Sunday, December 31, 2017

Web Cam Girls (Reel One Entertainment/Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Now that Christmas is over Lifetime is moving away from the abysmally sappy soap operas they show during December and getting back to the sort of trashy thrillers I like from them: last night they offered the “premiere” of something called Web Cam Girls and then another movie called Fatherly Obsession. Web Cam Girls is a pretty much by-the-numbers Lifetime thriller about a naïve college student, Carolyn Hiles (Lorynn York), and her best friend and first cousin, Alex (Sedona Lange). Carolyn has latched onto a Web site that allows young, attractive women to have themselves photographed and presented online in various states of undress in exchange for “credits,” with each credit being worth $1. Alex thinks her cousin is being incredibly stupid and running the risk of something nasty happening to her, but Carolyn protests that she knows what she’s doing, that most of the guys who log on to her page just want to talk to a woman wearing nothing but underwear, and it’s harmless because no one who logs on can trace her anyway. Carolyn swears that she won’t meet any of her clients face-to-face, but she breaks her own rule when a man using the screen name “Big Daddy” logs on and demands a face-to-face meeting in exchange for 5,000 credits — and Carolyn’s greed overcomes her good sense and she agrees.

Of course, this being a Lifetime movie — scripted to formula by Stephen Romano and directed by Doug Campbell — the first face-to-face encounter with one of her Web cam clients is a dismal one, in which “Big Daddy” turns out to be interested either in selling her as a sex slave on the “dark Web” or torturing and killing her live on camera for the delectation of fellow “dark Web” customers who will pay dearly to watch a young woman being tortured and killed in real time. When Carolyn disappears from school and her home because “Big Daddy” has kidnapped her — and, we learn later, taken her to a mountain cabin where she can’t alert anyone to the danger she’s in because even if she could get to her smartphone, there’s no cell service there — Alex gets worried and hooks up with Shawn (Liam McKenna), a computer whiz who unlike most computer whizzes in Lifetime movies is actually young, personable, doesn’t wear glasses and is actually quite attractive. He’s been hanging around Alex and Carolyn, obviously hoping to make one of them his girlfriend, and he and Alex team up to find Carolyn when she goes missing. Alex’s mom Rachel (Arianne Zucker, top-billed), who’s worked her way up in airline jobs from flight attendant to pilot (can you really do that?) and is therefore rarely at home, joins the search for Carolyn — as does Scott (Jon Bridell), who’s both Rachel’s brother and Carolyn’s dad, who at first wrote Carolyn off as a slut who got what was coming to her but eventually develops genuine concern for her missing daughter.

There are essentially three suspects for “Big Daddy,” and at one point I actually thought Romano and Campbell would go for maximum kinkiness and make Carolyn’s sex-enslaver her own dad — but they didn’t go there. Instead they made the prime suspects two of Alex’a and Carolyn’s teachers, film professor Robert Thomas (Joe Hackett), who’s allergic, uses an inhaler and blows his nose a lot (this is going to become important to the plot) and English teacher Mr. Darrs (Stephen Graybill), who since he’s considerably less twitchy and more normal-looking obviously is going to turn out to be the bad guy — as indeed he does. Web Cam Girls is slow going for the first 40 minutes or so, but once Darrs is revealed as the villain (surprisingly early on) the movie becomes a powerful if occasionally silly thriller, with Alex becoming a “Web cam girl” herself to see if she can attract the mysterious pervert who kidnapped Carolyn. She does so, though Shawn gets stabbed to death for his pains (a pity that all too often in Lifetime movies we lose the most attractive non-bad guy too soon before the fade-out!), Darrs tries to frame Thomas by stealing his snotty Kleenex and planting them at Carolyn’s home, and there’s a climax at the remote mountain cabin in which Darrs is holding both Carolyn and Alex, and Rachel and Scott have to play Seventh Cavalry and rescue them. There’s also a nice scene in which the cops investigating Carolyn’s kidnapping and Shawn’s murder go to Darrs’ home and interview his wife, who of course is the typically clueless Stepford bimbo guys like Darrs marry (at least in Lifetime movies) and has no idea what her husband is doing with his spare time. Web Cam Girls (originally shot under the more generic and less sensational title Lost Girls) isn’t a great film — even a great Lifetime film — but it’s effective and fun, and Lorynn York as Carolyn shows real charisma and star potential.

Fatherly Obsession (Imoto Productions/Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Alas, after Web Cam Girls Lifetime showed a movie that went way over the top and made Web Cam Girls look like a deathless masterpiece by comparison. It was originally shot under the title The Landlord — a title that in 1968 was used for a marvelous Norman Jewison-Hal Ashby comedy about a terminally naive white liberal kid who buys a tenement building in Harlem, moves in and has affairs with two of the Black women in the building — but ended up on Lifetime under the title Fatherly Obsession. The central character is Alyssa Haroldson (Molly McCook), who at the start of the film has just left Louisville, where she was being stalked by someone she’d never met, and has moved to L.A. She’s living in a cheap motel with her cat Jen and has got a job in a small nightclub as a stand-up comedian — though midway through the movie her boss offers her more money if she’ll also be a bartender when she’s not on stage, and the funniest thing she says in her role as a comedian is, “Don’t forget to tip the bartender, which is me.” At the club she meets Robert Farnsworth (Ted McGinley), who has an apartment building nearby and invites Alyssa to move in at a below-market rent. He tells her that one reason he’s letting her have the apartment so cheaply is that the previous tenant, Meghan (Elizabeth Gilman), died in it — a suicide, Robert tells Alyssa, though as hardened Lifetime-movie watchers we immediately conclude that he killed her. (There was a prologue in which we see Robert with a woman in a bathtub — we don’t know until the main body of the movie begins that that was Meghan but it certainly seems like he was knocking someone off.) What Alyssa doesn’t know is that Robert, who lives with his sister Helen (Anne Sward), has the entire building wired with surveillance cameras and he can spy on her literally 24/7 by putting on a pair of virtual-reality goggles. Helen is also nearly as crazy as Robert is, and in some ways she’s the most interesting character in the film but she disappears when Robert kills her about a third of the way in.

In any event, Robert has developed a fixation on Alyssa because she strongly resembles his daughter Jane, product of a marriage that ended bitterly and for whom he leaves messages on her voicemail even though she’s dead — Robert simply never bothered to erase her outgoing message so he can hear her voice every time he calls her number. (Writer Paul Yates and director Daniel Ringey never explain to us just how Jane died, but the implication is that Robert murdered her, too.) There’s also a woman with dark hair whom Alyssa meets in the building’s stairwell, where the woman sneaks out to smoke because her husband Adam (Adrian Gaeta) wants them to have a child and thereby doesn’t want her smoking — indeed, the woman has actually had an abortion, and Robert somehow learned of this and uses it to blackmail her into reassuring Alyssa that Robert is a wonderful guy and he and his wife parted amicably. Alyssa is attracted to another one of the building’s tenants, Oliver Hall (Jack Turner, who isn’t drop-dead gorgeous but is quite easy on the eyes), but Robert is determined to break them up and in one peculiar scene, after Alyssa has gone home with Oliver for a hot sex session but they’re supposed to pretend that they’ve never met before — which Oliver blows by addressing her by name, thereby immediately turning her off (I’m not making this up, you know!), following which Robert arranges their breakup by sending another woman, Stephanie, into Oliver’s apartment so she can take care of his blue balls and later Alyssa can discover them in flagrante delicto, get pissed off at Oliver and break up with him. It gets even weirder when we learn that Stephanie was Alyssa’s stalker back in Louisville — apparently she had a Lesbian crush on Alyssa and was determined that they should be together, and she crashes Alyssa’s apartment and threatens her with a knife until Robert comes in and strikes her on the head, knocking her unconscious and saving Alyssa’s life.

It all comes to a climax on Thanksgiving Day, which Robert tells Alyssa is also Jane’s birthday: he informs her that Jane and her mom are flying out and asks Alyssa to bake her a birthday cake. Only when Alyssa comes over Robert feeds her drugged wine, though before it takes effect he leaves Alyssa alone and she discovers a photo album that contains pictures of Jane, including a copy of the program for her memorial service. So Alyssa finally learns that “Jane” is dead and that Robert is recruiting tenants who look lik her to move into the building so he can get them to take Jane’s place in his life — only, as he explains to her, Meghan was killed because “she fell in love with me, and that was totally inappropriate.” (A Lifetime movie in which the old perv murders the young woman for wanting to have sex with him — that’s a switch.) Ultimately Oliver puts the wThole thing together and breaks into Robert’s apartment in time to rescue Alyssa and shoot Robert with Robert’s own gun, which Alyssa helpfully grabbed from the floor and gave to him — and it appears that Robert dies, though later in a spooky ending Alyssa is on the street on a date with Oliver and sees a man and a woman and hallucinates that they are Robert and yet another young woman “pigeon” who looks like the dead Jane. Fatherly Obsession might have been an entertaining thriller, despite its derivativeness (the schtick of the crazy who wants the heroine to duplicate the child he murdered was done far better in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Copper Beeches” and the film My Name Is Julia Ross), if it weren’t so relentlessly over-the-top: a lot of Lifetime movies begin at 11 and work up to 15 or 16, but this one started at 20, and Ted McGinley’s outrageous performance as Robert is part of the problem. One would think even people as stupid as your average Lifetime character would be able to tell there was something “off” about this guy, though at least Molly McCook is an attractive and personable victim even though I don’t believe for one minute she could actually make a living as an entertainer.

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Dark Crystal (Jim Henson Productions, Independent Television Service, Universal, Columbia/Tri-Star, 1982, reissued on DVD 2003)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I looked through the DVD backlog last night and came up with The Dark Crystal, the 1982 release produced by Sir Lew Grade’s Independent Television Service and directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz — you know them better as Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, respectively, from the Muppets TV series and film sequence beloved, as the cliché goes, by children of all ages. The Dark Crystal appears to have been an attempt by Jim Henson to show that the technology that had produced the Muppets (which were basically just very elaborate hand puppets — the making-of featurette The World of “The Dark Crystal,” included on the 2003 DVD reissue, shows Henson and his co-star Kathryn Mullen essentially wearing their characters on their right arms) could be used to do a fantasy drama and not just played for comedy. The Dark Crystal was inspired by the fantastic creatures created by children’s book author and illustrator Brian Froud (who isn’t given a writing credit and is listed merely as the film’s costume designer even though, according to the featurette, his role was far more central and more creative than that), which Henson discovered. He sounded out Froud about collaborating on a full-length film using his creature designs, suitably adapted to be realizable as costumes wearable or manipulable by human performers and shaped into forms that could carry a 93-minute film. The odd thing about The Dark Crystal was I had a lot more respect for it after watching the making-of video than I’d had during the film itself, since while watching the featurette I was able to admire the sheer ingenuity of the piece and the commitment of Henson, Oz, their writer (David Odell, who did the script based on a story credited to Henson himself) and their staff to this project over the five years it took to make it (one year longer than it took Stanley Kubrick and his crew to make 2001: A Space Odyssey) instead of finding myself alternately infuriated and just bored by the familiarity of the story.

The Dark Crystal is basically Fantasy Quest 101: the young, naïve protagonist realizes that he’s the chosen hero who’s supposed to retrieve a magical object that will set a thoroughly deranged world right, and despite both dangers and temptations along the way he achieves his goal. This time the object isn’t the Holy Grail, the Ring of the Nibelung or the One Ring of Power (a lot of the reviewers in 1982 made the Tolkien connection) but a shard of the titular Dark Crystal. The story takes place on a planet that orbits three suns, and during the last Grand Convergence in which the suns came together two races were formed, the evil Skeksis, who look like crosses between reptiles and birds — the head of the Skeksis has a face oddly reminiscent of a bald eagle, and I suspect the design reflects the growing consensus among paleontologists that the dinosaurs were more like modern birds than modern reptiles and it is birds that are their lineal descendants today — and the good Mystics. Only, as a sententious third-person narrator tells us in the prologue, both the Skeksis and the Mystics have been so reduced in number there are now only 10 of each left. As the film begins the Emperor of the Skeksis is dying and so is the spiritual leader of the Mystics, who on his deathbed tells the story’s hero, “Gelfling” Jen (Jim Henson), that he needs to go on a quest to fetch the missing shard of the Dark Crystal and do something with it to restore order and justice to the world after hundreds of years of misrule by the Skeksis, who have harnessed the power of the Dark Crystal to control everyone and everything. Alas, he croaks before he tells Jen exactly what he’s supposed to do with the crystal shard, but he does give him the information that the witch Aughrn (Frank Oz) either has the shard herself or can lead him to it. Aughrn is by far the most interesting character in the story; I get the impression that Henson, Oz, Froud and Odell loved the irony of creating a witch who looked like the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz but had the morals of Glinda.

Aughrn shows Jen a whole bunch of crystal shards, bamboozling Jen as to which is the “right” one, but he plays a few notes on his Y-shaped pan-pipe (a musical instrument he carries throughout the film) and the right shard lights up with a purple glow. Alas, the meeting between Jen and Aughrn is crashed by a force of Garthim, who look like giant beetles with crab-like arms and are the army of the Skeksis — essentially their Orcs. (The making-of featurette noted that the Garthim costume weighed 75 pounds — it had to be that heavy since Henson and Froud wanted it to look metallic — and it was so excruciatingly uncomfortable to wear that in order to give the poor actors playing Garthim a chance to rest from carrying all that weight, during their breaks they were hoisted off the floor on slings that look like the sorts of things you’d see in an S/M dungeon.) The Garthim also crash a party to which Jen and his girlfriend, fellow Gelfling Kira (Kathryn Mullen), get to lay back and listen to a piece by the film’s composer, Trevor Jones, that sounds like your standard-issue Irish dance folksongs; the scene is totally irrelevant to the plot but it’s also by far the most entertaining part of the movie to that point. One quirk of this movie Dave is that when we first meet Jen, he’s so androgynous, with his long hair and woman’s name, that it’s only until the filmmakers arrange for him to meet and pair with Kira that we’re sure we’re supposed to regard Jen as male — and there’s a nicely humorous meeting scene in which both of them tell each other that their families were victims of anti-Gelfling genocide by the Skeksis and therefore each thought they were the only Gelfling left. (This reminded me of the constant refrain during the pioneering 1970’s documentary about Gays, Word Is Out, in which a lot of the Gay and Lesbian people interviewed said that when they were growing up and realizing they were physically, sexually and romantically attracted to people of their own gender, they thought they were the only one.) The Gelflings also noticeably change appearance during the movie: when we first meet Jen he looks like a missing link, with hairless human-style skin but a protruding jaw that makes him look ape-like, but once he meets Kira the two of them look much more human and their only concession to alien-ness is pointy ears that look like a cross-breed between Gene Roddenberry’s Vulcans and J. R. R. Tolkien’s elves.

At one point during the action Jen and Kira are approached by Fizzgig (Dave Goelz), a former Skeksi who was thrown out of the Skeksi court during the power struggles among the nine remaining Skeksi after the Skeksi Emperor’s death. Now he says he wants to get them into the castle so they can get the Skeksis and the Gelflings to live in peace with each other, and Jen seems tempted to believe him but Kira insists he’s up to no good and Jen should ignore him. Accordingly they drive him away, and then they realize that they need to figure out a way to get to the Skeksis’ dark castle wherein the Dark Crystal resides. “Hey!” I said. “You just drove away the creature who offered to take you there!” Instead they get a ride from two “Landstalkers,” who look like horses with especially elongated legs and were apparently a brainstorm of Jim Henson and one of his stunt people, who when he wasn’t making movies like this did an act as a stilt walker. Henson asked him if he could put stilts on his arms as well as his legs and walk about on all fours, and he said he could even though, when they put the Landstalker costume on him, it weighted him down so much and made him so top-heavy they had to suspend him from the studio ceiling with a cable, then erase the cable from the final film. Ultimately they get to the castle and Jen has his obligatory moment of doubt as to whether he should re-insert the crystal shard into the Dark Crystal, but when he sees Kira die — the victim of a Skeksi procedure in which they use the energy of the Dark Crystal to suck the “essence” out of someone, then drink it to sustain themselves and at least theoretically become immortal (which is why they haven’t totally obliterated the Gelflings — they need their essences to prolong their own lives) — he shoves the shard into the Dark Crystal just as the planet’s three suns are coming together, and the energy thus unleashed transforms both the Skeksis and the Mystics and allows them to merge their bodies. Apparently the original split of the Crystal severed these super-beings and turned them into good and evil, and while the concept of the changeling is as unoriginal as virtually all the plot elements of The Dark Crystal it at least puts something of a different spin even if it smacks of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde meets Robert Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth (about a planet whose two sentient species, the elephant-like Nildoror and the lizard-like Sulidoror, regularly transition into each other).

Indeed, the basic problem with The Dark Crystal is that its story is so familiar, especially now that fantasy is a far more significant film genre than it was in 1982, that I was constantly being reminded of other movies: when Jen was perplexed as to which crystal shard in Aughra’s redoubt was the one he needed, I said, “Use the Force, J- — oops, wrong movie.” There were a lot of “oops, wrong movie” moments in The Dark Crystal, and throughout the film I was frustrated at the gap between the vivid imagination that went into realizing these images and creating the film’s stunning visual “look” and the sheer seen-it-all-before banality of the plot. After I watched the featurette I was more impressed not only at the incredible patience it took to make this film, and in particular to work out how to make the various creatures appear in the pre-CGI era, but the obvious commitment of Jim Henson, Frank Oz and their collaborators to the project. One could regard The Dark Crystal as a sort of road-not-taken in fantasy filmmaking; today a story like this would be done either live-action with heavy CGI (instead of actually having to wear those heavy and excruciatingly uncomfortable costumes before the cameras, today’s actors would have gone through the motions in dot-painted body suits in front of green screens and the costumes would have been added later, digitally) or via computer animation (though I must say I really don’t like the overall blocky look of computer animation; it lacks both the relative realism of live-action and the freedom and artistic appeal of well-done drawn animation. Modern techniques also wouldn’t have put the actors through the weird burdens Kathryn Mullen describes in the featurette, in which she was merely going through the motions of her character while another person manipulated the eyes and a third person dubbed the voice in post-production; Jim Henson himself recalled that he couldn’t just bop through his scenes the way he did when he played Kermit the Frog, but had to manipulate Jen in a way that made him look like a real person walking instead of a puppet. Though the numbers on The Dark Crystal show a respectable gross — $40,577,001 worldwide on a production cost of $15 million — my recollection was that the film was considered a major flop and Henson’s backers basically told him after that, “No more drama. Concentrate on making people laugh.”

NOVA: “Day the Dinosaurs Died” (WGBH/PBS-TV, aired December 27, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Artist’s reconstruction of the Chicxulub crater from Science magazine

Two nights ago I watched a fascinating special on the NOVA series, “Day the Dinosaurs Died” (notice the title does not begin with the definite article, though it occurs as the second word), an engaging documentary of an expedition to an undersea crater in the Gulf of Mexico called Chicxulub (after the Mexican village on the shore near the crater) that scientists believe was formed about 66 million years ago when an asteroid seven miles in diameter slammed into the Earth and created such cataclysms the world’s temperature permanently changed, millions of species died off, and the dinosaurs’ reign as the most advanced life forms on earth ended in a matter of weeks, The expedition went out in March 2016 (there’s an advance article about it from Science magazine online at, and a followup from November 2016 during the expedition by the same author, Eric Hand: and essentially used offshore oil drilling equipment to dig up rock cores from the crater’s so-called “peak ring.” This is an inner ring of a crater formed only after the most significant impacts from the largest objects. Only two other craters on Earth have been known to have had peak rings, the 2 billion-year-old Vredefort crater in South Africa, and the 1.8 billion-year-old Sudbury crater in Canada — and those are both so old the peak rings have long since eroded away. The nearest crater to Earth with a peak ring aside from Chicxulub is on the moon. 

In order to explore it they took an offshore oil drilling rig (appropriate because Chicxulub had been discovered in the first place by an offshore oil drilling crew from Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned oil company) and instead of drilling for oil, drilled for rock samples that would tell the history of the crater. They found quite a few anomalies, including a great rift at the impact of the crater that both brought up granite to the surface (granite is a rock usually formed inside the earth and it generally comes up from volcanic eruptions) that had been embrittled and literally crumbled in the researchers’ hands. There were also anomalies in the rock itself that supported the theory that a) the dinosaurs died off relatively quickly and b) the Chicxulub asteroid crash was the cataclysmic event that triggered it. The show briefly explored what kinds of life could have survived in the post-crash environment and suggested — as other theorists have come to believe — that the modern-day descendants of dinosaurs are not reptiles but birds. Though it’s annoying that one of the funders of NOVA is the “David H. Kock Fund for the Advancement of Science” when David Koch and his brother Charles, both mega-billionaires from their investments in fossil fuels, are simultaneously running political super-PACs that deny science, particularly when it comes to climate change, and helping elect the goons in the Republican Party that are empowering the fossil-fuel industry to destroy the planet even faster than they were doing before, this is still an interesting program and it had the added fringe benefits that one of the scientists in charge of the project, Sean Gulick of the University of Texas at Austin, was a quite sexy long-haired blond man whom it was fun to look at even though this show didn’t show the bare-chested glimpes of some of the male participants in previous NOVA-funded scientific experiments. And certainly the show’s basic message that life is fragile and even the seemingly best-adapted species can fall victim to a climate event and die out in a remarkably short period of time is one that should piss off the Koch brothers but we reality-based people should take to heart!

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Sultan and the Saint (Unity Productions Foundation/PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a show I’d seen listed on the KPBS Web site that turned out to be surprisingly interesting: it was called The Sultan and the Saint and dealt with the curious encounter between Sultan Al-Kamil (Zack Beyer), the Muslim ruler of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade, and Francis of Asissi (Alexander McPherson). Al-Kamil was the nephew of Saladin (Salah al-Din in Arabic), the Kurdish ruler who had finally driven the Crusaders out of Jerusalem after they had conquered it in the First Crusade, and when he was confronted with a new Crusade, proclaimed by Pope Innocent III (a spectacularly inappropriate name!) and led by Papal legate Cardinal Pelagius (Eric Kramer). Apparently the pope and his legate regarded the Crusade as not only a way to grab the Holy Land away from the Muslims but also a way to conquer what was left of the Byzantine Empire and convert it from Orthodox Christianity to Roman Catholicism — so the pope told Pelagius his troops would have full rein to loot Constantinople and grab its treasures because, even though the Byzantines were Christians, they were the “wrong sort” of Christians. Generally — and this story is no exception — in the literature on the Crusades the Muslims come off quite a bit better than the Christians, since the Muslims were willing to grant religious tolerance to both Christians and Jews while the Christians regarded both Muslims and Jews as “infidels” — indeed, Innocent III began his papacy with a heavy-duty anti-Jewish campaign denouncing them as the “killers of Christ” (not that again!). St. Francis went along with the Crusader army — in the modern parlance he “embedded” in it — not to support the war effort but, quite the contrary, to subvert it from within and see if he could cut a separate deal with the Sultan for peace. It all came to a head at Damietta, a port city at the mouth of the Nile, which the Crusaders besieged because it was crucial to Egypt’s defenses and if they could take it, they could presumably take all Egypt and then have an easy road to Jerusalem.

The Crusaders eventually took Damietta, but it was a long battle with heavy casualties on both sides — one of the few genuinely moving shots in Alexander Kronemer’s mostly pedestrian direction is a point-of-view scene showing the huge numbers of dead bodies the Christian army encountered when they finally opened the gates to Damietta — and then went on to Cairo, bivouacked outside the city and were ready to assault it when Fate, God, Allah or whom/whatever intervened: the Nile River chose that moment to make its annual flood and the Crusaders, who had encamped in a flood plain, were wiped out. Al-Kamil was humanitarian enough — and enough influenced by St. Francis, whom he’d already met with in an attempt to get him to “sell” the Crusaders on his peace proposal, which included unfettered access to Jerusalem for Christian pilgrims — to respond by sending bread and grain to the Christian soldiers. The show was one of those unwieldy mixtures of narration (driven in full-out Shakespearean style by Jeremy Irons), documentary footage, talking-head experts and rather tacky dramatizations that abound in PBS’s current schedule, but it also told a fascinating story (even though some of the talking heads tried to explain the events in psychological terms, which just got silly), a little-known slice of history, and it made the argument that his brush with Islam influenced St. Francis and made him more ecumenical. One of the experts argued that there’s a similarity between Francis’s list of God’s positive attributes (though things like “compassion” and “mercy” are not very credible as concepts of God, especially as described in the Old Testament in which he’s constantly urging the Israelites to commit genocide!) and the 99 Names of God in Muslim ritual. It’s a provocative idea and one which makes Francis a sort of Karen Armstrong of his time, arguing for the similarities between the three great Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) at a time when other Christian leaders were telling their flocks to regard Judaism and Islam as tools of the devil, and believers in those creeds as fair game for slaughter and looting.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Noël à Broadway (France Musique, Arte France, Camera Lucida, aired on French TV December 22, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was an interesting concert from Paris which we got on a download, given just three nights before — December 22, 2017 — and called Noël à Broadway. Despite what you might think from the title, it was not exclusively a concert of Christmas-themed songs from Broadway musicals, nor was it a trotting-out of the same old Broadway chestnuts that usually get sung whenever a symphony orchestra decides to try out the musical repertoire. There were a few familiar songs, notably “Food! Glorious Food!” from Lionel Bart’s Oliver! and “Do-Re-Mi” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music — heard twice, once as part of the program and one as part of an infectious encore in which the audience was encouraged to join in — but mostly this was a quite ambitious program of little-known and not-quite-so-little-known music from composers including Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim (though nothing from their one collaboration, West Side Story), Jule Styne, Danny Elfman, Jerry Bock, Meredith Willson, Frank Loesser and Jerry Herman. The solo singers were imported from the U.S. — I’m assuming that of the two women Deborah Myers was the vaguely Black-looking solo soprano and Cassidy Janson the red-haired white mezzo — anyway there were two women and also two men, tenor Damien Humbley and baritone Nathan Gunn. The show was conducted by Mikko Franck — I have no idea whether he’s any relation to César but he’s an oddly gnome-like creature, with a facial resemblance to the young Elton John while his body comes closer to the current one, who conducted much of the concert sitting down, in a weird position in which his left leg rested on the podium on which a conductor usually stands while his right leg hung over the podium and its foot rested on the floor below the podium. At times — notably when the selection he was conducting headed for a climax — he’d get up and continue conducting standing up. He began the program with the overture to Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 musical Candide, which has a tangled production history — the original book was by Lillian Hellman but for some reason she withdrew the rights to her adaptation, so Broadway producer Harold Prince commissioned Hugh Wheeler to write a new book, also based on the original novel by Voltaire and worked to fit Bernstein’s songs (which could be performed as written since the original lyricist, John Latouche — most famous for writing Cabin in the Sky with Vernon Duke and, like Bernstein, Bisexual — hadn’t withdrawn his rights), for a 1974 revival in which Bernstein was not personally involved. In 1988 Bernstein worked over the material for a third time, hiring John Wells as book writer since Wheeler had just died, and that version was recorded and released by Deutsche Grammophon and was in fact Leonard Bernstein’s last recording.

The musical has never really found an audience but the overture has become a favorite piece on light-music concerts — deservedly, for it’s a light-hearted romp that sounds vaguely like an opera overture from Voltaire’s time (the 18th century) but with added sass and verve from Bernstein’s knowledge of show music and jazz. Then the orchestra played the introduction to Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! — his adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist that was an immediate hit in London and on Broadway in 1964 and was filmed four years later in a movie that won a thoroughly undeserved Academy Award for Best Picture (but then the film that stood far and above any other movie from 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture! At least Citizen Kane got nominated!). I’ve always disliked Oliver! because I thought it drowned Dickens’ dark tale of street urchins and thieves in London in goo and treacle, but the opening instrumental music and the verse to the famous chorus, lamenting that the poor boys in the orphanage (played by an all-girl choir, by the way) have nothing to eat but gruel, are surprisingly dark and gloomy — but then came the famous “Food! Glorious Food!” chorus, and though I loved the French accents with which those French girls sang (the adult choir, which came in later, sang with less noticeable accents, I suspect because they’ve had more of a chance to study and learn English as a second language), the piece still seems way too sappy for the subject matter. Then we got to the good stuff: not only did whoever programmed this concert offer at least two back-to-back comparisons of how different composers “set” the same story, juxtaposing Leonard Bernstein’s little-known and Jule Styne’s better-known settings of Peter Pan, they gave us a chance to hear two quite beautiful Bernstein songs, a ballad called “Build This House,” eloquently sung by Deborah Myers, and a “Pirate Song” that not only owes quite a lot to Gilbert and Sullivan but offered the chilling call from Captain Hook to his crew to “drink blood!” (The original 1950 production cast Jean Arthur as Peter Pan and Boris Karloff as Hook, and despite Karloff’s long association with horror films he’d never played a vampire on screen and would do so only once later — in the 1964 Mario Bava Italian film Black Sabbath five years before his death.)

Apparently Bernstein intended Peter Pan as a full-fledged musical but only five songs — those two plus “Who Am I?,” “Plank Round” and “Peter, Peter” — made it into the finished production, while the LP Columbia released in 1951 contained none of the songs: it was a spoken-word album of the book portions of the show with Bernstein’s contribution relegated to incidental music. The rest of Bernstein’s songs weren’t rediscovered until 2000, a decade after Bernstein’s death, and a few recent productions have tried to recombine Bernstein’s songs with Sir James M. Barrie’s original play. “Build This House” is a transcendently beautiful ballad and the “Pirate Song” is at least fun. Then the show presented the well-known ballad “Never Never Land” from Jule Styne’s 1954 Peter Pan musical, whose success quickly drove Bernstein’s from the stage — most people who encounter Peter Pan today do so from either the Styne musical or the Disney animated film, both of which make the story even more sentimental than it was in Barrie’s hands (the 1924 Peter Pan film, on which Barrie advised, is a far tougher and more “adult” piece that strongly hints that the real reason Peter Pan doesn’t want to grow up is he doesn’t want to have to deal with his sexuality). “Never Never Land” is a beautiful song but it seemed dull and ordinary compared to Bernstein’s masterpiece — setting up a pattern that continued throughout the concert: Bernstein’s and Sondheim’s songs just seemed to inhabit a far more sophisticated, musically and dramatically, world than the rest of the material. After that came the second juxtaposition of two composers’ “takes” on the same fairy tale, in this case Cinderella — Damian Humbley came out to sing a beautiful rendition of the song “Ten Minutes Ago” from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella, in which Prince Charming extols the virtues of the heroine he didn’t even know existed until, you guessed it, 10 minutes before, a nice and efficient juvenile lead’s ballad that paled next to the songs performed right after it, “Hello Little Girl” and “On the Steps of the Palace” from Sondheim’s fairy-tale mashup Into the Woods. I’m not that persuaded by the show as a whole — I think Sondheim had written his masterpiece, Sunday in the Park with George, one show before, and Into the Woods has a lot of clever bits but also a lot of the sorts of too-clever bits Sondheim inserts into his scores just to show how clever he is — but once again the juxtaposition between an efficient and effective Broadway composer and a genius of musical theatre was one in which the genius won, hands down.

The finale to the first act featured all four soloists in yet another remarkable song that deserves to be better known than it is, “Some Other Time” from Bernstein’s 1944 musical On the Town. This story of three sailors on a one-day leave in New York City and the women they hook up with during that one day was originally based on a ballet called Fancy Free — though Bernstein didn’t use any of the ballet’s music in his score for the musical — and was underwritten for production by MGM, which put up the backing for the show in exchange for the film rights. When Louis B. Mayer saw the show he decided Bernstein’s music was hopelessly uncommercial; he put the project on hold for five years and, when he ultimately green-lighted it, he threw out most of Bernstein’s songs and substituted new ones written by Roger Edens (best known today as Judy Garland’s vocal coach) with the original lyricists, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. “Some Other Time,” a wistful ballad in which two of the sailors and their new-found girlfriends lament their imminent parting but insist they’ll meet again “some other time,” is yet another beautiful, wistful ballad that would have been a major asset to the film and would have given Frank Sinatra, cast as one of the sailors, the ballad feature he was hoping for from the film. (He actually did shoot a performance of Bernstein’s “Lonely Town,” but it ended up on the cutting-room floor.) Then came the intermission of the original concert, which was marked on our video by a title announcing that the concert would resume after the intermission while we watched the empty stage and bandstand — a welcome change from the way intermissions are handled in the dwindling number of classical-music telecasts on American TV, with three-ring circuses of intermission features, film clips, interviews and promos for the network’s other shows. (It gave me a chance to finish washing the dinner dishes and to remake the bed.) The second half of the concert did contain some specifically Christmas-themed material, but not all of it: it opened with an instrumental suite from Danny Elfman’s score for the film The Nightmare Before Christmas — which I haven’t seen since it was relatively new and I remember as charming but not great, which can be said of Elfman’s music as well. The most interesting part was the quote of the famous shrieking string theme from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho towards the beginning. Then the chorus came out for “Twelve Days to Christmas” from Jerry Bock’s musical She Loves Me, based on The Shop Around the Corner and a cunning satire of Christmas consumerism — it rips off “The Twelve Days of Christmas” both melodically and lyrically, and each chorus is faster as the shoppers get more panicky as Christmas Day draws closer. After that the soloists performed Meredith Willson’s “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas” — usually the title is given as “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” which is the first line of the lyric, but according to the Wikipedia page on the song the words “a Lot” didn’t appear in Willson’s original title. (It was also the only song on last night’s program that was not from a stage musical or a film.)

Then Deborah Myers, who was far and away the best of the four soloists, came out and did a tour de force rendition of “Do Re Mi” assisted by the children’s chorus and, at the end, conductor Franck; of all the people who’ve plowed their way through the score of The Sound of Music since Julie Andrews made the classic 1965 film version, Myers came closest to the clarity of Andrews’ diction. (True, there are other ways to “read” this music — like Mary Martin’s on the original Broadway cast album and Federica von Stade’s on the beautiful late-1970’s Telarc CD of the complete score — but the mega-popularity of the film has established Andrews’ reading as the standard.) My only disappointment was that Franck followed the original stage scoring, in which the solost goes low on the final “Do,” ducking the two big high notes at the end of the film version that reportedly had to be dubbed by Marni Nixon because they were just out of the comfortable range of Andrews’ voice (the story is that Nixon demanded to be in the film instead of just dubbing two notes for Julie Andrews, so they cast her as one of the nuns who sings “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?”) — from the overall range of Myers’ voice, I suspect she would have had no trouble nailing two big high notes! Then tenor Humbley did a nice rendition of “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” from Frank Loesser’s score for Guys and Dolls — he did it beautifully enough I’d like to see him as Sky Masterson in a production of the complete show, but it’s not the best song from the score and I’d have rather heard him do “Luck, Be a Lady” instead. After that they performed “We Need a Little Christmas” from Jerry Herman’s score for Mame but made the mistake of giving the lead to Cassidy Janson instead of Deborah Myers — Janson sang well but with little of the authority Angela Lansbury brought to it in the original stage production. That was the end of the printed program, but there were two encores — “No One Is Alone” from Sondheim’s Into the Woods and a reprise of “Do Re Mi” in which the audience, which until then had been kept off-screen by the TV director, was not only shown but got to sing along and were clearly enjoying the experience (and Myers’ vocal was as electrifying on the reprise as it had been the first time out with the song). Though its connection to Christmas was rather tenuous at best, the Noël à Broadway show was a lovely evening of music, well (and idiomatically, despite the French chorus and orchestra) performed and fun, intensely moving in the Bernstein and Sondheim songs and at a good Broadway standard for the rest.

The Holiday (Columbia, Universal, Relativity Media, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Three nights ago Charles and I were looking for a movie to watch on one of our rare evenings together, and I was hoping for something that would be appropriate for the upcoming Christmas holiday but wouldn’t be something we’d already seen a million times before. I looked through the backlog of closeout DVD’s we’ve acquired, mostly from Charles’ workplace, and one title zoomed out at me. It was The Holiday, which turned out to be a 2006 romantic comedy starring Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet as two women, one American, one British, who respond to romantic breakups by literally switching houses and essentially living each other’s existences for two months. Romantic comedies are typically not my favorite movies, but done with the right mixture of surface cynicism and underlying charm they can move me — and this one did. It was written and directed by Nancy Meyers, and for once I can reverse my frequent line about movies written and directed by the same person and say that this means Meyers has no one but herself to credit for the good quality of her film. It begins in the U.K., at the offices of the Daily Telegraph (and I must say I’m so used to seeing fictitious newspapers in 1930’s and 1940’s films it was startling to see a real one), where Iris (Kate Winslet) has what she describes as an unrequited crush on Jasper (Rufus Sewell). It turns out her crush on Jasper isn’t quite as unrequited as she tells us in her voiceover: he’s interested in her enough to be attracted sexually but doesn’t consider her romance material, even though he’s also relying on her to edit the novel he’s started writing (he’s up to the first chapter). At a party for the Daily Telegraph staff, Jasper announces his upcoming engagement to another woman, and Kate is flabbergasted.

The film then cuts to the U.S., where Amanda (Cameron Diaz) is in the process of throwing out her boyfriend — she forces him to leave wearing nothing but a T-shirt and underwear — because he’s been spending late nights ostensibly working (he’s a film composer and she’s the owner of a company that makes movie trailers — she’s shown working on one for a decidedly fictitious film called Deception, a spy thriller starring Lindsay Lohan and James Franco) but really screwing his receptionist. Amanda decides she needs to get away for a vacation, and she logs on her computer to a vacation-rentals site, first asking herself, “Where do they speak English? England!” and then looking for listings there. The one she comes across is for “Rosehill Cottage” in Surrey, but the notice on the listing is it’s only available on a “home exchange” basis — which means she and its owner will swap living spaces and lifestyles for the duration of the rental. Amanda calls Iris and the two agree to the deal. Once Amanda settles in the cottage she’s startled to see someone else coming in late at night; he turns out to be Graham (Jude Law), Iris’s brother, who has a key to the cottage so that if he’s been out too late drinking in the country pubs he can go there and sleep it off rather than risk a drunken drive home to London. Amanda asks Graham point-blank to have sex with her — the sort of women-are-from-Mars, men-are-from-Venus reversal scene seemingly beloved of women writer-directors — but though they sleep together that first night she herself is so drunk she passes out first and he won’t have sex with someone who’s unconscious (making him far more of a gentleman than quite a lot of guys in Hollywood!). Nonetheless, she and Graham hit it off together, date each other and ultimately do have sex — even though she’s shocked to find that Graham already has two kids (she asks him, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E-D?” and he tells her, “W-I-D-O-W-E-R”) and so if she gets seriously involved with him it’ll mean having an instant family.

Meanwhile, Iris befriends her next-door neighbor, Arthur Abbott (Eli Wallach), an old-time Hollywood writer who has resisted offers from the Writers’ Guild of America to throw him a gala reception because he’s become an embittered old cynic in retirement and thinks no one is interested in his work anymore. Abbott — whose name I suspect Meyers mashed up from writer Arthur Miller and writer-director George Abbott — delivers a speech lamenting the current state of Hollywood that I could have written: “I came to Hollywood over 60 years ago, and immediately fell in love with motion pictures. And it’s a love affair that’s lasted a lifetime. When I first arrived in Tinseltown, there were no cineplexes or multiplexes. No such thing as a Blockbuster or DVD. I was here before conglomerates owned the studios. Before pictures had special-effects teams. And definitely before box office results were reported like baseball scores on the nightly news.” He also becomes a volunteer film-history professor for Iris, sending her to Blockbuster Video (the presence of Blockbuster as an active chain itself dates this movie — as does the rather awestruck attitude with which it depicts instant-message exchanges and vacation-rental Web sites, which were novelties in 2006 and are now routine parts of modern life) with a shopping list of 115 classic films (“none of which I wrote,” he tells her), and as she works down Abbott’s list she learns not only about films but about life, particularly from Irene Dunne and Barbara Stanwyck about how to stand up for herself and show gumption in her relationships instead of letting men walk all over her.

Eventually Amanda falls for Graham and Iris falls for Miles (Jack Black), who worked as assistant to Amanda’s ex-boyfriend Ethan as well as scoring some films of his own, and who plays a game with her at Blockbuster: she points to a film in their stock and he hums a bit of the score. There’s a charming cameo that was apparently improvised on the spot: Iris points to The Graduate, Miles sings the “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” line from “Mrs. Robinson” and Dustin Hoffman turns up in the next stack and says, “I can’t believe this ... I can’t go anywhere. “ Apparently Hoffman just happened to be in the Blockbuster they were using for their location when Meyers and her cast and crew were shooting the scene, he improvised the line and Meyers included it in the final cut. While it’s a certain mark of star privilege that Cameron Diaz gets paired with Jude Law while Kate Winslet, a much more sophisticated and subtle actress, gets paired with Jack Black (though Black comes off as a rather sexy “bear” type here instead of the schlub he usually plays), The Holiday is a genuinely warm and charming film and was a welcome pre-holiday diversion. Sadly, though it was a success — estimates the budget at $85 million (quite a sum for a non-spectacular comedy co-produced by Columbia and Universal) and the worldwide gross at $205 million and change — Nancy Meyers has only directed two films since (It’s Complicated, 2009; and The Intern, 2015), meeting the usual fate of women directors that they can’t get ahead in this business even if they do produce a hit.

Monday, December 25, 2017

I Love Lucy: “The Christmas Special" and “Lucy’s Fashion Show” (Desilu Studios/CBS-TV, 1955 & 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Yesterday I did watch a couple of items on CBS television: tributes to their classic sitcoms, I Love Lucy from the 1950’s and The Dick Van Dyke Show from the 1960’s. The I Love Lucy special included the Christmas show originally aired December 24, 1956 but not included on the original package of I Love Lucy reruns and not seen again after its initial airing until the 1990’s, when CBS announced a much-ballyhooed “rediscovery” of the program and put it on. They showed it last night in a “colorized” version, which in some respects was hideous (particularly the lime-green uniforms given to Desi Arnaz’s band members) but at least was colorful, in sharp contrast to the dirty greens and browns that pass for “color” on TV and especially in feature films today. The reason this show was left off the original I Love Lucy rerun package was that it was at least partly thrown together from earlier episodes, presented as flashbacks: the frantic dash to the hospital for the birth of Ricky Ricardo, Jr. (when Lucy got pregnant Desi Arnaz, who produced I Love Lucy as well as co-starring in it, and his writers decided that instead of having her take a break at the height of her popularity to have her baby, they’d write her pregnancy into the show and have Lucy Ricardo have a baby as well — and there’s a humorous memo quoted in some of the biographies of Lucille Ball to the effect that the writers had to decide that the Ricardos’ baby would be a boy regardless of the sex the actual Arnazes’ baby turned out to be, and “if the Arnaz baby turns out to be a boy” — which he did — “people will assume the I Love Lucy producers are clairvoyant”), though they also shot some new material for this episode, including Ricky Ricardo, Jr. (Keith Thibodeaux, later known as Richard Keith) pounding away quite capably on a set of trap drums and a quite amusing ending in which, in order to preserve Little Ricky’s boyhood belief in Santa Claus, all four of the principals — Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance and William Frawley — dress in Santa suits, and a fifth Santa mysteriously appears. When they pull his beard, they can’t — indicating a) the beard is real and b) the writers are copying the famous gag from the film Miracle on 34th Street — and the fifth “Santa” mysteriously disappears as the four human ones look on in awe. I was rather thinking, given the penchant of Desi Arnaz for recruiting famous Hollywood stars to do cameos in the later stages of I Love Lucy, that it would turn out to be Miracle on 34th Street star Edmund Gwenn in a guest appearance in his most famous role (which would have been possible; he would live for two more years after this episode was shot), but no-o-o-o-o, apparently we were supposed to think he was the real St. Nick deal …

The other I Love Lucy episode they showed last night, “The Fashion Show” (originally aired February 28, 1955), was one involving the top Los Angeles fashion designer Don Loper (playing himself). with Lucy and Ricky staying in Beverly Hills and Lucy deciding, of course, that she just has to buy an original dress by Don Loper even though the minimum cost of a Don Loper creation is $500 (in 1955 dollars!) and Ricky will only budget $100 for it. Lucy and Ethel (Vivian Vance, but you probably knew that already) visit Loper’s studio — the colorizers really went crazy on this one, giving him a neon-bright pink-red couch and hilariously unmatching green cushions on it — and the show becomes an illustration of the old maxim that if you have to ask how much something costs, you can’t afford it. Lucy feels in the sleeve of the first dress Loper’s people show her, a frilly white number that looked to me like it was cut down from a wedding gown, for the price tag, only her wedding ring gets caught in it (heavy-duty symbolism here!) and she has a hard time extricating her arm from the dress without tearing it. Eventually she sees a relatively simple black item she likes, only it too is $500. Then Loper gets a visit from Gordon MacRae’s wife Sheila (playing herself), who announces that that very day they’re supposed to be having a fashion show at Loper’s at which the wives of famous movie stars will be invited to model — and when one of the wives (Frances Dee, long-time Mrs. Joel McCrea) cancels at the last minute, Lucy fakes a phone call to MGM to make it sound like her husband is starring in a big-budget remake of Don Juan (which, given Desi’s legendary off-screen antics in various women’s bedrooms, would actually have been not-bad casting for him!) so she’ll be invited to participate in the show. Only she goes into sticker shock when she finds out she’s not only expected to pay for the dress she’s going to wear, since Loper is altering it for her she can’t return it afterwards. So she deliberately gets herself sunburned so she’ll have an excuse not to participate — only it turns out Loper had already promised Lucy’s dress to someone else in the show but he’ll give Lucy the dress if she models a green (at least in this colorized version) tweed suit — which she does, albeit in excruciating pain as she tries to keep the suit and whatever she’s wearing under it from rubbing against the  burned parts of her body.

This was an ironic show because Lucy had started out as a fashion model; she’d worked shows in New York City and was there discovered by Busby Berkeley, who put her in the chorus for his final movie for Sam Goldwyn, Roman Scandals (1933), and “dressed” her — the quotes are genuinely merited — in one of his most audacious inspirations: she was totally naked except for a very long wig carefully coiffed to cover the “naughty bits.” Later she got an RKO contract when they were looking for girls who’d worked for Bergdorf Goodman in New York to play models in the big fashion show at the end of Roberta. Lucy hadn’t actually worked for Bergdorf but she had modeled in a show an outside promoter had put on there, and she figured that was close enough, applied for the job and got it. (I remember when Roberta was first revived theatrically in the late 1970’s, audiences gasped in recognition when she appeared — “That’s Lucille Ball!” went the murmur throughout the theatre.) The high point of this episode is seeing Lucy stumble through the task of runway modeling when we know this was something she could do perfectly; it’s one of the higher-rated I Love Lucy’s on and, though it may not be as legendary as the grape-stomping or “Vitameatavegamin” episodes, it’s still a lot of fun as well as a nicely nostalgic look back at Lucy’s past.

The Dick Van Dyke Show: “My Blonde-Haired Brunette" and "October Eve" (Calvada Productions, Desilu Studios, CBS-TV, 1961 & 1963)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night, after the two episodes of I Love Lucy colorized in shrieking tones, came two episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, which I remember from my youth as brilliantly funny when it focused on the exploits of Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) and his colleagues, Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam) and Sally Rogers (Rose Marie — she was the precocious child singer who belted out “My Bluebird Is Singing the Blues” in the 1932 film International House and, amazingly, she’s still alive and active at 94!) as comedy writers for TV star Alan Brady (Carl Reiner). (I love the irony that on the show Dick Van Dyke was playing a writer for Carl Reiner, while in fact Reiner was the show’s creator and principal writer for Van Dyke and the rest of the cast!) Unfortunately, this show was considerably less interesting when it went home with Rob at the end of his workday to New Rochelle, New York and spent time with Rob, his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) and their son Ritchie (Larry Mathews). I remember even as a kid being annoyed by Mary Tyler Moore, with her constant whining and snit-throwing, and her performance is even more infuriating now that we watch it in the context of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and her surprise emergence as a feminist icon instead of her role here, as the stereotypical ditz wife in a sexist’s conception of marriage. (At least Gracie Allen and Lucille Ball made this silly stereotype funny! Maybe the fact that Allen and Ball were both playing it alongside their real-life husbands helped.)

Unfortunately, last night CBS chose to air two of the “domestic” episodes instead of any of the “work” episodes — and one was a really silly one called “My Blonde-Haired Brunette” that was only the second show in the series (originally aired October 10, 1961). At a time when Clairol was advertising their hair dye with the breathless slogan, “Is it true blondes have more fun?”, it’s obvious Carl Reiner (who in addition to being the show’s producer, creator and runner, wrote this particular episode) thought it would be topical to do a story in which Laura Petrie starts to suspect that her husband is losing interest in her — especially when he picks out a strand of what he says is grey hair from her head — and she and her best friend and neighbor Millie Helper (Ann Morgan Guilbert), who works as a beautician and was essentially the Ethel Mertz of this show (her husband was played by Jerry Paris, who also directed some of the episodes) decide that the way to win back Rob’s affections and get him to fall in love with her again is to dye her hair blonde. Unfortunately, the effect they used to transform Mary Tyler Moore into a blonde was one of the most blatantly fake wigs ever seen in any sort of filmed entertainment — she looks like a high-school girl trying to make herself over as Marilyn Monroe — and during the day Rob calls her from work and they end up in the middle of a conversation about her hair in which he says he likes her just as the brunette she is (was). So Millie, whose own shop is out of brown dye, has to put in an emergency call to a druggist (veteran comedian Benny Rubin) to get the brown dye — and there’s a great shot (that probably looks even better in color, since these episodes, like the I Love Lucy show CBS ran just before them, had been colorized) in which Millie is halfway through the process, so that Laura’s hair is blonde on one side of her head and brunette on the other. (You want to walk in the screen and tell them, “Don’t laugh! Some day that look will be fashionable!”) This might have been screamingly funny if Mary Tyler Moore weren’t so ridiculously whiny and the concept itself so sexist.

The second Dick Van Dyke episode, “October Eve,” was funnier, though it still suffered from Moore’s almost neurotic portrayal of the stereotypical stupid wife — no one watching this show would have been able to predict how Moore would blossom as an actress in her own show, when she got to play an assertive woman instead of a domesticated ditz — and was from the middle of the show’s run (season 3, episode 28, aired April 8, 1964). It centers around an art gallery which is exhibiting a painting called “October Eve” — obviously a parody of the famous piece of nudist kitsch, “September Morn” — which Sally Rogers (Rose Marie), whose vivid portrayal of a salty, no-nonsense woman made Mary Tyler Moore’s mincing and whining look even more distasteful by comparison, notices is actually a picture of Laura Petrie … in the nude. Apparently years before, shortly after she married Rob, he gave her an outfit of a black top and black slacks of which she was particularly proud, and she decided to return the favor by having herself painted in it. Unfortunately, the artist, Sergei Carpetna (played in a madly funny turn by the show’s creator, Carl Reiner, himself), who seems like he’s walked in from the dramatis personae of My Sister Eileen, indulged in artistic license and painted Laura accurately above the neck, but below it went wild with his imagination.

When Laura hired him to do the painting Carpetna was a starving artist who charged $50 per painting; now he’s world-famous and the paintings cost $5,000 — thereby stymieing Rob’s initial plan to buy the picture himself to make sure no one sees it. Laura never thought Carpetna would show the painting publicly since she’d thrown something at it; little did she know that he restored it and thinks it’s one of his greatest works. He has three possible buyers, one an eccentric millionaire who lives in Brazil and wants to hang it privately on the walls of his mountaintop redoubt, while the other two want to show it publicly. Rob learns from Laura that she actually paid Carpetna the $50 for the painting, and therefore the Petries legally own it, though Laura threw away the receipt (a hand-painted receipt that Carpetna boasts themselves have become collector’s items); Rob eventually bluffs Carpetna into agreeing to let him pick which buyer he’ll sell the painting to as his price for not legally contesting the sale, and of course he picks the guy from Brazil. There’s a final punch line when we see the painting and it’s a Picasso-esque jumble of limbs that almost no one, including a CBS Standards and Programming executive (that was the Newspeak name the networks gave their censors back then), would get in a snit about. The show is great fun when Sergei Carpetna is on screen — the highlight is when he and Rob Petrie fire paint-loaded water pistols at a canvas (one of the off-beat techniques 1960’s artists like Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely sometimes used) — but once again Mary Tyler Moore’s sexist characterization is really hard to take: it was hard to take when this show was new and got even harder to take after she did her own show and showed how much more she was capable of!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Live at the Belly Up: The Devastators, The Grass Heat (KPBS-TV, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a Live at the Belly Up episode from 2013 which KPBS was re-running, featuring two bands which though not great were at least listening and entertaining. One was The Devastators, who presented themselves in the introduction and their interviews as a multi-genre band influenced by Carlos Santana, Michael Jackson and Prince, they’re really pretty much a hard-core reggae outfit who sound an awful lot like Bob Marley. Not only does their singer, bassist Ivan Garzon, sound a lot like Marley vocally, the songs they write are awfully Marley-esque, as one can tell from their ritles: “Frontline,” “Industrial Execution,” “Cool Off,” “Surrender” (their obligatory romantic ballad) and “You Possess.” They’re quite an appealing band — they don’t do much to “put on a show,” but then after all the pyrotechnics and gymnastics I’ve got from major artists on network music shows that’s actually something of a relief — they just do straight-ahead music, and I got to like them better as their set wore on even though I still wouldn’t consider them great. Besides Garzon, the other permanent band members are Alex Somerville (keyboards), Brian Teel (guitar, keyboards, backing vocals), and John Allen (drums and backing vocals) — though last night they had a trombone and a tenor sax on some songs that took them back beyond reggae to ska.

I liked the other band on the bill, The Grass Heat, better; they’re a simple guitar-bass-drums rock trio — like the Devastators, their bass player, Chris Torres, is also their lead singer — he and the guitarist, Billy Joe Clements, worked together on several projects and they explained during the interviews for the show that in one band Chris is the leader, in one band Billy is the leader and in others they’re both sidemen for other performers. The Grass Heat (a name they picked simply because they thought it sounded good) is an appealing rock band harking back to the late 1960’s when bands like Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the early Led Zeppelin were beginning to hash out the formula for heavy metal but before metal became so aggressively ugly and loud. They opened with a peculiar cover of “All Shook Up” — yes, the legendary hit Otis Blackwell wrote for Elvis Presley — but they played so “off” Blackwell’s original melody it took me a while to realize this was indeed the same somg. Their approach to it came off as if Elvis had decided, with his career stuck in a rut in the early 1970’s and his record sales declining, that he’d revitalize himself by going into heavy metal. I like the band particularly for Clements’ surprisingly lyrical guitar soli; Torres is a serviceable singer rather than a great one, but he’s good enough to get the point across. They don’t write great songs, and the ones they do write seemed to throw the usually adept Live at the Belly Up chyron writers (one of the things I generally like about Live at the Belly Up is that they have chyrons giving the title of each song the band plays so I don’t have to guess frantically from whatever bits of the vocal I can make out just what the song is called, but in the case of the Grass Heat the producers didn’t have a title for their instrumental, the second song they played, nor for their third, which I guessed was called “I’m Coming Home”), but they play quite beautifully and both Torres and Clements are boyishly handsome young men (their third member, drummer Mike Stone, is larger, blonder and nowhere near as sexy) who are fun to look at and even more fun to listen to.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round (Edward Small Productions, Reliance Pictures, United Artists, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I settled in for a night of movie-watching, including one of my quirky favorites, the 1934 Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round. This was one of Hollywood’s more appealing genre mashups of the period, a gangster movie/musical set on an ocean liner, produced by Edward Small for Reliance Pictures, released by United Artists, and so technically an “indie” but with a much bigger budget than usual for a non-studio production. I first saw this in 1975 as part of a tribute the local San Francisco UHF station Channel 44 (whose logo is immortalized in the film The Candidate — it’s the one at which Robert Redford blows a media interview by laughing uncontrollably at a malfunctioning boom mike) was mounting to Jack Benny, who had just died. They showed five films of his in succession over the week, including The Meanest Man in the World (a 20th Century-Fox “B” whose central premise — an attorney with a high sense of ethics suddenly gets photographed in a pose that looks like he’s literally taking candy from a baby, and his legal career zooms up as potential clients think he’s an unscrupulous S.O.B. — and star deserved a better movie; ah, if only Preston Sturges had directed it!), Charley’s Aunt, Ernst Lubitsch’s anti-Nazi masterpiece To Be or Not to Be and The Horn Blows at Midnight, the fascinating 1945 Warners farce that bombed so totally at the box office it killed Benny’s film career and he made jokes about it on his show for years afterwards. (In one episode of the Benny TV program he shows up at the studio gate to make a new film, and tells the gateman, “Remember me? I once made a picture here called The Horn Blows at Midnight.” “Remember it?” says the gateman — “I directed it!”) 

On Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round Benny is billed third, after stars Gene Raymond and Nancy Carroll. He’s called “Chad Denby” (I joked that the writers — Leon Gordon, Joseph Moncure March and Harry W. Conn — must have worked their imaginations big-time to come up with that name) and he’s the radio host on board the S.S. Progress, an ocean liner traveling from New York to Paris that puts on a nightly entertainment featuring the Boswell Sisters (who perform two songs, “Rock and Roll” — almost certainly the first use of that phrase in a movie to denote music — and “If I Had a Million Dollars”), Mitzi Green (who performs a strange song called “Oh Leo, Oh Love,” first in her own voice and then in a bizarre and surprisingly exact imitation of George Arliss) and a couple of invented characters, Sally Marsh (Nancy Carroll) and her brother Ned (Carlyle Marsh, Jr.). It seems that before the boat sailed Sally briefly dated gangster Lex Luthor — oops, I mean Lee Lothar (Sidney Blackmer) — and while they were going out her brother Ned started going to Lothar’s gambling casinos and lost a lot of money. Lothar used this to blackmail Ned into working for him and steering other potential victims his way, and Sally naturally wants to get her brother out of Lothar’s clutches. She also wants to break up with Lothar but he insists that she remain with him or else he’ll exact his revenge on her brother by keeping him in what amounts to debt peonage forever. Sally goes on the boat in disguise and appears in Denby’s program so her name won’t be listed on the passenger manifest, but Lothar finds out she’s going on the Progress and buys a ticket for the boat himself. 

Gene Raymond is Jimmy Brett, gentleman thief, who’s after a valuable jeweled bracelet belonging to Anya Rosson (Shirley Grey), a married woman whom Lothar is also seeing — and who of course is having jealous hissy-fits over Lothar’s continued attempts to get Sally even though Sally isn’t interested in him. Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round actually begins with Lothar’s murder on board the Progress in mid-cruise and then flashes back “Forty-Eight Hours Before — Back in New York.” We’re introduced to this dizzying cast of characters, which also includes Joe Saunders (William “Stage” Boyd), who escaped from prison and is believed to be on the Progress with a gun and a grudge against Lothar; Anya’s husband Herbert (Ralph Morgan, brother of the Wizard of Oz and a frequent killer in these whodunits), who stows away on the Progress by hiding in a lifeboat; and Inspector “Mac” McKinney (Robert Elliott), who’s on the Progress for a vacation but ends up embroiled in the murder and also the presence of Jimmy Brett, who along with his sidekick “Shorty” (Sid Silvers in a very Allen Jenkins-ish performance) is scoping out the passengers looking for potential pigeons and gets into a crooked poker game — one of those deals in which the con men will let the “mark” win the first few hands and then take him for everything he’s got — which he outwits by having “Shorty” come into the cabin where it’s taking place just at the point when they’re going to start rigging the game against Brett to tell him that his mother, presumably also on the Progress, has just been taken desperately ill. Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round has its flaws — notably that after the close of the big number, “It Was Sweet of You,” which we see at the opening just before Lothar is shown getting shot, there isn’t any more music until midway through the film, when first singer Jean Sargent and then the Boswell Sisters perform “Rock and Roll” with Jimmie (misspelled “Jimmy” on his credit) Grier and His Orchestra — the Boswells sing from a preposterous prop boat being pulled along an equally blatantly faked sea. 

Still, it’s an appealing movie and a nice little bit of genre-mashing even though Benny gets surprisingly few funny lines (his best line is when Sally, whom he has a decidedly unrequited crush on, sees an old publicity photo of her on his mantel and asks why he’s kept it — and Benny says, “I had to. The frame cost five bucks” — so at least one part of Benny’s fabled radio and TV character, his incredible cheapness, shows up in this film!) and Mitzi Green’s parody of George Arliss is screamingly funny if you’ve seen an Arliss film but just confusing if you haven’t. It’s also noteworthy for the big production number on “It Was Sweet of You,” credited to dance directors Larry Ceballos and Sammy Lee but so blatantly derivative of Busby Berkeley’s mega-numbers at Warner Bros. it seems as if Ceballos, who’d actually sued Warners after he was taken off the job of dance director for Footlight Parade and replaced by Berkeley, wanted to show he could do that sort of number just as well as the Master! In the end, if you cared, Ralph Morgan’s character turns out to be the killer — William K. Everson once joked that audiences that only cared whodunit and not why or how could leave the theatre early if Morgan’s name appeared on the cast list, “confident that the Hollywood typecasting system would not let them down” — he reveals himself when he shoots his wife as she’s being interrogated by McKinney, getting himself arrested and then confessing he killed Lothar too. But the perfunctoriness with which the mystery is solved is a minor blemish on a quite stylish movie, well directed by Benjamin Stoloff (who’s especially skilled at finding plenty of locations to relieve what might otherwise have become boring, given that almost the whole movie takes place on an ocean liner in the middle of the Atlantic) and acted by a skilled cast of players who ably complement each other.

Reet, Petite and Gone! (Louis Jordan Productions, Astor Pictures, 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round Charles and I ran a couple of items featuring the great singer-bandleader-alto saxophonist-songwriter Louis Jordan, both downloaded from a clip from the short film Caldonia (1945) of Jordan performing the title song (the biggest hit he ever had and one that’s been covered by innumerable artists,  from Woody Herman to B. B. King — alas, for tax reasons his manager, Berle Adams, decided to credit Jordan’s then-wife, the appropriately named Fleecie Moore, with writing the song, so when they broke up she, not he, got the royalties) and the full-length (67 minutes, anyway) feature Reet, Petite and Gone! Jordan’s involvement in film was one of the many innovations he pioneered, including the shuffle beat he had his drummers play that became the basis of rock ’n’ roll, the novelty talking songs that became one of the roots of rap, the use of a prominent electric guitar and a lot of the other elements that became fundamental aspects of rock (though in a late-in-life interview Jordan bitterly complained, “Rock ’n’ roll is just rhythm-and-blues played by white people”). Jordan’s first film was the 1945 short Caldonia, directed by William Forest Crouch and produced by Berle Adams, who made it at a time when Jordan’s record label, Decca, was caught in a bind due to World War II-era price controls. The U.S. branch of Decca Records, founded in 1934, had specialized in low-cost records — they sold their main blue-label pop records for 35¢ per two-song 78 rpm single while the other majors, Columbia, Brunswick and RCA Victor, asked 75¢. Decca was immediately successful partly because of their low price and partly because they had the biggest musical star of the period, Bing Crosby. Then the U.S. got involved in World War II, inflation pushed up the cost of manufacturing everything and the record business was particularly hard-hit because shellac, an essential ingredient in the mixture from which 78’s were pressed (it was generally a mixture of shellac and clay, and the exact proportion of those ingredients was tricky — a higher percentage of shellac made the record sound better but also made it more brittle and fragile), was a scarce material imported from the Far East, which meant it had to be shipped during the middle of a war zone. (For a time, many record stores would allow you to buy a new record only if you brought in an old one in trade, so the old one could be ground up and reused in new pressings.) 

As a result, Decca could no longer sustain the 35¢ price for their new records — but according to the U.S. Office of Price Administration (OPA), they weren’t allowed to raise the price. Eventually they worked their way around the problem by starting a new sub-label, the “Decca Personality Series” (which makes one wonder who was making their records before — earthworms? Aardvarks? Space aliens?), for which they could charge 50¢ per record since it was legally a “new” product, but in the meantime the folks at Decca stopped releasing anything. Louis Jordan had just recorded “Caldonia” and Jordan and manager Adams both smelled the potential of an enormous hit — especially when they got word the white bandleader Woody Herman had already covered the song for the 50¢ Columbia label — but how could they get Decca to release the Jordan record? Adams hit on the idea of putting out a film based on Caldonia, a 20-minute short that was shot on the strangulation budget typical of “race” productions (films with entirely Black casts aimed at Black audiences) but whose writers, William Forest Crouch, Mickey Goldsen and John McGee, made a virtue of budget necessity by cleverly making their financial limitations the main issue of the plot. Famous bandleader Louis Jordan is on his way to Hollywood to make a film when a shady Harlem promoter, Felix Paradise (Richard Huey), waylays him and convinces him to make a film for him in Harlem instead. Only Felix hits a run of stunningly bad luck on the numbers (and, later, on a horse-race bet as well), so every number Jordan sings in Caldonia is set in a tackier place than its predecessor, with the band wearing sillier and sillier costumes (they do one song in Pagliacci-style clown outfits because that’s all Felix’s warehouse has available). Alas, though the opening of this film — Jordan singing “Caldonia” and kicking his legs up in the air like a particularly excited baby as he intones the deathless line, “What makes yo’ big head so hard?” — is available on, the whole movie isn’t.  

Caldonia was such a success Berle Adams decided to keep producing “race” films starring Jordan, while also signing contracts for him to appear in mainstream musicals like Follow the Boys, Swing Parade of 1946 and Meet Miss Bobby Sox alongside white performers. Jordan’s first feature was Beware (1946), directed by Bud Pollard — a white indie guy who in the mid-1930’s had made an ultra-obscure feature called The Horror which he repurposed in the 1940’s for religious groups, cutting it to four reels and offering it as an educational anti-alcoholism film called John the Drunkard — which centered around Louis Jordan’s alma mater being threatened with closure by its founder’s scapegrace grandson, who embezzled the college’s endowment and then announced it was broke. For Adams’ next Jordan feature, he brought William Forest Crouch back as director — according to, Crouch mainly filmed “Soundies” (three-minute short films of famous musical performers doing their songs that were played on a coin-operated sort of video jukebox called a “Panoram” — in the 1980’s I bought a couple of videotapes collecting “Soundies” and would show them for friends, announcing, “This is what MTV would have looked like if it had existed in the 1940’s”) and this film, Reet, Petite and Gone!, is his only feature. Unfortunately, they also used Don Malkames as cinematographer, and while somehow during the “Caldonia” song from Jordan’s short-film debut he had actually lit Jordan to look like a normal African-American male, on both Beware and Reet, Petite and Gone! he gave Jordan bizarre lighting that made it look like he had a permanent three-day shadow on his cheeks. Reet, Petite and Gone! is basically a feature for Jordan and also the heavy-set light-skinned Black singer June Richmond, who in 1937 had been hired by Jimmy Dorsey — she was the first Black singer to perform with a white band, anticipating Billie Holiday with Artie Shaw by six months — who was basically known as a blues belter, a throwback to the great 1920’s Black blues queens like Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith and Bessie Smith. 

It’s mostly a showcase for Jordan performing — its page lists no fewer than 14 songs — but it has a plot that seems cobbled together from quite a number of sources, as if the writers (director Crouch and Irwin Winehouse) dumped a lot of movie clichés into a paper shredder, reassembled the pieces as they came out and filmed that. In 1944 Columbia had made the musical Cover Girl, co-starring Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly, which contained a long and important flashback scene in which Hayworth played her own mother, so Crouch and Winehouse copied that device for Reet, Petite and Gone! Through most of the film Louis Jordan plays “Louis Jarvis,” sensationally successful jazz/rhythm-and-blues bandleader, but early on there’s a cut to a sequence in which Jordan, in heavy age makeup and possibly with a different voice dubbed in to deliver the dialogue, plays Louis Jarvis’s grandfather Schuyler. Somehow, despite the severe limitations on African-Americans in 1917, Schuyler not only had a successful musical career but amassed a major fortune as a businessman which he stashed, like W. C. Fields, in various bank accounts across the country. The only people who know where Schuyler’s fortune is are his attorney, Henry Talbot (Lorenzo Tucker), and Talbot’s secretary, Rusty (Vanita Smythe). Alas, the two of them are in cahoots to rip off the fortune for themselves. We get a flashback of Schuyler Jordan leading a band in 1917 (though the music they play sounds nothing like anything recorded that early) and discovering the fabulously talented singer Lovey Linn (Bea Carter). Against the opposition of his producer, Schuyler Jordan gets Lovey Linn into his new musical show. He also starts dating her off-stage and the two seem altar-bound when a misunderstanding the writers aren’t terribly clear about breaks them up. Both marry other people, and Schuyler gives birth to Louis Jarvis’s father while Lovey brings into the world a daughter, Honey Carter (also Bea Griffith). Crouch and Winehouse rip off the central plot device of Sigmund Romberg’s operetta Maytime (though it wasn’t used in the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy movie) that the older people aren’t going to get together but their offspring will. 

They also steal from Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances the gimmick of a young man having to get married immediately — that day — to claim an inheritance: Schuyler Jordan croaks before Honey and her friend June (June Richmond) can make it to New York City to see him (their hand-to-mouth existence recalls My Sister Eileen) but not before he dictates a will that specifies that in order to receive his inheritance, Louis Jarvis must marry a woman whose measurements are specified in its text. So Jordan, who’s producing a new musical for himself, invites all the most attractive Black women in New York to audition for his show, but requires them to show up in bathing suits so his producer and manager, Sam Adams (Milton Woods), can measure them to see if they come up to the template specified in Schuyler’s will — or, rather, in what they think is Schuyler’s will, since corrupt attorney Talbot has forged one changing the measurements from Honey Carter’s to his secretary Rusty’s. The idea is that Louis Jarvis will be forced to marry Rusty to get the money to produce his show, then Louis will divorce her but she and Talbot will hold out for a large settlement. Talbot even calls up the $10,000 backer Jordan lined up on his own and gets him to cancel his investment in the show. Fortunately, there’s a deus ex machina in the form of a Black police officer who somehow got hold of the real will and exposes Talbot and Rusty as frauds; he arrests them and Louis Jarvis marries Honey Carter, gets his granddad’s money and his show goes on as scheduled. Reet, Petite and Gone! is a great showcase for Louis Jordan (though the extant print is so splicey that some of both the film’s dialogue and Jordan’s lyrics get chopped up and rendered almost incomprehensible; fortunately, the greatest song in the movie, the classic “Let the Good Times Roll,” is splice-free) even though it’s not much as a film. Jordan and June Richmond are both excellent performers, and Jordan shows real acting talent; as Charles pointed out, he’s the only person in the movie who has true star charisma. Unfortunately, as far as the rest of the cast is concerned, this is one of those “race” movies that will have you wondering, “Where were all the Black people who could act?” 

Crouch’s direction of Jordan’s songs is livelier than Bud Pollard’s in Beware, but there’s nothing as far off the beaten path for Jordan musically as his remarkable cover of Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning, Heartache” (one of those odd records that, like Jordan’s cover of Bessie Smith’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and his own “Why’d Ya Do It, Baby?”, shows off that for all his association with jive and novelty songs, Jordan was also a quite capable ballad singer) in Beware. June Richmond gets two songs, a surprisingly sensitive slow ballad called “I’ve Changed Completely” (from her loud, raucous, exciting records with bandleaders Jimmy Dorsey and Andy Kirk, this is not the sort of singing someone would expect from her!) and a more typical piece of material for her, “You Got Me Where You Want Me.” The show’s musical highlights are the opening song, “Texas and Pacific” (which Charles pointed out was actually closer to country music than R&B — but then Blacks had been investigating country music since Leadbelly covered Jimmie Rodgers’ “Daddy and Home” in 1935), “Let the Good Times Role,” “Reet, Petite and Gone,” “That Chick’s Too Young to Fry” (one of Jordan’s most engaging novelties and one whose warning not to cruise underage girls recent U.S. Senate candidate from Alabama Roy Moore should have heeded), “The Green Grass Grew All Around” (an old nursery-rhyme folk song that seemed to be there just to prove Jordan could swing anything) and a quite interesting blues called “The Blues Ain’t Nothin’” that at first I thought might have been an “answer” record to Duke Ellington’s “The Blues” from Black, Brown and Beige, but according to it was actually composed by Ida Cox, one of the great Black blues queens of the 1920’s and both a friend and a fierce competitor to Bessie Smith. (In 1934 Cox attempted a comeback by billing herself as “The Sepia Mae West,” and Bessie Smith was passing the club where she show that on the marquee. She angrily growled, “Who the fuck is this ‘Sepia Mae West’?” and insisted on going into the club — and was stunned to find it was Cox, her old friend from the TOBA Black vaudeville circuit, whose official name was “Theatre Owners’ Booking Association” but which was so miserable for performers they joked the name really stood for “Tough on Black Asses.”) It’s a song that deserves to be better known.