Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Bright Eyes (Fox Film Corporation, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a movie together for the first time in a week and a half — until then our schedule had been pretty much eaten up by the Winter Olympics and a few other TV shows — and gave a long-delayed envoi to Shirley Temple two weeks after her death with her 1934 film Bright Eyes, her seventh and last movie that year. I had actually recorded Bright Eyes on a TCM tribute to the other child star in the film, Jane Withers, who — ironically enough, given the bitter rivalry between their characters here — was two years older than Temple and has outlived her (as of this writing Withers is still alive). Bright Eyes is one of those crazy portmanteau movies from the 1930’s in which the writers — David Butler (who also directed) and Edwin J. Burke, story; and William Conselman, script — seemed bound and determined to put in just about every element they thought would appeal to someone in the audience in the hope that every moviegoer would find something in the movie they would like. It begins as an aviation drama, with daredevil pilot James “Loop” Merritt (James Dunn, who played Shirley Temple’s father — or, as here, her surrogate father — so often there were probably moviegoers in the 1930’s who thought he really was Temple’s dad) doing a spectacular stunt flight and then getting ready to land. He’s anxious that Shirley Blake (Shirley Temple) be at the airport to greet him when he touches down — she always is — and the first shot we see of Our Shirley in this movie she’s dressed in a miniature version of a flight suit and is hitchhiking down a country road to the airport. She turns down the offer of a truck driver because she says he won’t be able to get her there in time, and then a car pulls up and picks her up.

It belongs to the circle of pilots that fly out of that particular airport and who have essentially adopted Shirley as a mascot. Indeed, one of the hangers-on at the airport sees Shirley looking so butch in her outfit he addresses her as a “little boy,” and of course Shirley fires back, “I’m a little girl.” (Shirley Temple, Transgender heroine.) Shirley’s dad is dead — he was Loop’s best friend until he, you guessed it, was killed in a plane crash — and her mom Mary (Lois Wilson) works as a maid for the wealthy and insufferably stuck-up couple J. Wellington Smythe (Theodore von Eltz) and his wife Anita (Dorothy Christy). We know they’re stuck-up when the Smythe phone rings and Anita gets furious with Mary for not answering it, even though Anita was right next to the phone when it rang and Mary was off across the house. As if this bizarre meeting of an aviation movie and Upstairs/Downstairs wasn’t enough plot for you, Mary has got special dispensation from Anita Smythe to let Shirley live with her at the Smythe mansion, a plot gimmick which according to an imdb.com “trivia” poster came from David Butler’s own childhood: his parents advertised for a live-in maid and the woman they hired was from Scotland, either widowed, divorced or separated from her husband, and insisted that her eight-year-old daughter be allowed to live in the servants’ quarters at the Butler home. Doubtless Mrs. Butler was considerably nicer about it than Mrs. Smythe is in the movie; she goes on and on and on about how much she resents having that cute little maid’s kid around — and her husband’s even worse about it. The only reason they don’t just fire Mary and make her and Shirley leave is that the Smythes’ uncle, Ned Smith (Charles Sellon) — one of the few 1930’s movie characters that actually needs the wheelchair we see him in on screen (usually when you saw a character in a chair back then he was merely faking a disability) — has taken a shine to Shirley, and the Smythes are counting on a major inheritance from their uncle to keep living in the style to which they have become accustomed.

The Smythes also have a daughter of their own, thoroughly spoiled shit-brat Joy (Jane Withers) — and the confrontations between Joy and Shirley are by far the best parts of this movie. Withers plays Joy as if she’d decided she wanted to be Bette Davis when she grew up, and for once the sugary sweetness of Shirley Temple has some salt and vinegar to play against. Withers gave an interview to film historian and critic Marjorie Rosen in the 1970’s in which she recalled that Fox had held an open audition for the part of Joy, and every other girl who tried out had been carefully coached by her parents to act nice, cute and sweet and try to out-Shirley Temple Shirley Temple. Withers’ parents were savvier; they realized that if Fox wanted another girl Shirley Temple’s age for a Temple movie, they were obviously looking for a bad girl to play against Temple’s good girl — so they coached Withers to play bad, and she got the part. One story is that Butler decided to cast her when she did a machine-gun impression as part of her test — and that turned into one of the film’s best scenes, when her exasperated parents offer to give her anything she wants, and she excitedly bellows, “A machine-gun!,” and goes around the room pantomiming shooting everyone with one and making the appropriate noises. Midway through the film Shirley’s mother Mary (once again, in the early days of the Production Code, the studios were sucking up to the Jesuits who enforced it by naming a woman who was the acme of innocence after the Virgin Mother!) gets run over by a car, ironically as she was on her way to the airport to join the aviators for a birthday party they were giving for Shirley, which involved making her the guest of honor inside a plane and taxi it around the runway while she sings the song that became her signature, “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” (Temple didn’t get to record it commercially — Fox was against allowing their stars to make records on the ground that if people could hear their stars’ voices on record, they wouldn’t spend the extra money to see them on screen — but a New World Records compilation of 1930’s pop songs included her version from the film, albeit without the song’s charming verse.)

Naturally Shirley wants to live at the airport with Loop, who now that her mom is dead is about the only adult who genuinely cares for her and loves her enough to be a suitable parent ­— but Loop says she can’t have a decent life living at an airport with a pilot who’s broke all the time. Instead he sends her off to live with the Smythes. Further complicating issues is that Loop’s former girlfriend, a society woman named Adele Martin (Judith Allen) who dated him several years earlier but jilted him when he asked her to marry him, is a house guest at the Smythes’ place — supposedly she’s a relative of the family but it’s not especially clear how — and if that weren’t enough plot for you, Ned Smith decides that he wants custody of Shirley and hires a platoon of lawyers to fight both the Smythes and Loop in court. Desperate for money to hire a lawyer of his own, Loop agrees to fly an important piece of mail to New York City for $1,000 despite the weather conditions being so bad no one else is willing to fly at all — and Shirley stows in the plane, leaving Loop freaked out that he’ll be arrested for kidnapping as soon as he lands. Only that doesn’t happen because Loop spots a gas leak in the plane and he and Shirley bail out, barely stopping their parachute from going over a cliff — according to imdb.com, that last heart-stopping scene wasn’t planned, but happened by accident when someone opened the soundstage door while they were shooting, the wind being generated by the wind machines changed direction and it nearly blew Dunn and Temple off the papier-maché cliff that was supposedly endangering them. They’re rescued, and this sets up a courtroom finale in which the judge awards custody of Shirley to Loop … and Ned … and Adele Martin, who has finally agreed to marry Loop so Shirley will have both a mom and dad at home even though both her biological parents are dead.

What’s most interesting about Bright Eyes is the film’s surprisingly clear-cut class consciousness — it’s relentlessly clear from this film that the bad guys are the ones with money and the good guys are either the ones without it or the ones like Adele and Ned who are able to come down off their high horses and help Shirley — and also the incredible precocity of Temple’s acting. Aided by some strong stiff-upper-lip writing, Temple handles her biggest emotional scene — when she has to react to her mother’s death — with some of the most extraordinarily honed acting of the period; it’s hard to imagine an adult actress of the period (even my all-time fave, Barbara Stanwyck) who could have played it that well. Though the film piles plot device on plot device so relentlessly one wonders what mind-altering substances the writers were on, Bright Eyes works surprisingly well as entertainment, with the fabled Temple cuteness held more or less in check by the melodramatic story aspects and also by Withers’ presence (when her mom finally slaps her on screen at the end, we want to go, “Hallelujah! About time!”). About the only thing I could think of that would have improved it would have been a stronger actor as Loop — and though both conflicting contracts and star standing would have prevented it, I knew exactly whom it should have been: James Cagney. Or maybe Humphrey Bogart: had Fox seen his remarkable performance in John Ford’s 1930 film Up the River and realized what an incredible talent they had in him, his career trajectory would have been quite different, though probably equally illustrious. James Dunn is a perfectly acceptable actor, and he’s O.K. at delivering the main conflict of his character — between his love for Shirley and his acknowledgment that his roughneck lifestyle makes him less than a perfect parent for her — but there were other people in Hollywood then who could have done it better.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Abe Lincoln in Illinois (Max Gordon Plays & Pictures/RKO, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago I wanted to honor the actual birth date of Abraham Lincoln — I can remember as a child when both Lincoln’s and George Washington’s birthdays were celebrated as holidays instead of being subsumed into this idiotic made-up holiday called “Presidents’ Day,” and I thought it would be nice to strike a blow for actually honoring Lincoln by showing a movie about him which had eluded my grasp when Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln came out on DVD and I ran a series consisting of it, Robert Redford’s The Conspirator (a quite good 2011 movie about the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination and the conspiracy trial of eight people allegedly involved in it), D. W. Griffith’s monumentally underrated 1930 biopic Abraham Lincoln and John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln and The Prisoner of Shark Island (the latter a film that goes over much the same historical ground as The Conspirator and focuses on Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was accused of being part of the conspiracy because he had set John Wilkes Booth’s leg, broken when Booth made his spectacular leap from the Presidential box at Ford’s Theatre to its stage shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis!”). Last night’s movie was Abe Lincoln in Illinois, a 1940 adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood’s 1938 play about Lincoln which was filmed at RKO as a co-production with Max Gordon Plays and Pictures, Inc. Max Gordon had produced the original and went in as a co-producer at a time when RKO’s new studio head, George Schaefer, had decided that his company’s future lay in bankrolling independent producers and partnering with them. It was an idea about a decade ahead of its time, and some of the independent producers — notably Sam Goldwyn and Walt Disney — brought in hits that made enormous amounts of money for RKO. Some of them, like Orson Welles, made brilliant but non-commercial films that lost big at the box office at the time but are now hailed as classics. Abe Lincoln in Illinois did well enough, probably because it had a pre-tested subject and the reputation as a hit play with the same star, and as a movie it’s reasonably compelling. It’s well acted — though Raymond Massey’s fabled Lincoln (he had played the part in the stage production as well and repeated it several times on radio and TV) has a scratchy, rather stylized voice; Charles and I both noted how much it sounded like Daniel Day-Lewis’s voice in the Spielberg Lincoln and I joked, “I guess that’s how a British actor sounds when he tries to play Lincoln.” (Massey adopted similar intonations whenever he was cast as an American — including his next film, The Santa Fe Trail, which went over the same bit of history but this time cast Massey as John Brown and made the future Confederates the good guys.)

The faults of Abe Lincoln in Illinois are inherent in Robert Sherwood’s play and particularly the overly reverent attitude he took towards the material. As I noted in some of my comments on other Lincoln movie, Lincoln is probably the second most difficult role for any actor to play (next to Jesus Christ) because he’s been practically canonized as a secular saint in American history. Most depictions of Lincoln on stage or screen ignore just how polarizing a figure he was in his time; when modern-day commentators called Barack Obama the most polarizing President in American history, my reaction was, “He is not! Lincoln was! When 11 states decide that they want to fight a war against the federal government rather than be governed by you, that’s about as polarizing as you can get!” Sherwood’s play is rather uncertainly split between the personal and the political; the first hour or so of this 110-minute movie is about Lincoln’s coming to the town of New Salem, Illinois, winning the hearts of the townspeople by beating town bully Jack Armstrong (Howard da Silva) in a wrestling match and falling in hopeless love with Ann Rutledge (Mary Howard), who’s actually engaged to John McNeil (Maurice Murphy) until he leaves for New York and Ann realizes that he’s probably never coming back — when she starts showing an interest in Lincoln, only it’s interrupted when she suddenly takes sick (she collapses at a dance) and dies of brain fever. The “Ann Rutledge legend” — the idea that she was the great love of Lincoln’s life and his actual wife, Mary Todd, never really displaced her in his affections — apparently started with the first Lincoln biography ever published, the memoir by his former law partner Billy Herndon (played here by Alan Baxter), who never liked Mary Todd and depicted her unsympathetically in his book. The Rutledge legend was incorporated into Carl Sandburg’s mega-biography of Lincoln (two volumes, The Prairie Years, about his pre-Presidential life and four volumes, The War Years, about his Presidency — which would add up to one book per year of the Civil War) and would have been part of mainstream Lincoln historiography when Sherwood wrote his play. But it’s been pretty well debunked by modern historians and biographers.

Mary Todd herself is played here by stage actress Ruth Gordon, making her film debut (and thereby putting Raymond Massey one degree of separation from Bud Cort!), and along with Sally Field’s performance in the Spielberg movie is probably the edgiest reading of her ever put on film. While the film doesn’t include one of my favorite bits of Lincoln’s history — when the official delegation from the Republican convention came to give him the word that he had won the 1860 Presidential nomination, he dumbfounded them by telling them, “There is a woman upstairs who will be far more interested in this news than I am” — one of Sherwood’s dramatic themes in his play was the extent to which Lincoln was lazy and just wanted to be left alone, and it was his friends in general and his wife in particular who pushed him to enter public life and ultimately run for the U.S. Senate and then for the Presidency. Actually, Lincoln suffered from what then would have been called “melancholia” and today would be diagnosed as clinical depression, but one of the fascinating things about his life was how much he was able to accomplish anyway and in particular how much more aggressive he was as a war leader than the generals running the Union Army in the first two years of the war. Not that that part of the story gets told here; as the title suggests, the film ends with Lincoln about to leave Illinois forever to go to Washington, D.C. and assume the Presidency — there’s even a shot of a label on a trunk reading, “A. Lincoln — White House” (one imdb.com trivia contributor noted that this was anachronistic — the actual baggage tag would have read, “A. Lincoln, Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C.,” since the term “White House” wasn’t used until Theodore Roosevelt’s administration). It’s rather abruptly bisected into a first half that deals mostly with Lincoln’s personal life and career as a lawyer (I was disappointed that Sherwood and Grover Jones, credited with the “adaptation” of the play, weren’t able to work in the “My politics are short and sweet” speech John Ford and his writers, Howard Estabrook and Lamar Trotti, included in Young Mr. Lincoln), while the second half abruptly cuts from the record of Abraham Lincoln’s and Mary Todd’s marriage in 1842 to the U.S. Senate campaign between Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, and thereafter mostly deals with Lincoln’s public life in general and the issue of slavery in particular.

The political portions of the movie seem even stagier and more tendentious than the personal parts, but at least they give Raymond Massey the chance to speak lines written not by Robert Sherwood, but the real Lincoln — including a powerful delivery of a part of the “House Divided” speech during closing arguments in the last of the Lincoln-Douglas Senatorial debates in 1858. In an historical howler, Sherwood and Jones have this debate take place after John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, which actually happened in 1859. They also have Lincoln deliver the “House Divided” speech as part of a debate with his Senatorial — and later Presidential — opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, when in fact he gave it to the Republican state convention that nominated him for Senate before the debates took place. Luckily they didn’t make the ahistorical mistake Stephen Vincent Benêt made in his script for the Griffith biopic, in which for some bizarre reason he altered Lincoln’s famous line, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” to, “A house divided against itself must fall.” And as I was writing this I looked up the “House Divided” speech and not only referenced the words Lincoln said immediately after that simile — “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction, or its advocates will push it forward till it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South” — but made it clear that the speech is a good deal more radical than its reputation, a slashing attack on the Southern elites and their Northern sympathizers, including Douglas and President James Buchanan, who in Lincoln’s words fully intended to make all the U.S. a slave country and were largely succeeding in that goal:

The several points of the Dred Scott decision, in connection with Senator Douglas’ “care not” policy, constitute the piece of machinery in its present state of advancement. This was the third point gained. The working points of that machinery are:

First, that no Negro slave, imported as such from Africa, and no descendant of such slave can ever be a citizen of any state in the sense of that term as used in the Constitution of the United States. This point is made in order to deprive the Negro, in every possible event, of the benefit of that provision of the United States Constitution which declares that “the citizens of each state shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several states.”

Second, that, “subject to the Constitution of the United States,” neither Congress nor a territorial legislature can exclude slavery from any United States territory. This point is made in order that individual men may fill up the territories with slaves, without danger of losing them as property, and thus enhance the chances of permanency to the institution through all the future.

Third, that whether the holding of a Negro in actual slavery in a free state makes him free, as against the holder, the United States courts will not decide, but will leave to be decided by the courts of any slave state the Negro may be forced into by the master. This point is made, not to be pressed immediately but, if acquiesced in for awhile, and apparently endorsed by the people at an election, then to sustain the logical conclusion that what Dred Scott’s master might lawfully do with Dred Scott in the free state of Illinois, every other master may lawfully do with any other one, or 1,000 slaves, in Illinois or in any other free state.

Auxiliary to all this, and working hand in hand with it, the Nebraska doctrine, or what is left of it, is to educate and mold public opinion, at least Northern public opinion, not to care whether slavery is voted down or voted up. This shows exactly where we now are; and partially, also, whither we are tending.

One odd point about Abe Lincoln in Illinois is that the second part of the movie would be largely incomprehensible to anyone who didn’t have knowledge of the relevant history of the U.S. in the 1850’s and the struggle over slavery at his or her fingertips — which, because of the dumbing down of America’s education system, is a lot fewer members of the movie-going audience now than in 1940. It’s a stirring history and Abe Lincoln in Illinois tells it decently, if not sensationally — but then what Lincoln film has done more than either touch on the legendary “great moments” of his life and career, or (in the case of Spielberg’s movie) focus on just a small part of his life — in Spielberg’s and his writer Tony Kushner’s case, the last four months and in particular the struggle to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery once and for all. Abe Lincoln in Illinois is a movie that’s all too consciously trying for greatness, and though its director, John Cromwell (father of modern-day actor James Cromwell), is a perfectly competent filmmaker he’s not at the level of Griffith, Ford or Spielberg. He gets decent, if rather oratorical, performances from most of his cast members (da Silva as Armstrong the bully turned friend of Lincoln is a delight, and Ruth Gordon’s Mary Todd is a quite bitter performance etched in acid even though it’s hard to imagine Lincoln staying with her 23 years, until his assassination, if she’d really been like that), though Gene Lockhart is a bit miscast as Stephen Douglas — he comes up to about Lincoln’s neck, though he’s considerably stouter, where the real Douglas was only five feet tall (four inches shorter than James Madison, our actual shortest President) — no wonder that during that campaign he was called the “Little Giant” and Lincoln the “Tall Sucker”!

The play does seem to have been “opened up” for film some — there’s an exciting sequence in which Lincoln and two of his friends are hired for $20 each to take a shipment of live pigs by boat to New Orleans (which left me chuckling over the fact that director Cromwell’s son’s most famous credit, Babe, is also a movie involving a pig), leading up to one of Hollywood’s quirkier meet-cutes when the boat overturns, the pigs try to escape into the river and Lincoln runs into Ann Rutledge for the first time as he’s holding a pig he’s just recaptured. Where I thought this was heading was that we’d see Lincoln in New Orleans, which as one of the South’s leading ports was a hub of slave trading, getting a decidedly nasty experience of the South’s “Peculiar Institution” up close and personal and returning to Illinois fully convinced of slavery’s evil and determined to end it — alas, whether for ideological, censorship or budget reasons they didn’t go there. (And I suspect the budget was the chief factor; duplicating 1830’s New Orleans on top of the money they were spending on duplicating 1830’s Illinois in Eugene, Oregon would really have blown the budget.) It’s an otherwise handsomely produced movie that for once — thanks largely to James Wong Howe’s cinematography (a bit more burnished and noir than the actual photographs of the period, but clearly influenced by them — there’s even a scene in the movie where the Lincoln family is being photographed and the gag, of course, is he can’t keep his children still for the extended exposure time needed in the 1850’s to photograph anything, especially indoors) and the art design by Carroll Clark — actually manages to bring an historical period to life on screen and convince us the people are living in a different time from the contemporary one. It’s just another example of a good movie that could have been considerably better — and when Sherwood and Cromwell showed a group of three town gossips talking about Lincoln and letting us in on how his neighbors (some of them, anyway) felt about him, I couldn’t help but think of The Magnificent Ambersons, made at the same studio two years later, and wish Orson Welles had been around to direct this. But then if there were any putative Lincoln movies I would wish into existence if I could, it would be two more directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda (whose high, rather nasal voice came closer than any other on-screen Lincoln’s to the descriptions we have of the real Lincoln’s voice) that would have taken the story from the end of Young Mr. Lincoln to his Presidential campaign, the Civil War and the assassination.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

American Experience: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Ark Media, John Maggio Productions, PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ended up watching a PBS-TV program on the American Experience series on the legendary outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. What was most fascinating about this show was that judging from the information presented here a quite good movie could have been made about them that would have been considerably darker and more serious than the one we got in 1969 — which was a great film but obviously modeled their story on the success of Bonnie and Clyde two years earlier, particularly in its rapid-fire alternation between comedy and drama, and also the glamorization of the outlaws by having them played by full-on movie sex gods. Am I really going to surprise anyone by saying the real Butch and Sundance, judging from the still photos reproduced here, didn’t look much like Paul Newman and Robert Redford? It’s also ironic that some of the locations in which the real Butch and Sundance story took place, including Telluride and Sundance (the Kid, whose real name was Harry Longabaugh, took the name “Sundance” from the town where his first robbery took place), themselves are now the sites of iconic film festivals. Writer-producer-director John Maggio focused his take on the Butch-and-Sundance story around the fact that they were basically the last of the Wild West’s great outlaws; that unlike most of their predecessors, Butch and Sundance meticulously planned their crimes — Butch was determined never to face a murder rap — and Butch, whose real name was Robert Parker (he took his name from Mike Cassidy, the crook he met early on who essentially took him as an apprentice in the outlaw business), was the child of Mormon settlers in Utah until he met Mike Cassidy and realized how much more lucrative crime could be than the honest but tough work as a farmer and cowboy that had worn out his father and driven him to an early grave. The show noted that the real name of Butch’s and Sundance’s gang was the Wild Bunch — the 1969 film changed it to the “Hole-in-the-Wall Gang” (after one of their nature-made hideouts in the Rocky Mountains), obviously because the name “Wild Bunch” had already been taken by Sam Peckinpah’s film for Warner Bros. the year before — and that contrary to the movie, in which Butch, Sundance and Sundance’s girlfriend Etta Place flee the U.S. and head straight to Bolivia, they first went to Argentina and actually established a law-abiding life for themselves as ranchers until their nemeses, the Pinkertons, caught up with them in Argentina, drove them out of the country and forced them to flee to Bolivia — where they started committing crimes again. But without the infrastructure they’d had to support them in the U.S. — particularly the support of local farmers, who helped Butch and Sundance because their targets, banks and trains, were parts of giant corporations that were screwing the farmers over — they found that they were all too easily caught by the Bolivian police and ambushed. Interestingly, Maggio depicts the deaths of Butch and Sundance as a mutual suicide — Butch first shot Sundance and then himself so they would neither be arrested nor killed by Bolivian lawmen — a different and far more tragic ending to their story than the one in the movie!

What’s most fascinating about the American Experience treatment of the Butch and Sundance story is the role of the Pinkerton Detective Agency in going after them; the agency had been founded in 1850 by Allan Pinkerton, who was hired by President Lincoln to coordinate spy operations during the Civil War (the show includes a photo of Allan Pinkerton with Lincoln on one of the Civil War battlefields). By the end of the 19th century the Pinkerton agency was run by Allan’s son William, who decided the key to keeping it in business and growing it was to hire his forces out to the railroads, bankers and mining companies who were being targeted by the last remaining Western outlaws — and, as anyone who’s familiar with the history of the American labor movement from a Leftist perspective will know, the Pinkertons also hired themselves and their operatives out as strikebreakers and used the same tactics they’d used against the outlaws, including maintaining extensive dossiers on any potential enemies of their corporate customers, against union organizers and radical working-class activists. What made the Pinkertons ideal from the corporate perspective was that, being private and not subject to the limits on ordinary police officers — particularly jurisdictional issues and Constitutional rights — they could do literally anything they wanted, safe in the knowledge that the judicial system (like most of the government in the 1880’s and 1890’s — plus ça change, plus ça meme chose) was in the corporate pocket and therefore the Pinkertons could themselves break the law with impunity and never have to worry about being held to account for anything they did, at times literally including murder. (The great detective-story writer Dashiell Hammett had been a Pinkerton operative, and later when he’d written his major books and was sliding down his 27-year alcohol-fueled path towards oblivion, he liked to tell his Leftist friends that at one point he’d been offered a $50,000 bonus for killing a particular labor leader — and inevitably one member of his audience would ask him just what he had done for the Pinkertons that had led his bosses to think he might have accepted the offer.) Butch and Sundance could probably have lived to a ripe old law-abiding age in Argentina had it not been for the Pinkertons, who chased them down there and harassed them until they had to flee the country and return to a life of crime. As I noted above, the Butch-and-Sundance story could have made a great and considerably darker (but probably not as popular) movie as the one that did get filmed, and Maggio made the point that the spectacular train robberies Butch and Sundance (the real ones) committed were becoming the stuff of myth even while they were still alive: the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show featured a live dramatization of a train robbery with a life-sized replica train, and the movie that got the reputation of being the first film that actually told a story was William K. Dickson’s 1903 production for Thomas Edison … The Great Train Robbery.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Beatles: The Night that Changed America, a Grammy Special (NARAS/CBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The big TV event last night was the long-awaited CBS special The Beatles: The Night That Changed America, produced by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the official name of the organization that does the Grammy Awards — it was sold as “a Grammy special” and the connection was all too obvious) in association with the network and sold on the obvious “hook” that February 9, 2014 was the exact 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. I didn’t keep the running cue sheet I usually do watching a music show of who is singing what — mainly because I had expected less music and more history. The show gave thumbnail sketches of the Beatles’ pre-Beatle lives (and it didn’t mention how late an addition Ringo was to the group or that the Beatles had three drummers before him: Tommy Moore, Norman Chapman and Pete Best) and interviewed a few of the surviving staff members of the Ed Sullivan Show, including the guy who designed the famous set. Apparently his original idea was to have a black backdrop cut-out to spell the name “The Beatles,” but Ed Sullivan vetoed it on the ground that everybody already knew the name of the act he’d be presenting, and instead the designer came up with the now-famous set showing a series of giant arrows pointing at the band, silently saying, “Here they are!” They also showed the guy who put on a Beatle wig and served as a stand-in for George Harrison during the dress rehearsal (George had the flu and stayed in his room at the Plaza Hotel until it was time actually to go on).

One of the oddest aspects of the program was at no point was Brian Epstein’s name mentioned; yes, it’s become fashionable to write him off as a borderline incompetent whose only interest in the Beatles’ success was the drugs and rent boys his 25 percent share of them could pay for, but he remains the most fascinating figure in the Beatles’ entourage, probably more responsible for their amazing success than anyone else other than the Beatles themselves. When we’d watched the last Ed Sullivan Show featuring the Beatles (September 12, 1965) on the DVD issue of all the Beatles’ Sullivan programs the night before this one, Charles had noted that the Beatles really came off as a boy band in the modern sense: their hair may have been long but at least it was well-kempt, they wore suits (with the famous collar-less jackets that became a trademark), they were clean-shaven and they were deliberately presented as cute and unthreatening. Later bands, notably the Rolling Stones (whose managers, Andrew Loog Oldham and Eric Easton, had begun as assistants in Epstein’s organization and had learned from him how to “push” an edgy act), followed the trail the Beatles had blazed and deliberately cultivated bad-boy images (which ironically made John Lennon furiously jealous; when he did the Rolling Stone interview in 1970 he said how much he resented being pushed into that pretty-boy mold when anyone who’d seen the Beatles in their apprenticeship in Hamburg, Germany, performing in leather jackets, skin-tight jeans and biker hairdos, would have known they were at least as bad-ass as the Stones). The fact that the Beatles remain as legendary as they are 50 years after their U.S. debut is a testament, first and foremost, to their incredible talent; and second, to Epstein’s shrewd management of them. Epstein has been criticized for not squeezing every last dollar (or pound) he could have, but his managerial failures have to be viewed in context; at the time no one imagined a mere rock ’n’ roll band could have that kind of enduring success, and Epstein can’t be faulted for missing out on revenue streams he had no way of knowing would ever exist. (He did ensure that the Beatles would have a share in the music publishing company that published their songs — which, as an in-your-face gesture to let the London-based establishment that ran British show business that they were from the north of England, which was then looked down on much the way the South was in the U.S., they called “Northern Songs” — and it was Allen Klein, during the five years in which he thoroughly screwed up the Beatles’ business affairs, who sold that interest and set up the bizarre series of events that ended up with Michael Jackson, of all people, owning the Beatles’ copyrights.)

The thought in the early 1960’s was that the only way to preserve the career of a teen idol was to steer them towards the middle of the road and build them into a safer attraction for older audiences — the route Col. Tom Parker had taken Elvis Presley on when Elvis got out of the Army in 1960 — and here, as in so many other parts of their career, the Beatles simply ignored the conventional wisdom and thereby stood it on its head. And one of Epstein’s most fascinating and ultimately successful managerial decisions is usually ignored because we’ve simply come to take it for granted that singers who write their own songs are taken more seriously than singers who don’t. In the 1950’s the exact opposite was true; many of Buddy Holly’s songs were credited on the label to “Charles Hardin” as composer (after Holly’s original full name, Charles Hardin Holley) on the ground that you couldn’t build a career entirely on your own songs and you didn’t want to alienate the music publishers who controlled access to the professional songwriters you’d need for a long-term career. When Johnny Cash got a contract offer from RCA Victor in 1958, as his Sun Records contract was about to expire, he was about to sign it — no doubt he figured, “RCA Victor! Elvis went from Sun to RCA Victor, and look how big he got!” — until he found out that if he recorded a song he’d written himself, he’d get a lower royalty rate as a writer than the outside songwriter would if he recorded a song by someone else. So he signed with Columbia instead because they offered him the same royalty as any other composer whose songs he recorded. What made the Beatles different from previous white rock stars was not only that they wrote most of their own material, but that Brian Epstein — whose previous musical interest had been mostly classical, in which the composer is considered the “real” artist and the performer only an interpreter — decided to promote that about them: Epstein’s publicity essentially said, “Because they write their own songs, they’re more complete artists and you should like them better!” It was Epstein who cut the deal to get the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show — this program made it seem like Sullivan got stuck at a London airport by crowds there to greet the Beatles, asked what the commotion was about and decided to book them then and there — and he was such a micro-manager that at one point during the rehearsals he approached Sullivan and said, “I would like to know the exact wording of your introduction.” Sullivan, who after 16 years as a TV host following two decades as a Broadway gossip columnist had seen more than his share of prima donna behavior, fired back, “I would like for you to get lost.”

The CBS-TV special The Beatles: The Night that Changed America: A Grammy Special (to give it its full and rather awkward promotional title) was a fascinating production even though, as I noted above, it was less a documentary on the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show and more a tribute concert. And even as a tribute concert it left something to be desired; like the Grammy Awards themselves, it was full of too many forced attempts to create the so-called “Grammy moments” by jamming stars together willy-nilly and having them play together whether they had anything to say together musically at all. Fortunately, the Beatles’ songs themselves were strong enough to overcome the limits of the conception. The songs were broken up by clips from the Beatles’ actual Sullivan show appearances (and in at least one case by the Beatles singing “Don’t Let Me Down” from the Apple rooftop concert in 1969 immortalized in the movie Let It Be — which remains frustratingly unavailable on DVD even though the rest of the Beatles’ movie oeuvre, even the previously obscure Magical Mystery Tour, is readily accessible) — the clip of the Beatles doing “Don’t Let Me Down” (including the chorus in which John Lennon improvises gibberish because he’s forgotten the lyrics to his own song — something he’d also done on “Help” on the last Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show September 12, 1965) segued into a modern cover of the song by two performers the show never bothered to identify, either before or after. (According to the Startpage search engine, they were Keith Urban and John Mayer.) Interspersed with the songs were interviews with the surviving Beatles themselves, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, as well as with some of the staff members on the Sullivan show — including the man who designed those bizarre sets on which the Beatles performed (though Ringo said he liked the sets if only because they allowed him to sit in relative comfort on a riser instead of being stuck on the floor behind John, Paul and George and rendered virtually invisible to the audience). One of the technicians said that the night of the show the camera operators were wearing flimsy little headphones, and when the fans started screaming the camerapeople literally could not hear the director telling them where to go — and the next day CBS issued everyone in the studio muffler-type headphones that would do a better job of isolating the sound. Another one remembered John Lennon walking into the theatre for the first time, pointing to the stage, and asking, “Is this where Buddy Holly stood when he performed on this show?” (Notice that he did not ask that about Elvis! It’s yet more proof that, though the Beatles may have acknowledged Elvis as the person who inspired them to become rock ’n’ roll musicians, they were much more influenced by Holly and Carl Perkins — not coincidentally, the only two white rockers from the 1950’s who, like the Beatles, relied for material mostly on songs they wrote themselves.)

Paul himself said during one of the interstital interviews with David Letterman (who seems to have been picked because not only does he work for CBS but he does his late-night show from the very building in which the Beatles performed, formerly the Ed Sullivan Theatre and now the David Letterman Theatre) that there was a special chemistry between the four that made them greater than the sum of their parts — an interesting comment considering the source. Certainly just about any rock musician would be overjoyed to have an album as good as Imagine, Band on the Run or All Things Must Pass on their résumé — but as good as those records are they’re inevitably overshadowed by what John, Paul and George, respectively, accomplished with the Beatles. Anyway, this show — which arrived in a blizzard of publicity about the Beatles and how radically they changed not only pop music but world culture (including a rather defensive article in the Los Angeles Times by Michael Tomasky blasting the notion that the Beatles were “unthreatening,” the sort of rock band your mother could love — though in my case my mother did love them and, when I first heard them, I couldn’t stand them: they sounded to me like just another rock ’n’ roll band, no better or worse than most of the breed, and while there were some early-1960’s rock songs I liked, notably Ricky Nelson’s “Travelin’ Man” and “Hello, Mary Lou” and Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” for the most part I thought the form was garbage. In 1964 my favorite singers were Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and Bob Dylan (Dylan was another discovery of my mother’s; he was at the height of his political period and my mom was a heavy-duty civil-rights and anti-war activist; that’s one aspect of life in which I haven’t fallen far from the tree!), and when you’re listening to Ray Charles’ impassioned soul reworkings of country songs like “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and Dylan’s pure Leftist outrage in “The Times They Are a-Changing” you’re not going to be especially impressed by a song about wanting to hold someone else’s hand. I gradually got over my aversion to the Beatles when their TV cartoon show aired — I didn’t really want to watch it but it was sandwiched between two other things I wanted to watch on Saturday mornings — and I can remember the first Beatles song I decided I liked: John Lennon’s bitter, tortured, introverted “There’s a Place,” which made me think there was someone else in the world like me: “There’s a place/Where I can go/When I feel low/When I feel blue/And it’s my mind/And there’s no time/When I’m alone.” (This was on their first album; don’t believe the myth that the Beatles’ music only got sophisticated later in their career!!!)

As far as the songs performed on the Grammy Special Beatles’ Night that Changed America or whatever they called it, the show kicked off with Maroon 5 doing “All My Loving” (also introduced with a clip by the actual Beatles) and “Ticket to Ride,” and given all the fuss that was made back then about the Beatles’ haircuts (Ringo was once asked about their “hairdos,” and he said, “You mean hair-don’ts”) it was odd that the lead singer of Maroon 5 was wearing his hair close-cropped, short and slicked-down in the best 1950’s style the Beatles made suddenly unfashionable. Then Stevie Wonder came on and made a little speech about how he had loved the Beatles’ song he was about to sing but had wanted to funk it up — the song was “We Can Work It Out” and he didn’t really funk it up that much — and he was followed by Jeff Lynne, Joe Walsh and George’s son Dhani Harrison (whose first name was pronounced like the normal British or American “Danny” — I’d always thought, given George’s obsession with India and its culture, it had been “Dah-nee”) doing George’s “Something.” Then there was an odd solo acoustic version of “In My Life” by Ed Shearing (any relation to George?), a young and apparently rising singer-songwriter from England, which was followed by the mystery “Don’t Let Me Down” and then by Katy Perry doing a surprisingly good version of “Yesterday” — I hadn’t realized before how quirky her voice really is! The next song was one of the show’s miscalculation: the band Imagine Dragons (“Of course you have to imagine dragons — they don’t really exist,” Charles joked) doing an all-acoustic version of John Lennon’s “Revolution,” ignoring all the lyric variants Lennon occasionally put in that made him seem more of a revolutionary than the basic song does (particularly the famous one on the White Album in which John sings, “But when you talk about destruction/Don’t you know that you can count me out … uh, in”) and sounding like the Everly Brothers and Simon and Garfunkel got together to do the song. After that Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, ex-Nirvana) came out and did a blasting rock version of one of the Beatles’ more obscure songs, “Hey, Bulldog” from the Yellow Submarine soundtrack album — a pity they didn’t have him do “Revolution”!

Then there came what was ballyhooed as a reunion of the 1980’s band Eurythmics — who apparently started out as a six-piece but by the time they recorded there were only two of them, Annie Lennox and her then-partner (personally and professionally) Dave Stewart. Actually it was just Annie Lennox singing, Dave Stewart playing acoustic guitar and a discreet band accompaniment on Paul’s “The Fool on the Hill” — but it worked surprisingly better than I’d expected; I hadn’t thought Lennox’s voice would be right for that song, but she triumphed. Frankly, that was one of the two best Beatles covers on the entire program — and the other was the one right after it: “Let It Be” by Alicia Keys and John Legend. Afterwards I joked that they could have introduced the song, “The Beatles stole this from Black gospel music — we’re stealing it back!” It was intense, moving, soulful and very much rooted in the gospel tradition which had obviously influenced Paul when he wrote the song, and the only thing I missed was the alternate lyric Paul sings in the Let It Be movie (in one chorus, instead of “There will be an answer,” he sings the more poetic “There will be no sorrow”), which I’d like to hear someone do when covering this song. Then it was back to the odd fusions, with Pharrell Williams (I think I’m spelling his name correctly) and Brad Paisley doing “Here Comes the Sun” and engaged in a contest as to which would wear the silliest hat (which Williams won easily — after I saw him on the Grammy Awards I said, “Lose the Mountie hat already,” and I reiterate that suggestion here) and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by a trio of Black neo-blues musician Gary Clark, Jr. (who impressed me here less than he does on his own stuff), Dave Grohl and Joe Walsh — this seemed strange because as far as I’m concerned there was one and only one living musician who should have been given “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and that’s the man who actually played lead guitar on the Beatles’ original: Eric Clapton. (George Harrison returned the favor by playing a beautiful guitar part on the Cream record “Badge,” though because of conflicting record contracts he was billed as “L’Angelo Mysterioso.”)

At least after that it was time to hear from the Beatles themselves — or at least the remaining two of them, Paul and Ringo. Ringo was up first and did three songs he had sung with the Beatles, but two of them — Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox” and the Luther Dixon-Wes Farrell “Boys,” originally recorded by the Shirelles as the B-side of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” (the Beatles deliberately built up an unusual repertoire in their early days in Liverpool and Hamburg by covering B-sides; come to think of it, “Matchbox” was also a B-side, but since the A-side of Perkins’ record was the forgettable “Your True Love” it hardly matters) — were not actually Beatles’ compositions. Ringo was clearly enjoying himself — which, judging both from his interviews and the surviving film clips, was not always the case when he was playing live with the Beatles — and on “Yellow Submarine” they not only had four French horn players in the orchestra, they re-used the original sound effects from the Beatles’ record. Then Paul took over with what I presume is his current touring band — including a jumbo-sized drummer with rings in his ears and a shaved head that makes him look like a biker (he fumbled early on in one of the songs and I had thoughts of Ringo whispering to Paul, “That fat guy you have drumming for you blew one of my best licks”) — doing “Birthday,” “Get Back” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” After that Paul went into the opening version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and Ringo joined him for the much-ballyhooed reunion (though they’d also played together on the actual Grammy Awards two weeks before!), coming in on cue to sing the second song from that album, “With a Little Help from My Friends.” The show closed with “Hey Jude,” with Ringo taking his place at the drums and Paul playing the rainbow-colored piano he trots around the world with and uses in all his stage shows. Overall The Beatles: The Night That Changed America wasn’t the show it could have been — the title implied they’d go into the historical context but they really didn’t — and none of the artists covering the Beatles’ songs gave them the radical transformations Siouxsie and the Banshees brought to “Helter Skelter” and “Dear Prudence” (or Jimi Hendrix had given Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”) — but the whole show was quite fun and, if nothing else, truly a tribute to the enduring strength of the Beatles’ songs

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Complete Ed Sullivan Shows Starring the Beatles (SOFA Entertainment, 2010; originally aired 1964 & 1965)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The set is called The Complete Ed Sullivan Shows Starring the Beatles, and when they say “complete” they mean it: not only does it include the entire Sullivan shows on which the Beatles appeared, with all the other guest performers, but it even includes the original commercials. Last night Charles and I screened the first of the four programs (three in a row in February 1964 and one from September 1965), the legendary one from February 9, 1964 that more or less first introduced the Beatles to U.S. audiences. I say “more or less” because the Beatles had been seen on American TV before — Jack Paar had acquired a film clip of the Beatles from one of their British TV appearances and had shown it on his prime-time show in January 1964, talking through the song “From Me to You” and essentially ridiculing the act and anyone who would like them, but then shutting up and letting the Beatles be seen performing “She Loves You” sans the Mystery Science Theatre 3000-type commentary. But the Sullivan show is remembered as the official introduction of the Beatles to the U.S. because it was live, they were actually here in New York City — and their stay in the city at the Plaza Hotel itself became a major news story — and their breakthrough song “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was already topping the U.S. charts (it had hit number one on Billboard February 1 and would stay there for seven weeks, and its replacement would be another Beatles’ record, “She Loves You”).

What’s fascinating about watching this now is the context of the program and in particular the unwitting clash between the Beatles and the entire apparatus of old-fashioned show business that they would essentially blow out of existence. The Beatles performed twice on the program, doing “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You” and “She Loves You” right at the start and then “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in the next-to-closing spot (tradition from the old vaudeville days held that the next-to-closing spot was considered the most prestigious, because people would frequently leave the theatre during the very last act on a bill). In between their two appearances Sullivan featured Austrian magician Fred Kaps (his gimmick was pretending to do one sort of simple trick but actually doing something more complicated even while ostensibly failing at the trick he was supposed to be performing; his spot was previously filmed, a rare exception to the live ethos that usually ruled on the Sullivan show), “I’ll Do Anything for You” and “As Long as He Needs Me” from the musical Oliver! performed by the original British cast (ironically including Davy Jones, who would become one of the Monkees, the attempt by Columbia Pictures to create a “pre-fab four” to copy the Beatles on TV, though the show and their music were both surprisingly good and the Monkees actually displaced the Beatles as teen idols as the Beatles’ music got more complex and their audiences got older), impressionist Frank Gorshin performing a funny and uncannily prescient routine about what would happen when movie stars actually started running for office themselves instead of just giving away money to politicians, Mitzi McCall and her real-life husband Charlie Brill in an O.K. comedy routine about a producer desperate to cast a female role in a new movie (I did an Internet search for them and came up with a Washington Post article from 2004 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&contentId=A17603-2004Feb5 about how they remembered it as “the most godawful night of their lives,” though in truth they’re pretty funny and the only real problem with their act was that Carol Burnett and another real-life couple, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara — Ben Stiller’s parents — did this sort of humor a good deal better), and Olympic speed skater Terry McDermott, America’s only gold medalist at the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria (at the 500-meter distance), gets introduced from the audience.

At 23 he’s a contemporary of the Beatles, but with his brutally short haircut and good-natured jock demeanor, he looks like he stepped in from another planet — as do most of the people in the commercials, the males in even shorter haircuts and conservative business suits even when they’re supposedly lounging at home, and the women with perfect perms, wearing baggy dresses and made up to the nines as they declaim about the wonders of the latest laundry detergents, appliances or baking products they’re using. According to the Washington Post article cited above, not all the original commercials from the program are seen in the DVD — one that was left out was for Kent cigarettes (featuring actor Paul Dooley, who later won a reputation for character parts in movies like Breaking Away, The Runaway Bride and Waiting for Guffman), replaced with yet another commercial for what seemed to be the show’s main sponsor, Pillsbury — but the ones that are here made me think more fondly of the documentary Art & Copy, recently aired on the Independent Lens series on PBS. This Sullivan broadcast not only catches the broader entertainment culture on the eve of a revolution — a revolution largely sparked by the show’s main guests — but also catches American advertising as it was just before the people profiled in Art & Copy revolutionized it by using irony, wit and humor to sell products. The most fascinating commercial on the program was for Anacin, and featured a pendulum that almost seemed to be there to hypnotize the viewer as the unseen announcer ran through a litany of pain … depression … pain … and other bad things, every other word of the list being “pain,” that Anacin could supposedly relieve. I suspected that a lot of people who didn’t have headaches when they started watching this commercial did by the time it was over!

Anyway, perhaps the most interesting performer on this show after the Beatles was Tessie O’Shea, a Welsh-born British entertainer who sang, played banjo and made jokes about her own zaftig dimensions — her signature song, which she performs here at the end of a medley, was called “Two-Ton Tessie from Tennessee.” She’s fascinating not only because she’s a member of an earlier generation of British entertainers deriving their act from American sources, as the Beatles had also done (like the Beatles, O’Shea sings in her closest approximation of an American accent), but because she represents a type of performer the Beatles had already blown off the stages of their home country and were about to do in in America as well. The Beatles weren’t the first group to gain the kind of adulation from screaming teenage girls documented on this program — where the screams and orgasmic moans from audience members seem to have precious little to do with what the Beatles are actually doing, musically or visually, on stage (as a stage act the Beatles were pretty dull, smiling and looking more or less happy but not indulging in the spectacular moves that had helped make Elvis a star), but somehow they changed show business in a profound, enduring way that previous teen idols — Bing Crosby in the 1930’s, Frank Sinatra in the 1940’s, Elvis in the 1950’s — hadn’t. The earlier idols had mellowed with age and fit themselves into the usual showbiz routines; as they got older, the Beatles got even farther out, both physically (within three and one-half years their hair had got even shaggier, their outfits wilder and their overall appearance farther removed from the normality of the “straight” world back when the term “straight” meant “un-hip,” not “un-Gay”) and musically. The February 9 Sullivan telecast captures the Beatles just at the point where they’re conquering the world and seemingly everything is open to them — and yet there are also signs of the tensions that would both add to their creativity and, in less than six years, rip them apart: in the second set John Lennon faces the camera with an unmistakable air of disgust which I suspect was due to the fact that the five songs picked (by Sullivan, Brian Epstein or whoever) for them to perform had all featured Paul. One doesn’t often get to see the revolutionaries who are about to tear apart the ancien regime starting their revolution on the ancien regime’s own turf; watching the Beatles on Sullivan seems as if the French Revolution had started with the peasants storming Versailles instead of the Bastille. — 12/19/10


I ran Charles the second of the four Ed Sullivan Shows containing appearances by the Beatles. This one was aired February 16, 1964, one week after the famous show on February 9 that was reportedly watched on 86 percent of the televisions then extant in the U.S. (at least that’s the figure Sullivan gave while introducing this one), and was broadcast live not from Sullivan’s studio in New York but from the Hotel Deauville in Miami, with one of the Lipton Tea commercials done at the Hialeah race track — where they also staged a chilling performance (pre-recorded) by a quartet of acrobats called “The Nerveless Knocks” who were by far the most entertaining act on the program next to the Beatles. The Nerveless Knocks essentially reversed the principle of the trapeze; instead of suspending themselves on swings strung by ropes hanging from a framework above them, each of the quartet climbed up a long, flexible pole and maneuvered around on them, bouncing around and using the poles’ torsion to approach each other and, at the climax of their act, switch themselves onto each other’s poles: it’s hard to explain but the feat was astonishing and quite original.

Also on the bill was Mitzi Gaynor — who, as usual, was a formidably talented singer and dancer but also a surprisingly uncharismatic one (throughout her selections ­— “The More I See You” and a “blues” medley consisting of “The Birth of the Blues,” “St. James Infirmary” and, of all things, “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” — I couldn’t help but think how much more effective these songs would have been with Judy Garland singing them even though by 1964 years of abuse had left Judy’s voice in tatters and Gaynor could have sung rings around Garland technically) — and comedians Marty Allen and Steve Rossi (the show acknowledged the upcoming heavyweight championship fight between Sonny Liston and the fighter then still known as Cassius Clay and later as Muhammad Ali, and Sullivan introduced Liston and Joe Louis from the audience — in 1941 Louis had had a song about him recorded by Paul Robeson and Count Basie, and 23 years later there he was in the audience to see the Beatles!) doing a reasonably amusing routine in which Allen was a heavyweight contender supposedly training for a fight against whoever would win the Liston-Clay bout. Actually, another comedian, Myron Cohen, was actually funnier even though “middle-aged Jewish standup guy” was not exactly a niche market audiences were panting for and it seemed odd, to say the least, to be watching a comic with a striking physical resemblance to Sam Goldwyn. As for the Beatles, they performed six songs, three at the beginning of the program (“She Loves You,” “This Boy” and “All My Loving”) and three at the end (“I Saw Her Standing There,” “From Me to You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the last introduced with a typical bit of quirky Beatles’ humor by Paul as having been recorded by “our favorite American group — Sophie Tucker”). The Beatles performed well on these shows, though the ensemble was a bit ragged compared to the records (at least partly due to the sound mix — on “I Saw Her Standing There” the balance favored Paul’s supple bass line but John’s backing vocal drowned out Paul’s lead); interestingly, the audience for this show was older and there were fewer screaming teens to drown out the sound and make it difficult for the Beatles to hear each other and stay together (years later they said that at their stadium shows they had had to resort to reading each other’s lips — monitor speakers were several years in the future when the Beatles did their big tours) — and what’s most interesting about these shows today was what was considered state-of-the-art entertainment on the nation’s biggest and most popular variety TV show.

The Beatles got a key career boost from the Ed Sullivan Show but ultimately part of their long-term influence on entertainment was, ironically, to undermine and ultimately destroy the whole world in which a show like Sullivan’s, with its mad mélange of acts aimed at every conceivable audience, could survive and prosper. Just as the rise of jazz in the 1920’s had severed the link between popular and classical music (before that most “pop” songs had long, lyrical melodies similar to opera and operetta arias and it was relatively easy for someone familiar with pop music to adapt to listening to opera, and vice versa), the rise of rock and its allied youth culture in the 1960’s shattered the idea of a “mass audience” for music and ensured that the record business would be driven primarily by the buying tastes of teenagers and the enormous profits that could be made from rock superstars. (In the mid-1970’s jazz impresario Norman Granz shopped his biggest talents, Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, to various major labels, showing charts based on their track records that anyone who signed them could count on a modest profit from their sales — and he discovered, much to his chagrin, that the record executives of the day weren’t interested in making modest profits: they were interested in the killing they could earn from the “next Beatles,” the “next Stones,” the “next Dylan,” the “next Hendrix,” etc.) Also on the disc were a few so-called “special features,” mostly Sullivan either promoting the upcoming Beatles appearance on his shows (just before the Beatles’ debut, on February 2, 1964, the star of his show was the great jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, and it was on that occasion that he asked if someone had an extra ticket to the Beatles’ show for Randy Paar, daughter of Jack Paar, with whom Sullivan had been publicly feuding; later, on March 1, he joked that he’d seen the Liston-Clay fight — won by Clay on a technical knockout after six rounds — and they were so pathetic “the Beatles could have beaten either of them!”). Given Sullivan’s penchant for screwing up the names of his show’s performers and for malapropisms in general (when they appeared on his show, George Burns and Gracie Allen joked about how other announcers made it sound like they’d known the performers for years; Sullivan made it sound like he’d never heard of them before), it’s worth noting that throughout these programs he says “show,” not “shew,” though he seems unable to pronounce the “t” in “Beatles” — it keeps coming out “Bea’les,” with a glottal stop between the syllables — and he also introduces Mitzi Gaynor as “Gaynar.” — 1/3/11


When Charles and I were finally able to watch a DVD together I picked the third in sequence of the three Ed Sullivan Show appearances of the Beatles in February 1964. This one was actually the best as an overall program — complete with at least one guest who approached the Beatles’ charisma, Cab Calloway, doing a medley of a slow version of “St. James Infirmary” and a fast version of “Ol’ Man River” with Sullivan’s house band as backup that actually worked surprisingly well even if all the greasy kid stuff he put on his hair to straighten it must have looked rather atavistic even in 1964. (The Afro era was still to come, but most of the young Black male singers of 1964 had hair that, though cut short, still had the nappy curls one expects to see on African-descended heads.) There was one of the dorky puppet acts Sullivan loved so much — Pinky and Perky, which despite the name was actually three puppets, one representing a caterpillar, one a cow and one some indeterminate species of animal, all lip-synching to rock songs, and while I think Sullivan missed a bet by not having the Beatles play behind them (the Beatles might well have agreed — after all, on British TV they were used to doing Monty Python-ish sketches and otherwise stepping out of the confines of a musical act), the song “Speedy Gonzalez” turned out to be surprisingly good (despite its racist reputation) and the act was O.K. if a little too arch to hold up well. Sullivan also booked two other acts from the Beatles’ homeland, comedy team Morecambe and Wise (who do a routine in which they successively break three allegedly priceless antique brandy glasses from Louis XIV) and jazz clarinetist Acker Bilk — who’d actually been part of the “trad” (i.e., Dixieland) movement that had dominated the British charts in the early 1950’s and had held on to a surprising degree of popularity (especially compared to the low repute in which jazz was held in the U.S. in the 1950’s — modern jazz had a cult following but Dixieland seemed to hang on mainly in small clubs and at industrial shows; the Dukes of Dixieland sold a lot of records in the 1950’s but Sid Frey, president of their record label, sold their albums mainly as demonstrations of how good your stereo was) until the Beatles led the rock invasion that tumbled just about every other style of music off the top of the charts.

Right after the Beatles’ two opening numbers — they only performed three songs this time (“Twist and Shout” and “Please Please Me” at the beginning, and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” at the end) instead of the six they’d played on each of the two previous week’s shows — there was a quite clever and amusing number by a blonde singer I’ve never otherwise heard of named Gloria Bleezarde called “Safety in Numbers.” It was a satire on a phenomenon you would have had to be around in the mid-1960’s to regard as anything remarkable — the shift from telephone-exchange names to all-number dialing (the exchange for Hillcrest used to be “Cypress” but it got changed to “29”) and the almost simultaneous introduction of ZIP Codes by the U.S. Post Office. A lot of people were upset by this and it came out in a few satires — Allan Sherman sang the “Let’s All Call Up AT&T and Protest to the President March” and Mad magazine did a two-page spread about what would happen when numbers took over everything (one young man is shown whispering to his girlfriend, “0 … 000 … 00 … 0,” and a bystander says to another bystander, “What’s he doing?” “He’s whispering sweet nothings in her ear” — and in another part of the spread a woman is confronted by an escaped convict and introduces herself, then asks, “What’s your number?,” to which the convict replies, “Society takes our numbers away when they put us in prison. They give us names instead. I’m Murray Finster!”), and Gloria’s song was pretty much in the same vein: she rattles off her phone number, her Zip code, her Social Security number (all with different arrangements of digits than the ones used for real to avoid accidentally duplicating anyone’s actual number) and all manner of account numbers at her bank and various stores and mail-order houses, but then laments, “But I can’t remember my name,” and the punch line is she gets a letter addressed to “Gloria Bleezarde” but can’t remember who that is.

Besides Morecambe and Wise there were also two American stand-ups, Dave Barry (who was O.K.) and Morty Gunty (who, despite his name, was actually quite funny), and a bizarre spoof of the Garry Moore Show by Gordon MacRae and his wife Sheila. In the eight to nine years elapsing since Oklahoma! and Carousel, Gordon MacRae had become considerably heftier, and Sheila had blown up to opera-singer proportions — and the sketch is a medley of Broadway songs that would probably be funnier if the Garry Moore Show were remembered for anything other than having given Carol Burnett her start. The show featured some of the same obnoxious commercials as the previous two — when we saw the pendulum moving across the screen and heard the announcer start to talk about Anacin, Charles and I knew what was coming and started chanting, “Pain … pain … pain,” more or less in unison with the commercial — and, like the other two, it was a fascinating cultural flashback and a look at what the traditional world of show business and TV looked like in the face of the act that was going to lead the rebellion that would smash that whole world — variety shows would die a slow death at the hands of an increasingly “narrowcast” audience (prefiguring today’s media world in which people like to watch one and only one form of entertainment, and are not only bored but often actively displeased by anything aimed at anyone else) and most of the acts Sullivan put on would find their popularity plummet in the face of the rock onslaught led by the Beatles — yes, rock ’n’ roll as a genre had preceded them, but somehow Elvis Presley came and went on the Sullivan show without leading an offensive that fundamentally changed the way people were professionally entertained the way the Beatles did. — 1/20/11


With today being the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show — and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS, the people who give out the Grammy Awards and have hissy-fits over the very idea that someone, somewhere, just might be listening to a song over the Internet without having paid a record company for the privilege first) and CBS planning to present a mega-special about it tonight, featuring live appearances by the two remaining Beatles (Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr) — I decided to dredge out my package of the Beatles’ four appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and watch the one Charles and I hadn’t seen when we got the initial package in 2010. Four Beatles’ appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, you’ll probably be asking about now? Weren’t there only three? Well, there were only three in the original sequence, when in an unprecedented move Sullivan booked them for three consecutive Sunday-evening programs February 9, 16 and 23, 1964 — but this is the nearly forgotten final appearance of the Beatles on Sullivan, aired September 12, 1965, by which time the Beatles were no longer the hot new thing in showbiz. They were the biggest stars of rock ’n’ roll and their music was already growing beyond what live performance, especially live performance under the conditions of the mid-1960’s — with relatively primitive amplification equipment, no monitor speakers (the Beatles frequently had to read each other’s lips to stay together) and that bizarre screaming noise that came from the emotionally and sexually transfixed young women in the audience, which one of the Beatles later compared to having to do your act on the runway of an airport as a jet airliner revved up its engines in preparation for takeoff.

I remember commenting on the previous three Beatles appearances on Sullivan and noting the irony that the Beatles were using the show as a platform to reshape the entertainment industry so extensively that later acts wouldn’t need the showcase of a TV variety show to validate them — and, indeed, one of the developments the Beatles helped facilitate was the demise of the TV variety show, as the huge success not only of the Beatles but rock ’n’ roll in general fragmented the audience and essentially created two styles of entertainment, one aimed at the youth audience and one aimed at what came euphemistically to be referred to as the “over-40’s.” Since then the world of showbiz has been so relentlessly “narrowcast” that there really isn’t just one audience for entertainment anymore; there are a dizzying array of niche markets — and one misses (I miss, anyway) what I’ve come to call the “portmanteau” movie of the 1930’s, when producers sought to include a wide variety of elements in a film in hopes that there’d be something in it that would appeal to every audience member. Today, audience members tend not only to be interested in just one form of entertainment but actively displeased by anything else, so modern producers hone their presentations to appeal to one and only one sort of moviegoer, reader or listener. The September 12, 1965 Ed Sullivan Show featured the Beatles, Cilla Black (a fellow Brian Epstein discovery from Liverpool — she’d actually worked as the hat-check girl at the Cavern Club when the Beatles were in residence there, she’d got onstage and occasionally sung with the Beatles and the other bands that played the Cavern, and finally Epstein decided she had the makings of a professional singer, got her a contract with EMI and prevailed on the Beatles to give her “Love of the Loved,” a Lennon-McCartney original the Beatles had performed on their Decca audition but hadn’t recorded for release on EMI, as her first record), comedian Soupy Sales (doing a surprisingly modern “mash-up” act combining standup comedy with stock footage that ostensibly represented Ed Sullivan’s vacation in Rome, then returning to sing his own rock novelty number, “The Mouse,” a minor hit in 1965), the comedy team of Marty Allen and Steve Rossi, and a pre-taped segment with a Las Vegas “illusionist” (i.e., a stage magician) named Fantasio. As I’ve written before about the Sullivan show, whenever I encounter one of these clips of magicians, acrobats, plate-spinners or whatever I find myself wondering where else they worked, since by the mid-1960’s these forms of entertainment were pretty much fading out.

The other acts on this program were a mixed bag, but generally intriguing; Cilla Black got two songs, a nicely phrased version of “Goin’ Out of My Head” in the second half of the program and a raucous cover of “September in the Rain” in the first half — when Sullivan did one of his little stand-up interviews and she named Dinah Washington as her favorite singer, it was no surprise since her “September in the Rain” was a quite close copy of Dinah’s (close enough, Charles said, that if he’d listened to the record “blind” he’d probably have assumed that the singer was Black). She also looks even more than usual like John Lennon in drag (that sort of thing could start rumors!). Next to the Beatles, though, the best part of the program was Steve Rossi, without his partner, singing a “straight” version of the song “Try to Remember” from the legendary off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks — and singing it quite beautifully; though Harry Belafonte’s lovely, eloquently phrased version on the album The Many Moods of Belafonte remains my favorite, Rossi really did it quite well, without the cabaret affectations that have frequently afflicted singers doing this song out of context — far better than the horrible live version by Robert Goulet I recently dubbed to CD from a Columbia Records compilation LP, The Best of 1966, Volume 2. Then Ed Sullivan brought on Rossi’s comedian partner, Marty Allen, and announced that they’d just signed a movie contract with Paramount Pictures — who gave them a James Bond spoof called The Last of the Secret Agents? (that question mark is part of the official title), when it occurred to me that the film they really should have done was a biopic of Abbott and Costello, with Rossi as Abbott and Allen as Costello. (Their act — particularly the contrast between the tall, relatively personable Rossi and the short, whiny Allen — is strikingly similar.) They told a few jokes — including a long, pointless one Rossi told on his own — and did a surprisingly good pastiche of the Beatles, turning “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (with bits of “She Loves You” mixed in) into a big-band dance numbers and trying to dance with some of the girls in the audience, whose disinterest in seeing a middle-aged Jewish guy try to pass himself off as Ringo’s brother was all too obvious. As I joked to Charles later, “I’ve heard worse big-band covers of the Beatles!

O.K., now for the main act; as they had in their Ed Sullivan Show debut 19 months earlier, the Beatles got to do six songs, three in the first part of the show and three in the second part. The audience was a bit sparser than it had been and the reaction not quite so hysterical. The Beatles opened with “I Feel Fine,” in which the growing sophistication of their music and their increasing difficulty in duplicating the effects on their records in live performance became obvious as soon as the song began with an ordinary guitar chord — instead of the magisterial feedback opening we all know from the record. Then they did “I’m Down,” with John Lennon surprisingly playing not guitar, but mellotron (the electronic keyboard instrument, midway between an electric organ and an early synthesizer, the Beatles used on a lot of their records) — as far as I know this is the only clip of the Beatles playing live in which one of them is playing a keyboard instrument. The first set closed with “Act Naturally,” the obscure country song by Johnny Russell and Voni Morrison, which had already been on the country charts for Buck Owens in 1963. Two years later Ringo, with his ongoing obsession with country music and the whole mythology of the American West (in 1962 he wrote the Houston Chamber of Commerce asking for information on employment opportunities there, and he got his stage name from Gregory Peck’s character, Johnny Ringo, in the 1950 Western The Gunfighter), decided to cover it — and Russell and Morrison were probably startled when the royalty checks started coming in. It’s the one song on this show that the Beatles actually played better than they had on their record; it’s faster and Ringo seems to be having a lot more fun with it.

After the break they did “Ticket to Ride” and “Help,” and in between them they did a unique version of “Yesterday” in that it was done exactly like the record, with Paul McCartney, his guitar and strings playing the arrangement George Martin had written for the studio version. “Yesterday” was part of their live set in 1966, too, but that version (preserved on the concert video from the Budokan Arena in Tokyo, Japan that is apparently the only film of an entire Beatles’ concert in color) was done with electric instruments and was more in the rock ballad tradition than the MOR style of the recording and the Sullivan version. “Ticket to Ride” documents what Ringo said later that he had got lazy during the tours because the screaming was so loud it didn’t really matter whether he played well or badly, so he would just play on the afterbeats instead of throughout the song; at the start of “Ticket to Ride” he’s doing exactly that, but once the Beatles get to the song’s release (“I don’t know why she’s riding so high”), Ringo’s chops kick into gear and he starts playing on every beat and really driving the band. On “Help” John Lennon forgets the words (“Just because I wrote ’em doesn’t mean I can remember ’em!” I joked) but the performance is otherwise quite spirited, and the song is heard again over the closing credits (did they videotape the live performance that had just taken place and rerun it, or was it from a rehearsal on the same set?). The camerawork is a bit more creative than it had been in 1964 — there are some nice superimposition effects in which close-ups of the individual Beatles are shown over the shots of the whole band — and after the Beatles are done there’s a rather heartbreaking announcement from Sullivan to the effect that his next program will be done live from Hollywood and feature some major movie stars along with the musical act Dino, Desi and Billy (Dino was Dean Martin’s son and Desi was Desi Arnaz, Jr.). What’s heartbreaking about it is that Sullivan announces that that show will be seen in color — which can’t help but make one wish they’d had the color equipment at their New York theatre on September 12 as well. The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in color … ah, what a missed opportunity! — 2/9/14

The Girl He Met Online (Lance Entertainment, NB Thrilling Films, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I turned on a Lifetime movie having its “world premiere,” The Girl He Met Online, which turned out to be surprisingly engaging even though it was very much to the Lifetime formula — one of those in which Christine Conradt was not involved directly but it’s clear the people who were have absorbed her plot templates and situations and know how to crank these things out at least as well as the Old Mistress. The directors (plural) were Curtis Crawford (in previous productions he’s been Curtis James Crawford) and Anthony Lefresne (though CRAWFORD’s name was in BIG LETTERS across the screen and Lefresne’s was in tiny type below it) and the credited writer was David DeCrane, but overall it’s pretty much a chip off the old Christine Conradt block. When the movie starts we see the girl some poor sap is going to meet online, Gillian Casey (played by Yvonne Zima as a blonde, though otherwise with the same kewpie-doll appeal of Rose MacGowan in the first Devil in the Flesh movie from 1998 and Jodi Lyn O’Keefe in the 2000 sequel), trashing the home of her previous boyfriend, spray-painting everything in sight she can’t render totally nonfunctional (like his TV — she sprays the letters “TV” behind where it used to be — and his stereo). We get the point immediately: this is a girl that doesn’t take rejection well.

What’s most interesting about The Girl He Met Online is that David DeCrane gives Gillian such a hellish background — her real parents died in a car accident when her age was still in the low single digits, and she and her sister Bethany (I presume she’s played by Tara Spencer-Nairn, who’s listed by imdb.com as playing “Beatrice Casey,” but this wouldn’t be the first time imdb.com was caught short by a filmmakers’ change in character name between scripting and actual shooting) were adopted by Agatha Casey (Mary-Margaret Humes), who made it clear to Gillian throughout her childhood that she never loved or cared about her and the only reason she adopted her was she wanted to raise Bethany and the adoption agency insisted that the sisters come as a package deal. Gillian has literally slept her way into a nice job as receptionist with an OB-GYN, Dr. Harris Kohling (Gary Hudson), who insists on her performing sexual services for him whenever his wife is out of town, which seems to be a lot. But that hasn’t stopped her from trying to land a rich guy whom she can get to marry her and Take Her Away from All That. Her current target is Andy Collins (Shawn Roberts, at least marginally cuter than most of Lifetime’s leading men), who works for a software company founded by his father and managed since dad’s death by his mom Susan (Caroline Redekopp), and whose sister Heather (Samantha Madely) is also a major player in the firm.

Most of the film is taken up by Gillian’s intense pursuit of Andy and her ability to look normal and even genuinely charming when she’s on her best behavior, though as the plot progresses the obstacles start to trip her up and writer DeCrane seems to go out of his way to put Gillian in contact with people who can expose the worst sides of her character: a clerk at a high-end boutique from which she shoplifted a blouse and who happens to come to a charity event that Andy has taken Gillian to; her ex-boyfriend Tony (Scott Gibson), who wants $10,000 in blackmail money for her having trashed his place and destroyed a $15,000 painting in the process; and ultimately Heather Collins, who spots her with Dr. Kohling in a fancy hotel where Heather has gone to wine and dine a potential client and Gillian has gone to give Dr. Kohling a weekend-long sexual joyride in exchange for the $10,000 to pay off Tony. Heather confronts Gillian while on a hotel staircase — big mistake, as Gillian pushes her down the stairs — and then drugs Dr. Kohling for reasons DeCrane doesn’t make all that clear but seem to have something to do with trying to meet up with Andy and salvage the situation — only Andy is already onto her because Heather left a message on his cell phone before her untimely demise. Eventually, of course, all Gillian’s lies unravel and the cops, to whom Andy reported his suspicions about her involvement in his sister’s death, catch her in the act of strangling her adoptive mother and arrest her — and for once there isn’t a coda, as there’s been in several other Lifetime productions on this basic theme, hinting that the villainess from hell (or at least from heck) is going to get out of it by batting her eyes and seducing the arresting officer into letting her go so she can leave town and continue her criminal activities elsewhere.

What I liked about The Girl I Met Online was the writing of Gillian’s character — though Curtis Crawford and Anthony Lefresne are hardly in Alfred Hitchcock’s league as masters of suspense (nor is DeCrane anywhere nearly as good as the writers Hitchcock used), they do manage to play the double game Hitchcock pulled off in a number of his films: making the villain, if not sympathetic, at least attractive and put-upon enough we’re kept hoping he — or, as here, she — will get away with it even as we know his or her actions are evil and she deserves arrest and punishment. I also give DeCrane kudos for ending the film with a quite normal-seeming arrest; Gillian may have her mom in mortal danger but at least she’s not wielding a gun or a knife, and she’s taken down by one police officer instead of half the U.S. military. I found The Girl She Met Online quite nice and sleazy fun — though Charles liked it less than I do because the points of sympathy DeCrane and the directors were trying to build for Gillian’s character totally eluded him; Charles read her as a black-hearted villainess from the get-go. Incidentally, the official Lifetime synopsis refers to her as “bipolar,” but though there are hints of that in the film itself (notably Bethany’s and her husband’s determination that Anna needs “help”), this is not the sort of “psychological thriller” that was big in the 1950’s in which Freud’s ideas (then considered timeless truths and now almost universally rejected) were trotted out to “explain” the bad guys and make us wish they could be treated, not imprisoned or killed.