him (probably because Williams, a chronic alcoholic, reeked of liquor that night), he stalked out and wrote a song about the quarrel called “You Win Again.” But the show didn’t start with Williams and fortunately didn’t pretend that he was the only significant country musician of the years 1945-1953, the show’s titular chronology. (Williams’ recording career began in 1946 and ended with his death literally at the end of 1952, when he died in the back seat of his Cadillac of an overdose of morphine and chloral hydrate while being driven to a scheduled appearance in Canton, Ohio.) The show actually began with what amounted to country music’s first tribute act: in 1936, three years after Jimmie Rodgers’ death, his widow Carrie decided to resurrect him as much as possible. She reached out to a young singer named Ernest Tubb who could do a reasonable simulacrum of Rodgers’ throat yodel and went on tour with him — the posters advertised “Mrs. JIMMIE RODGERS and Ernest Tubb” (which must have had a few people scratching their heads and thinking, “Jimmie Rodgers? I thought he was dead!”). Carrie Rodgers even let Tubb use Jimmie’s old custom-made Martin guitar, which had “JIMMIE RODGERS” inlaid in mother-of-pearl on the fretboard and the word “THANKS” printed on the back of the body so Rodgers could flip it over at the end of the concert to thank his fans for their support. Tubb’s career as the Jimmie Rodgers lama came to an abrupt end in 1940, when he underwent a botched tonsillectomy — he kept his singing voice but lost the ability to yodel — so he started writing and performing his own songs and soon had a huge hit, “Walking the Floor Over You.”

Like Bob Wills’ “San Antonio Rose” and “Mexicali Rose,” “Walking the Floor Over You” was covered by Bing Crosby (backed by the Bobcats, the Dixieland band-within-the-band of the big swing unit led by Bing’s brother Bob), and like the Wills covers, Bing totally outsang Tubb but that wasn’t the point. The show quotes Tubb himself as saying that the appeal of his records was precisely that he wasn’t that great a singer; he joked that his fans were the women who played his records on jukeboxes and their husbands or boyfriends who heard him and said, “I could sing better than that!” The show also chronicled the career of Little Jimmy Dickens, who was called that because he was only 5’ 4” tall (coincidentally also the height of Charlie Chaplin) and he had to stand on a box when he sang duets with a 6’ 2” partner; and Eddy Arnold, the first “country crooner” and one of the three pre-Elvis clients of the notorious Col. Tom Parker. Parker had originally worked in carnivals and managed animal acts; his first human client was Gene Austin, the 1920’s superstar singer — his 1927 record of Walter Donaldson’s “My Blue Heaven” was the best-selling record of anything until Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” 15 years later — who hooked up with Parker in the 1930’s in an attempt at a comeback. After Parker’s attempts to steer Austin to a comeback fizzled, he hooked up with Arnold and his carny antics helped boost his career, but in 1952 Arnold fired Parker and his only explanation was, “He’s a very loud man and I’m a very quiet man.” Parker then managed Hank Snow and in 1955 he used his prestige as Hank Snow’s manager to get Elvis Presley’s parents to agree to him as Elvis’s manager, but Parker weaseled out of his deal to give Snow half of his profits from Elvis in exchange for the boost he’d given promoting Parker to Elvis’s parents, and for the rest of Snow’s life the mere mention of Parker’s name would start him literally screaming.

Getting back to Eddy Arnold, the quietude of his personality was matched by the quietude of his music; while Hank Williams sang about cheating lovers and cold, cold hearts, Arnold did warm ballads about smoothly functioning relationships and was clearly influenced by Bing Crosby in the way he phrased, though the presence of steel guitars and violins on his records kept him rooted in the country tradition. The show also mentioned people they had depicted in previous episodes, including Bill Monroe — who after the war put together a hot bluegrass outfit featuring guitarist Lester Flatt and virtuoso banjoist Earl Scruggs. Instead of the so-called “claw-hammer” technique used by previous country banjo player, Scruggs developed a style of picking with three fingers at once (a still photo of him shows him wearing ring picks on all three picking fingers of his right hand) and was able to play faster, flashier, more virtuosic runs than any previous banjo player. Monroe’s mid-1940’s bluegrass outfit was hugely successful, but Flatt and Scruggs soon left to form their own group (and ripped off Monroe’s instrumental “Blue Grass Breakdown” for their first record, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” a hit in 1947 and again 20 years later when it was used as the theme song for the movie Bonnie and Clyde). Monroe’s response was to use his clout with the producers of the Grand Ole Opry to keep Flatt and Scruggs from getting booked on the show for at least two decades — one of Burns’ interviewees said of this, “Nobody knows how to keep a feud going longer and stronger than a hillbilly” (which is certainly supported by the historical record — do the names “Hatfield” and “McCoy” mean anything to you?).

There was also a profile of the second generation of the Carter Family — sometimes so billed and sometimes called “The Carter Sisters and Mother Maybelle,” since they consisted of Maybelle Carter and her three daughters, Helen, June and Anita. June Carter is the best known of her generation of Carters because she later married fellow country royal Johnny Cash — Cash’s touring troupe billed some of the surviving Carters as “The Carter Family” and also included rockabilly great Carl Perkins (composer of “Blue Suede Shoes” and a serious rival to Elvis as the king of white rock in the mid-1950’s) — and the clips of the second generation Carter Family shown here show a sweeter sound without much of the original Carters’ pathos (even when they covered first-generation Carter Family songs). The show mentions that to bolster their band instrumentally, the second-generation Carters hired a hotshot young guitarist named Chester Atkins, who later cut down his first name to “Chet” and became one of the most sought-after studio players in Nashville — though the other guitarists in Nashville originally tried to get him blacklisted and got the owners of the Grand Ole Opry to make their offer to the Carters contingent on their not using Atkins on the Opry broadcasts. To her credit, Maybelle Carter told the Opry people, “You get us with Atkins or you don’t get us at all,” and they held out for two years until the Opry finally let Atkins perform with the Carters on their sacred stage … where his jazz-influenced style (like his friend Les Paul, with whom he made a late-career duet album called Chester and Lester for RCA Victor in 1978, he’d been influenced by jazz guitarists in general and Django Reinhardt in particular) blew the other Nashville guitarists away, just as they’d feared.

The show briefly mentions some of the other artists besides Hank Williams who influenced the so-called “honky-tonk” style — Webb Pierce, Faron Young and Lefty Frizzell (who gets somewhat short shrift — since he lived a lot longer than Hank Willliams, Frizzell didn’t start the kind of legend Williams did, but artists as disparate as Mose Allison and Willie Nelson have covered his songs and he certainly counts as one of the greats) — and traces the honky-tonk style itself to the closure of the big dance halls that had supported both the big jazz bands and country-jazz “Western Swing” fusion groups like Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys. Instead bands were forced to play in small clubs where the patrons got so drunk they started fights — often over women — and ultimately trashed the place. In many of the honky-tonks the owners set up chicken-wire fences in front of the stage to prevent the musicians from being injured by the chairs and bits of tables being thrown by the patrons. Needing a way to be heard over the noise of the bar fights, the musicians in these bands started using amplified instruments — much the way their confreres in jazz and blues were doing. One can trace the electric guitar from Eddie Durham and Charlie Christian in jazz at the end of the 1930’s to its adoption by blues musicians like Aaron “T-Bone” Walker (a guitar student of Christian’s who switched from jazz to blues because it paid better) and Muddy Waters in the 1940’s and its use by country musicians. It also helped that instrument makers figured out how to make electrically amplified pedal-steel guitars (though the first major musician to use one wasn’t a country artist: it was the swing guitarist and bandleader Alvino Rey), while the violinists started playing closer to the vocal mikes so their instruments could be as loud as the guitars.

Of course Hank Williams’ saga is the heart of this episode — his life was a harrowing succession of binges, pain (he had a back condition since childhood that got worse when he had a car accident on one of his long road trips), bad behavior, bitter fights with his wives (Williams’ friends recall him often turning up literally on their doorsteps after Audrey or Williams’ second wife, Debbie, threw him out), alcohol, drugs, problems with the management of his shows (he first made it on the Louisiana Hayride, a would-be competitor to the Grand Ole Opry that broadcast out of Shreveport and had a reputation for booking edgier acts than the Opry did, including Williams in 1948 and Elvis Presley in 1955) and great songs scribbled out on whatever pieces of paper that came to hand, including the cardboard inserts that came back with his shirts from the laundry. Williams couldn’t read or write music (though his stage suit was prominently decorated with musical notes) and he wrote songs by writing down the lyrics and keeping the melodies in his head until he could get to a recorder and make demos. Williams’ songs crossed over into other markets, and Tony Bennett had a number one hit with “Cold, Cold Heart” even though he’s audibly uncomfortable with the song on his record. (One of the best covers of Hank Williams during his lifetime was Jo Stafford’s version of “Jambalaya” — it helped that Stafford was a Southerner herself and she pronounced the word “bayou” correctly — it’s “BYE-yo,” not “BYE-you.”)

Like Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams became an enormous star while living in almost constant pain and being well aware that he couldn’t expect to live too long, and like Rodgers’ work there’s a sense in Williams’ best songs that the Grim Reaper is standing over him, ready to take him at any moment. It’s probably why most Williams fans prefer his doom-laden ballads to his uptempo songs — though there were plenty of the latter, including his early hit “Move It On Over” (Hank Williams, Jr. is interviewed and demonstrates that the pioneering rock ’n’ roll hit “Rock Around the Clock” is an almost total ripoff of “Move It On Over”) and “Kaw-Liga,” the story of a romance between two cigar-store Indian statues (Williams had been asked for a song about a romance between Native Americans, thought that was too clichéd, and decided to make it a novelty about cigar-store Indians instead). Indeed, when MGM Records issued Williams’ last sides after his death — including the uncannily premonitory “Never Get Out of This World Alive” — for their first release they marked “Kaw-Liga” as the A-side and “Your Cheating Heart” as the B-side. The fans had other ideas: it was “Your Cheating Heart” that became the hit and which MGM’s film studio used as the title of their Williams biopic in 1964 (with George Hamilton playing him and Hank Williams, Jr. as his voice double).

The “Hillbilly Shakespeare” episode ends with mention of two records that served as an indication of how the role of women in country music was about to change: in 1952 Hank Thompson recorded “The Wild Side of Life,” a typical lament from the point of view of a husband lamenting that his wife is leaving him to hang out at the honky-tonks and presumably pick up other guys. A then little-known woman singer named Kitty Wells was angry at the sexism (though that wasn’t a word yet) of Thompson’s songs and decided to write an answer song from a woman’s point of view, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels,” which bluntly said that if your wife is running around on you, guys, you have only yourself to blame: “There’s many times married men think they’re still single/That has caused many a good girl to go wrong.” Wells’ record actually outsold Thompson’s and laid the groundwork for the more assertive generation of women country singers to come — Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton — though as I noted in my comments on the previous Country Music episode the first truly assertive woman country singer was Rose Maddox of the Maddox Brothers and Rose (a band which, like the current group The Band Perry, coupled male musicians who were professionally competent with their sister, a woman who sang with deep, rich intensity) — indeed The Maddox Brothers and Rose were my biggest discovery from this show, a group mentioned on this show as pioneers of the flamboyant pseudo-cowboy outfits that became de rigueur for country acts in the mid-1950’s and one I’d never heard of before, but now that I’ve heard Rose Maddox’s voice leaping out past the O.K. playing of her brothers I’ll never forget it and I’ll want to hear more of it.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Country Music, part 2: “Hard Times” (1933-1945) (Florentine Films, WETA, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched last night’s second episode of the Country Music documentary on KPBS, directed by Ken Burns and narrated by Peter Coyote (Burns’ go-to guy for narration since his previous one, David McCullough, stepped down) from a script by Dayton Duncan. The episode was called “Hard Times” and took the story of country music from 1933 — the depths of the Great Depression and the year Jimmie Rodgers died (a loss of overwhelming importance in the history of country music, so many of whose parameters had been basically shaped by Rodgers) — to 1945 and the end of World War II. These were also the years of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, and Burns’ sound mix included clips from FDR’s surviving radio speeches to counterpoint his guarded optimism with the realities on the ground. There was a brief mention of Woody Guthrie (who isn’t generally considered a country singer but who came from the right background — rural Oklahoma — and who ripped off the melody of “This Land Is Your Land” from the Carter Family hit, “Little Darling, Pal of Mine,” though the Carters themselves had probably got it from a folk source), but the main focus was on the immense popularity of Gene Autry (who began as a contract artist for the American Record Company — owners of the Columbia and Brunswick labels in the 1930’s as well as a number of cheap labels like Banner, Conqueror and Perfect — ripping off Jimmie Rodgers and covering his songs for people who wanted Rodgers’ music but didn’t want to pay the 75¢ rack rate for Rodgers’ Victor releases) and his establishment of the “Singing Cowboy” genre; the emergence of the Grand Ole Opry program on Saturday nights from Nashville as the premiere radio showcase for country music (by the early 1930’s the Depression had decimated the record industry — though it would come back as the overall economy did — but most people still had radios, and since radio was free once you bought the set, people did most of their listening on it); the stardom of Roy Acuff (one of the most powerfully emotional of all country singer-songwriters — one can hear him as the way station between Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams — and who, like Autry, had an excellent business ense; he was able to build on the success of his songs and, with business partner Fred Rose, form Acuff-Rose, one of the largest and most powerful music publishing companies in the business and a key rival of Ralph Peer’s Peer-Southern); and the emergence of Bob Wills and the “Western Swing” style.

Wills took the traditional country-music ensemble — violin, banjo, guitar, bass — and added jazz instruments like trumpet, trombone, clarinet, saxophone and piano for an infectious sound. Some of Wills’ records seem like they’re at war with themselves, as the country and jazz instruments fight it out for dominance, and the brief allusions to Wills’ personal life (apparently at one point he went through five wives in six years, giving new meaning to the name of his band, the “Texas Playboys”!) made it seem as tempestuous as his music. Wills was known as a hard taskmaster with his musicians — like Benny Goodman, he had an intense ray-like stare he aimed at any band member who made a mistake — and he had quite a long career, making his very last album in 1973 (just a month or so before he died) with the country-revival group Asleep at the Wheel. Wills was a rarity in country music in that he was a bandleader who didn’t sing (he did sing occasionally, but most of the time he played violin and directed the band while professional singers of both genders did the vocals), but his records became famous for (among other things) Wills’ cries of encouragement and enthusiasm over the work of his musicians and addressing them by name during their performances. The first time he tried that during a recording session his producer stopped the take and said they couldn’t have that sort of thing on a record — and Wills said that if he couldn’t interject with his musicians on record the way he did on stage, he was walking out and taking the band then and there. The producer got the message, let Wills add his “Yee-haws” to his band’s recordings, and it became a famous trademark that added to the records’ sales appeal. Duncan’s narration claims that Wills had such clout commercially that he was able to bring his full band onto the Grand Ole Opry, including his drummer, as early as 1939. (Elsewhere I’d read that the Opry didn’t allow drums on its stage until 1959, and it’s known that when Elvis Presley did his handful of Opry appearances in 1955 drummer D. J. Fontana was forced to wait in the wings while Elvis and his other musicians, lead guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, performed. Elvis bombed so completely on the Opry that the show’s manager, Jim Denny, famously told him, “If I were you, I’d go back to driving a truck.”) Wills also helped bring country music to a larger audience when Bing Crosby covered his hits “San Antonio Rose” and “Mexicali Rose” (and it’s interesting to hear the straight-ahead on-the-beat phrasing Wills’ singers brought to these songs versus Bing’s superb laid-back style that derived from his days as Paul Whiteman’s jazz singer).

The show also covered the emergence of bluegrass as a sub-genre within country and credited the Monroe Brothers, Charlie and Bill, with inventing it (though I’d always assumed bluegrass was one of the folk precursors of country, along with hillbilly and cowboy music). The Monroe Brothers broke up in 1940 and the two raced to the Opry to see which one could get on the show first as a solo artist — Bill won the race and became one of the Opry’s biggest stars, though Charlie laconically commented to a friend, “He won’t last long, not when they find out how hard he is to get along with.” Monroe lasted into the 1990’s and most of what’s available by him on archive.org is live tapes from the last decade or so; he’s known not only for his own work but for Elvis having covered his song “Blue Moon of Kentucky” as the B-side of his first Sun Records single, “That’s All Right, Mama” (Sun Records owner Sam Phillips created a formula for Elvis’s releases on Sun of having a cover of a Black blues song on one side of the record and a cover of a white country song on the other), and there’s a marvelous performance on the Vanguard compilation CD of the 1960’s Newport Folk Festivals of Monroe performing “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” doing one chorus at the walking tempo of his original record and then speeding up for the second chorus to sound more like Elvis’s cover.

But for me the real revelation on this show was The Maddox Brothers and Rose, a group that began with a family of seven (dad, mom and five kids) who were living in Alabama on dad’s earnings as a factory worker in the 1930’s. They decided to go to California in search of greener pastures — figuratively and literally — and, with little conception of the distance involved, decided to walk there. They had got about 200 miles when some hobos ran into them and taught them how to grab rides in the boxcars of freight trains, and that’s how they finally got to the Golden State — only the only jobs they could get were as farm workers. Daddy Maddox announced that he was going to try for a career in music — he’d heard the country music radio broadcasts and decided he could sing that well — even though none of them had ever played before. Dad decided to become the bass player (I guess that seemed to him like the simplest instrument to learn) and his sons took up the other traditional country instruments, while Rose became the lead singer. Hearing her voice on these performances was electrifying; at a time when the mold for women country singers was Sara Carter’s and Patsy Montana’s — high, thin, pleading and verging on the edge of self-pitying bathos — Rose Maddox was the first woman country singer who really took charge. Her voice was bold, loud, assertive and pitched towards the bottom of the normal female range. To put it bluntly, there wouldn’t have been a Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton if it hadn’t been for Rose Maddox, the foremother of ballsy female country singing. This morning I went looking for Maddox Brothers and Rose records on archive.org, and most of the ones I found were of sacred songs on the 4Star label (an independent company founded in Los Angeles in the late 1940’s that also recorded Cecil Gant and other pioneers of Black R&B), though there’s enough there to showcase how good Rose Maddox really was.

The show also deals with some of the politics within the music industry — at the end of 1940 the American Society of Composers, Artists and Publishers (ASCAP) suddenly and abruptly doubled the rates it charged radio stations for the right to play their members’ songs on the air. The radio companies refused to play the higher rates; instead they formed their own music licensing organization, Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), and won a major coup when Ralph Peer’s Peer-Southern publishing company became a BMI affiliate so his songs could still be performed on the radio. With most of the composers of the “Great American Songbook” under contract to ASCAP publishers, the ASCAP-BMI conflict helped the causes of both country and rhythm-and-blues, musical forms the High Lords of ASCAP had decided were beneath their dignity — so radio stations that had turned up their noses at country and R&B artists now found themselves playing them just to have something they could legally broadcast. And Duncan’s narration makes the interesting claim that World War II broadened the market for country music; country players who enlisted or were drafted brought their instruments with them, staged jam sessions and exposed their Northern brethren to this sort of music. The show claims that by the middle of the war Bob Wills and the other country stars were outdrawing the big-band swing leaders like Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, and the ending set up the rise of the man Burns and Duncan call “The Hillbilly Shakespeare,” Hank Williams (who, ironically, would sweep away Western Swing and bring country back to its roots — his bands were back-to-the-basics ensembles of violin, steel guitar, bass and Williams’ own guitar), whose importance to country music is parallel to his contemporary Charlie Parker’s in jazz.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Country Music, part 1: “The Rub” (Beginnings-1933) (Florentine Films, WETA, PBS, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our main “feature” last night, which I was able to watch after Undercover Cheerleader (see below) because KPBS blessedly ran it twice, at 8 p.m. and again at 10 p.m., was “The Rub,” the first episode (of eight) in Ken Burns’ latest omnibus series about American life and culture, Country Music. I’m not a major fan of country music but I quite like a lot of it, and the closer it hews to the roots of the form — the Anglo-Saxon and Irish folk traditions that provided the basic foundation, the admixtures of Black blues and spirituals, Latino and Hawai’ian guitar traditions that got overlaid on them, and the fusion of hillbilly, bluegrass and Western music that fused into the style we usually call “country” — the better I like it. I get very impatient with people who flatly say, “I don’t like country music” (though that blanket dismissal is pretty close to the way I feel about rap) since there seems to me to be a beautiful bittersweet spirit in the best country music that I respond to. One thing I noticed about Burns’ first episode, “The Rub” — which he advertised as “Beginnings-1933” (1933 is the close of his story in this episode — he times it with the death of the paradigmatic country-music pioneer, Jimmie Rodgers, who arguably is to country what Louis Armstrong, with whom he actually recorded one song, is to jazz — and as Dayton Duncan’s script demonstrates, the roots of country music go so far back in American history that the first published country song dates to 1736, 40 years before the Declaration of Independence. One thing I find fascinating about this show is its proclamation that African-American culture is one of the roots of country music — a claim you could, come to think about it, make about virtually all American popular music. You combine Black music with the white marching-band tradition, and you get jazz. You combine Black and Jewish music, and you get Broadway and the “Great American Songbook.” You combine Black music with the British and Irish folk traditions, and you get country music.

Burns’ and Duncan’s ecumenicism about the Black influence on country music stands in sharp contrast to the “take” Burns took on the history of jazz in his mega-documentary Jazz, in which, under the lash of the reverse-racist theories of his two principal consultants, trumpeter-composer Wynton Marsalis (who rears his head in this show as well) and critic Stanley Crouch, he went out of his way to deny any creative role for white musicians in shaping jazz. (About the only white musicians Burns treated with any fairness in Jazz were Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman and Dave Brubeck — and I suspect the only reason Brubeck made the cut was that when Burns made the film he was still alive and agreed to be interviewed extensively for it.) PBS has told the story of “The Rub” at least twice before, in a bio-documentary about the Carter Family and the first episode of American Epic, a show from 2017 about the Black and white folk traditions record companies seized on in the late 1920’s to compete with radio — they looked for musics popular where radio hadn’t penetrated yet and sought to sell rural people, white and Black, phonographs and records by offering them the sorts of music they already knew, liked and often played themselves. “The Rub” shows a surprising degree of integration between white and Black musicians despite the harsh segregation laws that were supposed to prevent the races from mixing in public at all, including photos of Black musicians playing with otherwise all-white bands, as well as the wince-inducing phenomenon of blackface: white performers crudely made up to look Black and doing routines (including the songs of Stephen Foster, cited here as an important antecedent of country music as well as an early example of someone who was able to popularize a folk tradition and turn it into a marketable product) that depicted Black life in a stereotyped and bizarre fashion. Among the oddest aspects of how white performers depicted Black people to a white audience was their insistence that the Blacks had loved being slaves and had deep, abiding affections for their owners. (I just ate, and it’s a struggle to type that without puking.)

The one big mistake Burns and Duncan made is the total omission of Vernon Dalhart; Burns and Duncan mention “Fiddling” John Carson as the first country musician to make a commercially successful record (for the Okeh label, produced by Ralph Peer, in 1922), but they don’t mention Dalhart’s pioneering song “The Wreck of the Old 97.” Based on a real-life wreck of a mail train outside Danville, Virginia in 1903. “The Wreck of the Old 97” was first recorded by Dalhart for the Edison label in 1922, but it didn’t really take off until he remade it for Victor (backed by another song that became a country standard, “The Prisoner’s Song”) in 1924. (Edison’s record sold poorly because they were recorded “hill-and-dale” — the stylus moving up and down in the groove — instead of the more standard “lateral cut,” the stylus moving side to side. If you had a lateral-cut phonograph you couldn’t play hill-and-dale records on it unless you bought an adapter, which some third-party vendors sold.) Dalhart’s Victor record of “The Wreck of the Old 97” sold over a million copies and let everyone in the record business know that there was gold in them thar hillbillies. Ralph Peer was a visionary businessman who, after leaving Okeh in a salary dispute in 1925, set his sights on the biggest record company of all, Victor. When Victor’s executives told him they weren’t willing to hire him as a producer, Peer made them an offer they literally couldn’t refuse: he’d produce records for Victor and not take any payment at all for his work in the studio. Instead, he’d be compensated by being given the publishing rights for any copyrightable songs his musicians recorded. Peer formed a music company (called Peer-Southern and still run by members of his family) to hold the copyrights and collect money not only for the records he and his artists produced but for sales of sheet music and any cover versions recorded by other artists. This meant that Peer’s artists could only record either songs they had written themselves, public-domain folk material they had “tweaked” enough to render it copyrightable, or other songs from the Peer-Southern publishing catalogue.

In 1927 Peer organized a field recording trip to Bristol, Tennessee to get more records by Ernest Stoneman, who was then Victor’s top-selling country artist but didn’t want to come to New York or the company’s headquarters in Camden, New Jersey to record. In order to make the trip worth his and the company’s while — at the time recording equipment was incredibly heavy, massive, fragile and difficult to move — Peer decided to hold open auditions. At first he didn’t attract many artists, so he got an article written about his operation in a local newspaper bidding anyone who played “mountain music” to come out and try for a Victor contract. Towards the end of his Bristol sojourn Peer attracted the acts that would become the first country superstars: the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. The Carter Family were a trio consisting of A. P. Carter, his wife Sara and her sister Maybelle (who’d married A. P.’s brother Eck), who had never performed professionally before and had always regarded music as something you made for fun on your front porch to relax after a long day of farm work. Ralph Peer heard something in Sara’s high, thin, plaintive voice that he thought would sound “authentic” and would sell. Jimmie Rodgers was a 30-year-old ne’er-do-well whose father was a railroad man who tried to get Rodgers work on the railroads as well; he briefly had the difficult job of brakeman when he wasn’t tearing off, touring with vaudeville acts and traveling medicine shows, and burning through his money almost as soon as he made it, much to the chagrin of his wife Carrie and their daughter Anita. Rodgers came to Bristol prepared to record a soap-opera lament called “The Soldier’s Sweetheart,” but he needed a song to put on the other side and he quickly concocted a lullaby called “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” in which he yodeled between verses. As things turned out, it was “Sleep, Baby, Sleep” that became the hit, and Rodgers yodeled on just about every subsequent record he made. Rodgers also suffered from tuberculosis at a time when that was an incurable death sentence, and his own awareness of the brevity of his life span haunts all his music. Rodgers took composer credit for most of his songs — sometimes along with Elsie McWilliams, his sister-in-law — and he became an enormous star with a huge following. He also made a lot of money, which he spent on fancy cars, designer clothes, a custom guitar with gold frets and his name emblazoned down the neck in mother-of-pearl (on the back side of the instrument he painted the word “Thanks,” offered to the audience who had made this possible) and a lavish home in Texas he called “Blue Yodeler’s Paradise” after the “Blue Yodel” designation Peer slapped on 13 of Rodgers’ songs.

I remember discovering Jimmie Rodgers through two RCA Victor reissue LP’s in the late 1960’s, playing through one of them (including the searing, doom-ridden “Barefoot Blues,” which he recorded in a final frantic week in New York because he knew he literally had just days to live and if he could complete his Victor contract in the time he had left his wife and daughter would get $2,500 in session fees they desperately needed) before I bothered to look at the photo on the album cover, then reeling in shock and saying, “This guy was white?” At a time when there were solemn debates in music magazines over the question, “Can white men sing the blues?” (white musician Steve Miller’s response was, “Why not? White people have problems, too”), here was a white man from the late 1920’s and early 1930’s who had sung the blues with the same passion, sincerity and soul of the great Black blues singers of the time. What’s more, Rodgers could sing anything: blues, pop, dance, Hawai’ian (the steel guitar became a paradigmatic country instrument because Rodgers liked Hawai’ian music and insisted on recording with Hawai’ian bands that used it), sacred (when Peer decided to pair Rodgers and the Carter Family together, the best song they made together was the hymn “The Wonderful City”) and all elements of the hillbilly-bluegrass-Western style that was coming together to form what we now know as country music. Between them, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers laid the groundwork for virtually all of what country music would become — Burns underscores this by playing Rodgers’ record of “Muleskinner Blues” at the end of the program (after depicting Rodgers’ funeral train, which drew the same kind of turnout of people anxious to see it go by and say their farewell to him as Lincoln’s had 68 years earlier) and then cutting, over the final credits, to a sped-up but still within-the-tradition live cover by Dolly Parton — and though the Great Depression would hit the market for records in general (indeed, it virtually destroyed the U.S. recording industry, though the record market did eventually recover as the overall economy did), country musicians would find a home on radio and their music, rooted as it was in the lives of people who had always lived marginal existences, would speak powerfully to Depression audiences and keep the flame alive.

Undercover Cheerleader (Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

At 8 last night Charles and I watched Lifetime’s latest cheerleader movie, Undercover Cheerleader, and even more than The Cheerleader Escort this was an example of a Lifetime movie that would have been considerably better if the writer, Lauren Balson Carter, and the director, Danny J. Boyle (definitely not the Danny Boyle who made Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting, which is why he uses the initial to avoid confusion), had just known when to stop. The plot: Autumn Bailey (Kayla Wallace) has just been moved across the country from New York City to San Francisco because her mom — who’s raising her as a single parent (there’s only a passing reference to her father and screenwriter Carter makes it seem like he’s dead) — has just got her “dream job” as CEO for a tech firm. In her previous high school Autumn worked on the student newspaper and mom naturally assumes she’s going to do that here at Brookview High as well — but when Autumn shows up, the kids in the cheerleading squad tag her and decide that with her pert appearance and her dance background (she’s asked if Brookview offers dance and finds that cheerleading is the closest thing to it on campus) she’d be a natural.

Kara (Maddie Phillips), the editor of the school paper, and her sort-of boyfriend Max (Ryan Grantham) — who’s so short and boyish he comes up to about her shoulders, and he’s obviously got a crush on Kara that is totally unreciprocated (which made me wonder if writer Carter was warming up to make Max either Gay or one of those straight “incels” who gets mad to the point of homicidal mania at the girls who won’t date him and the cuter, butcher or richer boys they will date) — suggest that Bailey join the cheerleading squad but write a series of articles for the school paper, signed “The Undercover Cheerleader,” about the toxic aspects of cheerleader culture. The imdb.com page on this film is missing some key information, including who plays Bailey’s mother as well as two other important characters: Dot, the cheerleading coach, who runs the squad with so intense a level of discipline she makes R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket seem warm and fuzzy by comparison; and a Black girl who has enrolled in Brookview specifically to become a cheerleader there because Brookview is noted for having won the cheerleading competition in their area five years in a row. This is depicted as a rare bright spot for them because the actual athletic teams the cheerleaders are supposed to be leading cheers for all suck. Bailey gets on the cheerleading squad partly because the bad girl, Jenny (marvelously acted by Samantha Schimmer), wants her there — “I want to keep my enemies close by,” she tells a friend — and she also meets Jordan Dunn (André Anthony), who takes a shine to her and invites her to a double date with Jenny and her football-player boyfriend, Bode (yet another actor regrettably unidentified on imdb.com, even though his crisis of conscience is well played and he’s almost as cute as the guy playing Jordan). We get the idea that Bailey is feeling conflicted between her role as the “undercover cheerleader” and her growing affection for her squad-mates (except for ice-cold bitch Jenny) and her sense of loyalty to them and also to Jordan.

One day Dot, looking for an excuse to fire the Black girl from the squad, makes her do a highly dangerous gymnastics maneuver even though the girl hasn’t trained in gymnastics, and though we don’t see it (obviously the folks at Reel One Entertainment didn’t have enough of a budget for a stunt double), the girl lands wrong and fractures her ankle. Bailey plans a party to raise money for her care — only the one available venue is her own home, which she can use because her mom is going on a business trip — and the plans for the party advance from a relatively decorous affair to a rave-style event with a beer keg and presumably a lot of pairing-off between the kids for sex. This is when writer Carter and director Boyle really start taking things off the rails: Bella (Samantha Corrigan), one of the suspects as to who the “undercover cheerleader” really is, gets run off the road by a motorcyclist as she’s walking home from the party. She’s O.K. but it later turns out that Bode did it at the insistence of cheerleader coach Dot, who wanted to scare all the cheerleaders so whichever one is providing the information to the school paper as the “undercover cheerleader” will stop. Later another cheerleader who’s suspected of being the leaker, Samantha (Mya Lowe), is also run down by someone riding a motorcycle, only as she falls she hits her head against a rock and dies from the injury. Bailey’s mom comes home early from her business trip because she’s naturally upset with Bailey for having a wild party in their home, after which someone was killed, though of course once she turns up and Bailey confesses to mom that her life is in danger, Mom instantly becomes supportive. At the scene of Samantha’s murder Bailey finds a broken-off rear-view mirror for a motorcycle, and then at Jordan’s place she sees a bike missing just that sort of mirror and concludes her boyfriend is the killer — only he isn’t; his dad had reported that bike stolen the morning of the incident.

Jordan and Bailey make up surprisingly quickly (given that she’s just accused him of murder) and they run through the various suspects, including Bode and also Max, whom Boyle has shown lurking around some of the scenes in a sinister fashion. Bailey appeals to her editor Kara for support — only [spoiler alert!] Kara turns out to be Samantha’s killer, though Carter isn’t all that clear as to her motive. It seems to have something to do with having hoped Bailey would be her friend in high school, only to see her drawn into the lives of the cheerleaders she was supposedly involved with only to write about and expose them. Kara feeds Bailey drugged tea and grabs a tire iron, apparently to hit her with it, but is herself brought down by the Seventh Cavalry-style appearance of Bailey’s mom. Six months later Bella, now out of school, is the new cheerleading coach and Bailey is still in the program, having decided she likes cheerleading and she likes being the girlfriend of a football player even better. As for Jenny, she gets her comeuppance by being kept on the cheerleading squad but only as the other girls’ water girl. We’d been seeing some better-than-average movies on Lifetime lately but Undercover Cheerleader is a return to their old slovenly ways: a silly plot way too dependent on coincidence, a level of emotional manipulation that starts at 11, anachronistic details (the double date involving Jenny, Bode, Bailey and Jordan takes place at, of all locales, a drive-in movie theatre — are there any of those left anymore?) and a ridiculous and head-scratching final twist that involves a seemingly level-headed character suddenly turning into a manipulative bitch. We didn’t even get any hot, lubricious soft-core porn scenes to relieve the dreary acid of human unkindness!

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Cheerleader Escort (Thrilling Films, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Lifetime premiere was yet another movie in their “Cheer, Rally, Kill” series of lubricious movies about cheerleaders (and I suspect the use of the word “cheerleader” in Lifetime movie titles is an attempt by this channel and the producing studios they contract with to get straight guys to watch by offering them sexy young sylph-like girls doing dance routines and thrusting their asses at the camera). It was called The Cheerleader Escort, and judging from the title and the overall concept — female college freshmen (shouldn’t that be “freshwomen”?) recruited into prostitution with well-to-do alumni to pay their tuition and other college costs without ending up in hock for life over student loans — I had assumed it was from Ken Sanders’ operation and would have been written by J. Bryan Dick and Barbara Kymlicka. Alas, Mr. Dick and Ms. Cum-Licker weren’t involved in this one — the film was directed by Alexandre Carrière from a script by Andrea Canning — though the story adhered closely enough to their formula it might as well have been. Our central character is Cassie Talbot (Alexandra Beaton), who’s learned to dance ballet, tap and jazz at the dance studio owned and run by her mom, Karen Talbot (Cynthia Preston, top-billed). Alas, mom and dad divorced well before the movie began and Cassie is dependent on dad’s coming through with alimony and child support payments to be able to afford to go away to college at Tate Riley University in Philadelphia (it’s an awkward name for a college and I was probably more irritated than I should have been that it wasn’t hyphenated). Dad came through with Cassie’s first-semester tuition but then disappeared, went “off the grid” and is now two months behind on the regular alimony and child support payments. Given the family’s last name one might suspect that’s because every month during the full moon he turns into a werewolf and goes around killing people, but instead it turns out he’s a compulsive gambler and that’s almost certainly where the money he’s supposed to be sending to his ex-wife and their kid is going.

Cassie rooms at Tate Riley with Alyssa (unidentified on imdb.com), an African-American woman she’s known since they were in grade school together, and of course we immediately assume she’s being set up for the part of The Heroine’s Black Best Friend who Stumbles Onto the Villains’ Plot but Gets Killed for Her Pains (though in fact Alyssa’s blessedly still alive at the end — does that count as a spoiler?). Alyssa and the school’s head cheerleader, Gabby Sanders (Joelle Farrow), suggest to Cassie that she try out for the cheerleading squad — Cassie protests that, though she did some cheerleading in high school, she’s “a little rusty,” but they insist that with her dance training she’d be a natural, and she makes the team, replacing one of three women who aged out and a fourth who was expelled from the squad for mysterious reasons that only get explained towards the end. At Tate Riley the cheerleaders are expected not only to do what their name suggests — to lead cheers on the sidelines of the school’s athletic contests (interestingly, like at least one other movie in Lifetime’s “Cheer, Rally, Kill” series the game they’re leading cheers during is basketball; I don’t remember basketball being a sport played during the fall when people have just returned to — or are starting — school, but since my own high-school days the sports seasons have so extensively blended into each other this may be accurate and my knowledge base may be dated) and do dance routines during halftime — but also entertain the alumni at private fundraising parties for the school. And, as Gabby quickly explains to Cassie when Cassie confesses she may have to drop off the cheerleading squad and take a job to stay in school, they do more than that: the cheerleaders also function as an “escort” service for the well-to-do alumni who want hot, nubile young female bodies to fuck and are literally willing to shell out thousands of dollars for the privilege.

Gabby is being more or less kept as a long-term mistress by businessman John Tanner (Victor Cornfoot), though of course he can only see her when his intensely suspicious and jealous wife is out of town. Cassie attracts the attention of criminal defense attorney Terry Dunes (Damon Runyan), who unlike most of the alumni “johns” has had the good sense to stay single so he doesn’t have to worry about a wife getting in the way of his fun and taking him to the cleaners financially in a divorce action if she catches him “cheating.” Cassie also has an age-peer boyfriend, Kyle Buchanan (Michael Conde, a tall, tousled-haired cutie who’s considerably more attractive than a lot of the nerdy guys who usually cast in these sorts of parts — I remember one “escort” movie from the Sanders-Dick-Kymlicka factory in which their casting director screwed up big-time by making the older man who was paying Our Heroine to sleep with her considerably sexier and more attractive than the age-peer would-be boyfriend who wanted her for free), who’s her study partner in calculus, but after a series of quasi-romantic dates she slips into bed with Terry, has a great time and even thinks it’s true love … until one night she spies a pair of red panties in his bedroom that aren’t hers and look way too small for him to say, “Oh, you’ve discovered my secret. I cross-dress.” In a plot gimmick so old it was used in the 1909 play The Easiest Way by Eugene Waller and David Belasco, also about a decent girl who gets drawn into a sex-for-money relationship and then has to face the crisis of conscience (go along with it to get the money to help her struggling family, or exit and save her reputation at the cost of leaving both herself and her relatives broke?), Cassie gets mysterious money transfers from Terry that pay for her second-semester tuition at Tate Riley and also bail out her mom’s struggling dance studio, making her reluctant to derail Terry’s gravy train no matter how scummy the relationship seems. Along the way we learn that the college’s cheerleading coach, Stephanie Dodger (Carolyne Maraghi, an ice-cold presence much like Alfred Hitchcock’s fabled blonde heroines), pretends to be independently wealthy but is in fact the cheerleaders’ madam, setting up their “dates” and living well off their proceeds.

Stephanie is more than the ring’s madam; she’s also its enforcer: when Gabby gets pregnant with John Tanner’s child and insists she’s going to have the baby, hit him up for child support for the next 18 years and blab to his wife if he tries to stop her, Stephanie breaks into her house (wearing the archetypal black hoodie it seems all crooks on Lifetime wear when they break and enter) and kills her by shooting her up with drugs, since the cover story is going to be that Gabby was a recovering drug addict who relapsed and O.D.’d. Cassie and her friend Alyssa (ya remember Alyssa? Actually I thought the actress playing Alyssa was hotter than any of the ones cast as the cheerleaders and I wished the writers had put her on the cheerleading squad) decide to investigate and go on social media to look up Monica Danforth (Julia Knope), who like Cassie wet to Tate Riley in hopes of becoming a veterinarian, got caught up in the cheerleaders’ “escort” operation, and dropped out when Stephanie paid her a large sum of money — enough for her to buy an interest in a horse stable and become its assistant manager (though about all we see her doing there is raking hay). Monica tells Cassie and Alyssa all, and Cassie and Alyssa work out a scheme with Cassie’s friend Kyle (ya remember Kyle?) to expose the ring. At another big alumni event during which the cheerleaders are set to perform, Cassie and Alyssa corner Stephanie in the women’s restroom and get her to admit her role in the scheme — while they’ve got their cell phone on and Kyle commandeers the mike to broadcast what Stephanie is saying, including the names of some of the johns (we see a great shot of a woman bolting from John’s table — his wife, obviously, about to deliver the divorce suit that’s going to break him financially now that her years-long suspicions have been confirmed), and Stephanie, who was there to get an award for her years of college philanthrophy, walks through the room with impeccable sang-froid after she realizes she’s been disgraced.

There’s a tag scene in which Cassie, Kyle, Cassie’s mom Karen and the accountant she’s dating — who thinks he can work out her financial problems so she can keep both the house and her dance studio without her scapegrace ex’s money — all meet for dinner and Cassie announces that instead of continuing at Tate Riley she’ll get a job and find a local college she can attend while living at home (though she promises she’ll still date Kyle). The Cheerleader Escort lives up to the promise of its title — though the sex scenes are perfunctory and awfully abbreviated (even though writer Canning wisely moved up the age of the cheerleader escorts from high school to college to avoid running afoul of all that Thought Police legislation about depicting adult males having sex with underage partners, she and director Carrière were obviously too scared of the moral Thought Police to get too engagingly lubricious in showing what was going on, so we get an awful lot of Lubitsch-style doors shoved in our faces just as things are starting to get interesting) — but it’s no more than a typical Lifetime formula movie and there’s little or no attempt to depict the class-struggle aspects of the plot. I’d have liked to hear some dialogue warning Cassie and Alyssa, when they threaten to go to the police, that the police are in the pockets of the 1-percenters who are the cheerleader-escorts’ customers — there are hints of that in Canning’s dialogue but it doesn’t become a plot point the way the power of the 1 percent (a phrase that’s actually used in this script) has in Restless Virgins and other more class-conscious Lifetime films. I liked The Cheerleader Escort but it wasn’t anything really special.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Windjammer (Grand National/RKO, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a download of a movie called Windjammer, a quirky but rather dull 1937 “B” produced under peculiar auspices (by George Hirliman, head of Grand National Pictures, who made this and three other films with George O’Brien, who as a silent actor had appeared in major films like Murnau’s Sunrise, Ford’s The Iron Horse and Three Bad Men, and Curtiz’ Noah’s Ark but in the talkie era got relegated to “B” movies, mostly Westerns, but the films themselves were released by RKO. They were almost certainly not made by RKO, however, since they carry Abe Meyer’s credit as music director. Meyer ran a company called Meyer Synchronizing Service which offered stock music tracks for rent to independent producers, but had Hirliman made these films at RKO he wouldn’t have needed Meyer since RKO itself would have had stock music available from their own library. My guess is that the chronically cash-poor Grand National company Hirliman owned sold O’Brien’s contract to RKO and threw in four completed but as-yet-unreleased O’Brien films for Grand National. (Grand National had an uninspiring end in 1939 for a company that had aspired to major-studio status and had even landed James Cagney for two films, Great Guy and the musical Something to Sing About — a film to which Cagney devoted an entire chapter of his autobiography because it was the only musical he made between Footlight Parade and Yankee Doodle Dandy, and he said in the book his one career regret was he’d made so few musicals. They got Cagney after he successfully sued Warner Bros. to break his contract over a billing issue, then lost him again when Warners got the judgment reversed on appeal.) Windjammer was a singularly dull movie that failed to live up to the sailing-ship romance (in both senses of the word) promised by the title. There seems to be some confusion whether the term “windjammer” is a generic term for any large sail-powered vessel or a specific genre of sailing ship, and Wikipedia isn’t much help: their definition is “a commercial sailing ship with multiple masts that may be either square rigged or fore-and-aft rigged or a combination of the two. The informal term arose during the transition from the Age of Sail to the Age of Steam.”

Wikipedia also notes that in the 19th century the term “windjammer” sometimes was used to refer not to sailing ships themselves, but to the members of their crew — and it was an insult sailors aboard steamships hurled at their behind-the-times sailing brethren. The most famous film called Windjammer was the large-format documentary made in 1959 about a Norwegian sailing ship, the Christian Radich, that for some reason had been kept in service by the Norwegian navy as a training vessel even though obviously members of the Norwegian navy weren’t going to be using sailing ships in their actual service. (This seems to be the same principle by which airplane pilots who enlisted in World War II trained in biplanes even though all the aircraft used in actual combat on both sides were monoplanes.) The 1959 Windjammer was produced by a short-lived company called Cinemiracle that attempted to rip off Cinerama’s format — three separate images on three different films, plus a fourth film carrying the soundtrack, to create a super-wide image that would reproduce the entire range of human direct and peripheral vision — without violating Cinerama’s patents by bouncing the images off mirrors onto the screen. Alas, Cinemiracle lost the patent-infringement suit Cinerama brought against them, and Windjammer, the only film actually produced in Cinemiracle, was taken over and re-released under the Cinerama logo. Unfortunately, the 1937 Windjammer was hardly as prestigious (or as long — 58 minutes compared to 142 for the 1959 Windjammer) as its successor. Directed by Ewing Scott from a screenplay by Daniel Jarrett and James Gruen from an “original” story by Major Raoul Haig (“major” of what, one wonders), Windjammer actually begins in the California state capitol, where the state attorney general wants to serve a subpoena on utilities magnate Commodore Russell T. Selby (Brandon Evans) to force him to testify before a state legislative committee.

The attorney general assigns the task of serving Selby — who’s called “Commodore” because he owns a yacht that’s about to set sail from California to Hawai’i as a contestant in an annual yacht race he’s been trying to win for five years — to a young assistant in his office, Bruce Lane (George O’Brien), who first attempts to crash a going-away party being given on the yacht but is discovered and thrown off the boat. Next Bruce hits on the idea of sailing out in a small boat, pretending to be shipwrecked and forcing Selby’s captain (Lee Shumway) to pick him up according to the laws of the sea, and Bruce’s stratagem works — he gets to Commodore Selby and hands him the subpoena — but it turns out he’s done so outside the three-mile limit of U.S. territorial waters (in those days — now it’s 12) and therefore he hasn’t completed the legal requirements for service and he won’t have another chance to do so until they get to Hawai’i and are once again within U.S. territory. Selby and his daughter Betty (Constance Worth, delivering a quite tough and effective no-nonsense performance suggesting that Hirliman and Scott were grooming her to be another Katharine Hepburn) announce that they’re going to force Lane to work for his passage — and of course they assign him to wash dishes and do other demeaning tasks on board. As if that weren’t enough plot for you, the yacht springs a leak and the crew members demand that Selby “unseal” the ship’s diesel engines, which will enable them to get to the nearest port safely but will also disqualify them from the yacht race (ya remember the yacht race?), which has to be conducted exclusively on sail. And just in case you needed any more complications, they come in the form of another yacht crewed by a bunch of crooks who are sailing to Macao with a mysterious cargo labeled “Farm Implements” — but we know from the scene in which the captain, Morgan (William Hall) — the writers seem to be doing an in-joke reference to the real-life Caribbean pirate Henry Morgan — warns one of his crew members not to smoke in the hold that it really contains either armaments or explosives, probably for one side or another in the multi-pronged civil war that was then going on in China.

The crew of Selby’s yacht bails in the craft’s one lifeboat, the four remaining people (Selby, his daughter, her typically hapless spoiled-rich fiancé and Our Hero) try to continue to sail her, but they’re wrecked by the bad guys’ ship and pressed into service as part of his crew — only Our Hero, carrying an oil lamp for illumination, “accidentally” sets the hold on fire and the four good (or at least not-so-bad) characters escape in the bad guys’ lifeboat and watch on while the bad guys’ ship picturesquely blows up from whatever it was in that hold. The 1937 Windjammer really isn’t that much of a movie, and anyone coming to it expecting to see sailing ships and the crews that run them in action would be disappointed — there is a bit of business involving a “balloon jib” (a particularly large, bulbous and dangerous sail — the correct term is “balloon spinnaker” but the writers got it wrong) that makes the boat goes faster but at the risk of knocking crew members overboard — but not much in the way of sailing action, or of action of any other kind for that matter. Grand National made some surprisingly interesting movies during their short existence, including the two Cagney credits as well as Reefer Madness (whose connection to Grand National is exposed by the movie theatre seen during one of the film’s marijuana-fueled chase scenes, which is advertising Any Old Love, the film Cagney’s character stars in as part of the plot of Something to Sing About) and the surprisingly haunting Tex Ritter Western Rolling Plains, but Windjammer is just another late-1930’s “B,” not really awful but not especially interesting either — though Constance Worth’s edgy performance is fun and even makes the typical hate-at-first-sight-that-blossoms-into-love plot line of her and George O’Brien’s relationship at least faintly believable.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro (Komische Oper, East Berlin, 1976)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I had wanted to watch one of the opera videos I had just got from a so-called “flash sale” at arkivmusic.com, which included a boxed set of seven productions by director Walter Felsenstein of the Komische Oper in what was then East Berlin and a recent Zürich, Switzerland Blu-ray of Debussy’s one finished opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. I tried to run the Debussy disc but it wouldn’t load on our player (I suspect it’s a region-coding problem), so I broke out the Felsenstein box and played the earliest item on it (in order of composition), a 1976 performance of Mozart’s comic masterpiece The Marriage of Figaro. The liner notes on the outside of the Felsenstein box describe him as “one of the 20th century’s greatest creative theatre directors, who played a hugely important role in the revival of opera as a theatrical art form.” That had me fearing the worst — I worried that Felsenstein would turn out to be one of those Regietheater creeps who ran roughshod over the intentions of the original composer and librettist to impose his own concept on a work that was perfectly good as a theatre piece before he got his hands on it — but it turned out, at least on the basis of this performance, that he respected what Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte created out of Beaumarchais’ play Le Mariage de Figaro and sought to communicate it effectively rather than rewrite it to his own specifications.

Actually, in one respect Felsenstein did literally rewrite it; instead of da Ponte’s original Italian, the opera was performed in a German translation, and the German version was Felsenstein’s own — and given the auspices under which he was staging and the ideological predilections of the East German government, it’s arguable that he ramped up the anti-aristocratic social satire of the piece which Mozart and da Ponte had had to tone down to get the piece staged at all. When Mozart and da Ponte wrote The Marriage of Figaro in 1786 the source play had already been banned by the Vienna court, and it was only by promising to soft-pedal the anti-aristocratic satire of the original that da Ponte was able to get the royal court’s permission to adapt the play into an opera. I remember reading one biography of Mozart published in the 1930’s that claimed he and da Ponte completely eliminated the social commentary of the piece — which is utter nonsense: it’s written into the material and there’s no way you could have got rid of it completely without just turning it into a bawdy sex farce. The same biographer had described Mozart as going through night after night of being invited to the home of some aristocrat and asked to play for him at a big party, and Mozart doing so in hopes that said aristocrat would give him a job as his personal composer and music director — only to realize at the end of the evening that he’d just been tricked by the lure of a job into providing the aristocrat with an evening’s free entertainment. You can’t know that about Mozart without feeling that he had a deep emotional connection with the story of The Marriage of Figaro, which is about a count who tries to force himself on his wife’s maid (gee, a man in a position of wealth and power using those to get a reluctant woman to have sex with him against her will — where have we heard about that sort of thing since?) and is ultimately foiled by her, her fiancé and the count’s own wife. He probably relished not only setting a story in which a corrupt and hypocritical aristocrat got his comeuppance but slipping it by the censors at the Viennese court who had already banned the original play he and da Ponte were setting!

As Charles noticed, the anti-aristocratic satire is embodied as much in Mozart’s music as in da Ponte’s words — Mozart’s music is glorious but his writing for the Count drips with an awareness of his hypocrisy and his utter amorality when it comes to matters sexual, as well as his double standard: eager to get into the pants (or petticoats) of the maid Susanna while being ferociously jealous of his own wife. Felsenstein staged The Marriage of Figaro on simple, basic sets — mostly blank walls but with enough pieces of furniture, artworks and other items to suggest the 18th century — and blessedly did not try to update the material by setting it in modern times (though Peter Sellars’ controversial 1990’s production successfully updated Figaro by finding modern-day class equivalents for the original characters — something Sellars didn’t bother to do in his atrocious productions of the other Mozart-da Ponte operas, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte). Musically, the production was in the good hands of conductor Géza Oberfrank, who played the score idiomatically and kept it moving swiftly, and Felsenstein handled the piece’s comic moments adeptly without allowing them to degenerate into slapstick. Of the four principals — Uwe Kreyßig as the Count, Magdalena Falewicz as the Countess, József Dene as Figaro and Ursula Reinhardt-Kiss as Susanna — Dene, a Hungarian singer, was the only one I’d heard of before, but like a lot of other local productions, what the show lost in not having superstar voices it gained by having singers who were clearly used to working with each other and projecting an ensemble instead of trying to grab the spotlight from each other.

Kreyßig was a bit older-looking than I expected (I’ve always thought of the Count and Figaro as being about the same age) but he captured the stuffed-shirt façade of the character and the unscrupulous amorality that lies beneath it — indeed, especially after the revelation that in addition to Susanna he’s already hit on at least one other member of his household staff, Barbarina (Barbara Sternberger), the Count comes off as a sort of 18th century version of Harvey Weinstein. Falewicz as the Countess has the sense of wounded dignity and pride the role needs; she’s hardly as overwhelming as Jessye Norman on Colin Davis’s 1971 recording, but she’s quite fine even though she suffers more than the other principals of having to sing her big arias in rather clunky German instead of the more free-flowing Italian. Dene was the one of the four leads I found rather oppressive — he looked oddly like early-1960’s Elvis Presley and it was fun watching his chest through his open-necked shirt but it got old after a while and his swaggering seemed an odd choice to portray this version of Figaro (as opposed to the more extroverted one in Rossini’s prequel, The Barber of Seville). Ursula Reinhardt-Kiss wore her dress so low on her chest her breasts looked like a wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen, but her singing was fun even though I think she overdid the pertness a bit. Still, this Marriage of Figaro was a quite good production of an opera that, even though it’s solidly in the standard repertory, is a difficult piece to bring off — and my only real quarrel with Felsenstein’s production was his regrettable decision to leave out the big arias for Barbarina and Dr. Bartolo (Rudolf Asmus) that begin Act IV, which he set in an outdoor garden with curved walking bridges and what looked like bamboo stalks. Charles joked that this set would have served equally well for the first act of Madama Butterfly and wondered what financial constraints there were on the Komische Oper that may have led them to build sets that could be used in more than one production.