Virginia O’Brien: An Appreciation

There have been many entertainers in Hollywood’s long history who, for one reason or another, and despite their talents, weren’t quite able to achieve or maintain the kind of first-tier stardom that our most famous show business legends have enjoyed, even decades after their heyday. It could be said that Virginia O’Brien was one of those entertainers, and who could have been an even bigger star than she was in her prime.

She possessed one of the most distinctive–and funniest–singing styles of all popular singers throughout the 1940s and beyond, and carved a unique niche for herself as a comic performer, known for maintaining a deadpan, unblinking expression as she sang, regardless of a song’s lyrics or tempo. It earned her nicknames such as “The Diva of Deadpan” and “Miss Frozen Face” early in her career.

Born in 1919 in Los Angeles, she first made a name for herself while appearing in an L.A. production of the musical Meet The People.  As legend has it, her opening night jitters grew into full-fledged stage fright, to the point where she could do little more onstage than sing with a completely blank, frozen expression on her face.  It was a hit with the audience, who assumed she was doing it as a gag.

Soon afterward, she got her big break when MGM signed her as a contract player in 1940.  Just before beginning her stay at studio, she appeared on Broadway in the Jimmy Durante review Keep Off the Grass. Variety described her as “a deadpan singer who convulses the audience by removing the ecstasy from high pressure music.”

However, MGM either didn’t know quite what to do with Virginia, or simply chose to use her in a severely limited capacity.  Her sole requirement, more often than not, was to sing a novelty song or two in her trademark style, and perhaps toss a few pithy one-liners, without having much involvement in the plot.  But she never failed to shine with the limited screen time she was given, and succeeded in making a name for herself among movie-goers with the opportunities she had.

She appeared in 17 MGM films between 1940-48, averaging two or three per year, with a high of four in 1946 alone.  She played alongside the likes of Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, and Lucille Ball. One of her earliest appearances came in the 1941 Marx Brothers film The Big Store.  The brothers’ film career was on the downward slide at the time, but O’Brien, young and strikingly beautiful, shined in her brief role as a department store salesgirl. As part of an overblown production number,

“Sing While You Sell,” she gives one of her funniest “frozen face” singing performances of her career, performing a swing version of “Rock-a-bye Baby” (while rather forcefully rocking a small cradle at her side). At the end of the number, Virginia and Groucho enter an elevator, and as the door closes it’s clear that she can’t restrain herself, and lets out a smile.  When asked years later what Groucho said to her, she thought for a moment and said, “Probably something dirty.”

The following year, she appeared in the first of five films throughout the ’40s that served as vehicles for Red Skelton, in which Virginia wisely moved beyond her “frozen face” routine. Some of her more memorable singing performances from the Skelton films include “Did I Get Stinkin’ at the Club

“Salome.”

Savoy” (from 1942’s Ship Ahoy), and “Salome,” (from Du Barry Was A Lady, the following year), a number in which she gracefully glides her svelte figure across a nightclub dance floor while singing with considerable (and amusing) expression–confirming that her talents weren’t limited to her deadpan schtick.

In 1942, she married Kirk Alyn, who would become best known for being Hollywood’s first actor to play Superman on film, beginning with a 15-part serial in 1948. They had two daughters and a son together, but divorced in 1955 (Virginia had two more marriages since, and had another daughter).

The spooky fade-out shot of “Say That We’re Sweethearts Again.”

The 1944 film version of Meet The People features Virginia performing “Say That We’re Sweethearts Again,” a song with some of the most bizarre and gruesome set of lyrics ever written.  In it, she serenades her absent lover (by singing to an empty chair at the kitchen table), and lightheartedly speaks of his rather vicious homicidal tendencies toward her. Virginia manages to make it delightfully comical despite the cringe-worthy lyrics.

When given the chance, she displayed her comic acting skills well. Merton of the Movies, a 1947 Skelton picture set in the silent film era, gives Virginia considerable screen time as Phyllis Montague, an actress who takes bumpkin actor Merton (Skelton) under her wing, as the film studio struggles to make him a silent picture star.  As his chaperone of sorts, Phyllis teaches Merton the ropes of moviemaking–and, in the process, also teaches him how to kiss.

The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther was less than impressed with the film overall, but conceded that Skelton “does manage to massage one’s funnybone in the kissing lesson sequence with Virginia O’Brien…Miss O’Brien, by the way, provides competent support as the sympathetic actress who takes the gullible Merton in tow in Hollywood.” Variety went several steps further:  “Virginia O’Brien proves herself a capable leading lady without recourse to deadpan vocaling [sic].  The erstwhile canary doesn’t have a number to chirp throughout and sells herself strictly on talent merits in the romantic lead opposite Skelton.  The manner in which she delivers should further her career.”

MGM decided in not to renew Virginia’s contract in 1948, after which she continued performing live, and ventured into television.  On December 8, 1949, she made her TV debut on The Ed Wynn Show (the first TV stop for many top entertainers of the time).  After engaging in a bit of banter with Wynn,  she launched into “Bird in a Guilded Cage.” Her friends Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were reportedly in the studio audience, watching from their balcony seats (they would also be Wynn’s guests just two weeks later).

Virginia appeared in only two more films, nearly 20 years apart: Francis in the Navy (1955), and Gus (1976), while continuing to perform in nightclubs, nostalgic revues with others from an earlier era, and in an occasional musical.

Entertainment historian and author Bill Cassara, member of the Laurel & Hardy fan organization Sons of the Desert and founder of its “tent” in Monterey, California, recalls a time when Virginia was a guest at one of the tent’s anniversary banquets.

“This was in the mid-80s, and every year we’d try to get celebrities—someone meaningful to Laurel & Hardy or the old-time movies.  In 1988, we were able to get Virginia O’Brien up, along with the producer of her latest LP collection of her hits. He drove her up with her husband. The night before the banquet, we received them and the other special guests at my house in Monterey. At some point in the evening, we put on her newly-pressed album. Everyone was in a good mood, and she started belting out simultaneously with her recorded vocals—it was a special moment.”

Virginia passed away at age 81 in January of 2001, leaving behind an often overlooked but fun-filled legacy of music and laughter.  Not many stars of any era have been able to do produce both, and at the same time.

Until next week…

Whatever Happened to Comedy Teams?

 

Comedy teams don’t really exist anymore–and that’s a mystery of sorts. They were quite plentiful throughout most of the 20th century–on the stage, in films, on radio, and TV. But they’ve become virtually extinct. It could be argued that the style of comedy that teams once offered has become outdated, but what’s to keep a new team today from collaborating and performing with a fresh approach?

Vaudeville and burlesque provided the training ground for most comedy teams in the early decades of the century, even those we associate more closely with films or radio. Many teams from that time would not likely ring a bell: Weber & Fields (phenomenally popular at the turn of the century) or Smith & Dale, and their brilliant “Dr. Kronkite” sketch, for instance.

And teams came in a variety of guises. Some consisted of two partners (such as Abbott & Costello), some had three (the Three Stooges, the Ritz Brothers, the Marx Brothers–not counting Zeppo). Some were married to each other (George Burns & Gracie Allen). One team, created to star in their own series of comedy shorts, consisted to two women (Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts, discussed in an earlier blog of mine). Most teams also clearly identified the straight man and comic, but with others, that distinction  wasn’t so clear, or didn’t exist

at all. With Laurel & Hardy, the greatest comedy team of all time (not opinion, just simple fact), there were no set straight man/comic roles, because each made their audiences laugh, if for different reasons. Stan might accidently demolish a piece of Ollie’s furniture, which would be good for a big laugh, but then we’d see Ollie’s exasperated look to the camera, which would provide another laugh. Or, he might retaliate by throwing an object at Stan in anger, only to have said object bounce off the wall and hit Ollie in the head. No straight man per se, but twice the laughs.

Bert Wheeler (left) and Robert Woolsey.

Other teams were popular on stage and in films in the 1930s, but are scarcely remembered today, which is a shame. But on YouTube and elsewhere, you can still discover the likes of Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey (Wheeler as a somewhat naïve but good-natured lad, Woolsey as the fast-talking schemer),  and Bobby Clark & Paul

Bobby Clark sported painted-on eyeglasses, much like Groucho’s greasepaint moustache.

McCullough (Clark as the chatty, boisterous instigator, McCullough as his amused follower). Both teams flourished into the mid-’30s, until McCullough took his own life in 1935, and Robert Woolsey died in 1938.

The post-World War II years brought us Martin & Lewis–and a few poor imitations–whose energetic nightclub shows often bordered on delirium. Dean crooned as good as he played straight for Jerry, who could be relied upon to

interrupt Dean’s songs in the most outrageous ways, such as bounding onto the stage mid-tune dressed as a waiter carrying a tray full of dishes (which might soon be reduced to rubble). They first teamed in 1946, made a number of films that sent them to the top of the box office mountain, and hosted The Colgate Comedy Hour on NBC in the early ’50s, before parting in 1956,exactly ten years after forming the team–and the same year Abbott & Costello also called it quits.

Speaking of Abbott & Costello, it behooves us (and I don’t use the word “behooves” lightly) to not only praise their chemistry as a team, but to appreciate Bud Abbott in particular as the greatest straightman who ever lived. By the time he and Lou first teamed up in 1936, Bud already had an encyclopedic knowledge of vaudeville and burlesque comedy routines, many of which he taught Lou in their early days. And, to show how skilled a

straight man he was, consider the immortal “Who’s On First?” routine. It’s still up to debate as to whether the team wrote it themselves (with their longtime writer, John Grant), or more likely developed it as an amalgam of other routines that indulged in varying versions of “who” and “what” wordplay. But the next time you watch or listen to Bud & Lou perform the routine (again, easily seen on YouTube), consider this: For years, audiences enjoying the two banter back & forth at breakneck speed about the players’ names on a baseball team, were laughing mostly at Bud without even realizing it. Notice that it is Lou who is asking the questions, while Bud, explaining the players’ names, provides the answers/punch lines. Of course, Lou’s growing confusion and exasperation throughout is wonderful, but don’t underestimate Bud Abbott’s talents as a straightman. There was none better. Lou got the laughs, but Bud served them up on a silver platter.

The later decades of the century produced more comedy teams, most often seen on television. The Smothers Brothers’ unique blend of folk singing and onstage arguments–with child-like Tommy deliberately causing a song to veer off-course, causing an interruption during which Dick would brilliantly berate his brother’s behavior– earned them not only an avid following in clubs, but also a short-lived sitcom in 1965. Their variety show, beginning in 1967, became a hurricane of controversy on more than one occasion, as the brothers themselves, plus an assortment of their musical and comedy guests, dared to include political commentary in their performances (mostly in protest against the Vietnam War and the Nixon Administration), which eventually led to the team’s dismissal from CBS.

In the same era, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin hit it big as the hosts of Laugh-In, after having struggled for years in small-time clubs before eventually breaking into the big time. Dick’s imbecilic, girl-chasing persona was swiftly challenged by Dan’s calm, knowledgeable demeanor (talk about a great straight man. Dan, like Dick Smothers, was severely underrated).

Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber also made a number of memorable appearances on TV in the late ’60s and early ’70s, mostly with variations of their “Taxi Driver and Passenger” routine, with Schreiber as a weary cab driver who always seems to get irksome chatterbox Burns as a passenger. The team did well as guests on programs like The Flip Wilson Show, as well as on their own summer replacement variety show in 1973. They also recorded “The Watergate Comedy Hour” album that year.

The era of the comedy team pretty much ended when the Smothers Brothers retired from show business in 2010. Again, it’s a bit of a mystery as to why comedy teams have died out. But it’s also satisfying to acknowledge, and still enjoy, those teams who contributed so much to the history of great comedy in the past century.

Until next week(?)….

 

 

 

“We’re Going to See the Beatles!” 10th Anniversary

This month marks ten years since the release of my book “We’re Going to See the Beatles!” (Santa Monica Press). It’s an oral history of Beatlemania, as told by over forty fans from across the country whom I had the pleasure to interview, and hear their stories. I’ve always felt a little odd referring to myself as the “author” of this book, since most of the words are those of the interviewees, who told me of their first-hand experiences as teens during the Beatlemania era and the years beyond. They are the true stars of the book.

It’s not easy to come to grips with the fact that our collective, personal memories of the Beatles have surpassed the fifty-year mark. Ringo joined the group in 1962, Beatlemania hit the U.S. in early ’64, and the group’s astonishing evolution took place over the next six years. We’re even fast-approaching the 50th anniversary of Apple, the Beatles’ own recording label and studio. The famous address at 3 Savile Row in London  attracted loyal fans known as “Apple scruffs,” who lingered on the steps of the building to await the Beatles’ arrivals and departures–and who have been immortalized in a song by George.

I managed to find the contributors to “We’re Going to See the Beatles!” through a variety of means, and had a wonderful time hearing them relate their memories of what it was like to be young and delirious with excitement over the Beatles at that time. Some told me about the record parties they held in their basements, others recalled going to great lengths just to catch a glimpse of the group at airport terminals, hotel lobbies, or press conferences, or remembering they were and what they were doing when they heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the radio.  And, of course, there were stories of the concerts themselves that Beatles performed across the country between 1964 and ’66. Those young fans, who were lucky enough to attend a Beatles concert, still consider it a highlight of their lives to this day.

The book was born out of an article I wrote for Beatlefan magazine in 2005, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the legendary Shea Stadium concert in New York. After finding a few attendees of that historic event in music history, I decided to keep going, with the hope of turning this into some sort of book, and I continued my search for others who had similar memories of being Beatles fans throughout the group’s existence. It wouldn’t have been possible without the Internet, that’s for sure. Web sites and message boards about the Beatles led me to many fascinating stories.

Displaying the scrapbook on TV for the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia, 2014.

I also found people by examining original newspaper articles from the height of Beatlemania, and managed to track down some the very same people who were who were interviewed and/or pictured at the time. I also have a “famous” scrapbook, kept by a teenage girl in the Boston area throughout the Beatlemania years. She managed cut and paste (the old-fashioned way) just about every newspaper and magazine clipping about the Beatles from the Boston and New York newspapers, and lovingly set them onto black construction paper pages. Sometime in the 1980s, my parents bought the scrapbook in an antique store in New York State, or Massachusetts, and brought it home.

Discussing the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

As I searched through the pages and pages of articles, I noticed that, in many instances, the stories in which the fans were interviewed actually included their full names and home addresses! I’ll never forget having the scrapbook sitting open on my lap, with the online white pages on my computer screen. More than once, I entered in the family name and address mentioned in the article, and found the same name at the same address in an online white pages listing, forty years after the fact. I sent out letters, asking the whereabouts of the person in the article, and managed to get in touch with one or two that way.

With hours and hours of phone interviews recorded, I transcribed each conversation virtually intact, and assembled them in the chronological order of the events and stories each participant had related to me.  The finished work, then, tells the story of the Beatles from the fans’ point of view, beginning with the first word about them reaching America, to their break-up, and the years afterward. Many of the participants sent me photos of themselves as teens, in the stands at the concerts, and/or beside their own beloved Beatles collections. Those are, of course, included in the book.

“We’re Going to See the Beatles!” had its debut of sorts at the 2008 Beatlefest in March of that year. I also arranged, with Fest promoter Mark Lapidos, to invite the contributors to the book to attend and take part in panel discussions, during which they could tell their stories in person to an audience. About a dozen of the contributors were able to make the journey from near and far, and took part

in two panels throughout the weekend. Even though they hadn’t met each other before, their common love for the Beatles, and the accompanying memories of the Fab Four, made them fast friends. And, a decade later, I still keep in touch with several of them fairly regularly.

There have been times in the past ten years when I’d try to think of a possible new book I might be able to write about the Beatles, only to see an ongoing flow of Beatles-related books continuing to land on the bookstore shelves and online retailers, focusing on just about every possible aspect of the group’s existence, no matter how narrow the topic as it might relate to their career. Obviously, the well has yet to run dry, but to me, it’s getting pretty close. I’m glad I managed to find the right approach to the Beatles’ unique career in a way that suited me, and, it seems, a good number of their lifelong fans.

If you’d like a chance to win a signed copy of We’re Going to See the Beatles! just leave your favorite Beatles memory in the comment section here. One entry per person. Contest ends at 11:59 p.m. on March 11. Winners will be announced in next Monday’s blog!

Two milestones for how we ate in ’68

“Popular culture” is a phrase that can refer to a number of things that, collectively, identify our tastes in what we like to do with our leisure time.    I usually refer to it in terms of entertainment, such as movies, television, music, and whatever else we indulge in to amuse ourselves.

This year marks a pair of milestones that relate to everyone’s favorite pastime: eating. I personally eat to live, rather than live to eat. I have my favorite dishes and snacks, just like anybody else, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about food. However, two innovations which first presented themselves to the public in 1968 deserve at least a brief mention on their 50th birthday: for dining at home,the microwave oven; for dining out, the Big Mac.

The microwave oven has become such an integral part of virtually every kitchen that it would be unusual to walk in and not see one nestled into a corner of the countertop.  For the sheer convenience of defrosting or heating a quick meal, it has become one of the most relied-upon appliances in the house. And its existence is the result–as is the case with many modern conveniences–of a curious mind being sidetracked while working on technology for an altogether different purpose.

Credit for the microwave oven can be traced back to Percy LeBaron Spencer, an engineer working for the Raytheon Corporation in the 1940s. While working on radar-related experiments in the Raytheon labs in 1946, Spencer began testing a new vacuum tube called a magnetron. Standing beside the device one day, he noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. He later tested several kernels of popcorn, and then an egg, all of which reacted as we would expect them to do under strong heat. Spencer concluded that they had been exposed to low-density microwave energy, and turned his attention to devising a crude box to contain the energy and thus heat whatever object he placed inside.

Raytheon engineers began work on Spencer’s discovery, and by late ’46, the company filed a patent for an oven that could cook food via microwaves. The following year, the first such oven for commercial use (mostly in restaurants) hit the market, and was named the Radarange. But there were drawbacks: the bulky unit stood almost six feet tall, weighed over 750 pounds, and cost about $5,000 each. It also required special plumbing to water cool the magnetron tube.

Refinements continued, and the cost began to come down, but the unit and the cabinet in which it was encased still took up as much room as a refrigerator. Raytheon licensed its patent to Tappan in 1955 for the purpose of developing a home use version of the oven, leading to the first home model selling for just under $1,300, but still with an unwieldy size.

In 1965, Raytheon took over the Amana Refrigeration company, and less than three years later, the 100-volt, countertop microwave oven, seen here, was introduced to the general public. Some fear by consumers over the perceived dangers of frequent use eventually faded (even though the term “to nuke” a meal has persisted), and by 1975, the use of microwave ovens first exceeded that of gas ranges.

On September 18, 1999, Percy Spencer, who died in 1970, was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

For those who had not yet warmed up to the microwave oven (pun intended) in 1968, there was a new reason to stop at the local McDonald’s restaurant whenever a hunger pang struck. McDonald’s had already been America’s most successful fast food chain, having opened its 1,000th restaurant that year–when Jim Delligatti, manager of the Uniontown, Pennsylvania McDonald’s, saw his gastronomic creation become part of the company’s permanent menu. Delligatti, who first became a McDonald’s manager in 1957, tried in the mid-’60s to convince the company honchos

Delligatti and his creation.

that they needed to sell a bigger burger, and suggested they consider his own super burger invention, only to be turned down. The corporate chiefs finally agreed to let him sell it in 1967, provided that he use only ingredients already supplied to each franchise. Delligatti sold the first Big Mac in his Uniontown store that year, and was successful enough to encourage the company to hold further consumer tests throughout the Pittsburgh region. The Big Mac began

selling nationally in 1968, for 49 cents. Delligatti didn’t receive any extra remuneration for his world-famous, 540-calorie invention, but he did receive a plaque. The Big Mac ingredients, of course, became an often-repeated litany in its advertising campaign jingle: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun.”

For those whose appetites didn’t require such a hearty snack, the chain’s hot apple pie was also introduced in 1968 (consequently, cases of burning the inside of one’s mouth reached historic levels).

Delligatti passed away in 2016 at the age of 98. And, while McDonald’s has taken its lumps in recent years, especially with cultural trends favoring healthier choices (even in fast food), the Big Mac has, for better or worse, become part of our culture–not just in the U.S., but around the world.

Until next week…

“Local Hero” at 35

It’s almost frightening to realize that some films, TV shows, and record albums I first enjoyed as a young person have now existed for 30, 40, or 50

years. Time marches on. But it stands still, in a very real way, throughout Local Hero, my favorite film comedy of all time. Written and directed by Bill Forsyth, it was released in the U.S. in February, 1983, thirty-five years ago this week.

To repeat: it is my favorite film comedy–and I love a lot of film comedies, reaching back to the silent era. But somehow, from the moment I first stumbled upon it while channel hopping, and found it on HBO or some such channel back in 1984, this film affected me like no other has,

before or since. I missed perhaps the first fifteen minutes or so that first time, catching sight of two characters stopping on a remote road in the Scottish Highlands to care for an injured rabbit. Being obsessed with all things Scotland anyway, and seeing that the rabbit didn’t seem hurt at all, I settled in to watch the rest…

Forsyth began as an editor for documentary films, which led to the creation of his first two quiet comedies, using small budgets and unknown actors.

The first, That Sinking Feeling, from 1979, is a quirky little story, for which Forsyth recruited young acting students in Glasgow as his cast, and shot on 16mm film, entirely on location. The plot follows a group of unemployed misfits looking for adventure and cash, deciding to plan the theft of stainless steel sinks from a warehouse, and then sell them, somehow.

Forsyth’s next, and better-known film, the wonderful Gregory’s Girl (using many of the same actors), offers the story of a shy, 16-year-old student, Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) a mediocre soccer player infatuated with Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), the new–and unmistakably female–star of the team. This is where Forsyth hit his stride.

Then came Local Hero, with the backing of producer David Puttnam, whose Chariots of Fire had just won a truckload of international awards. He was a good ally for Forsyth to have when trying to sell his latest work.

As the film begins, we meet “Mac” MacIntyre (we never learn his first name), a young, ambitious executive for Knox Oil & Gas in Houston. His specialty is acquiring properties around the world for the company to build its oil drilling sites, refineries and storage units. Mac gets excited one day upon hearing that the eccentric CEO of the company, Mr. Happer (Burt

Lancaster) wants to see him in the executive suite. Happer has decided to send Mac to Scotland to purchase part of the northern coast, including a small fishing village, Furness. It is during this classic first meeting that Mac learns of some of Happer’s quirks, such as his fascination with astronomy. The boss demonstrates how he can convert his office into a functioning planetarium, to indulge his fascination with the night sky. His dream is to discover a comet and have it named after him, so he takes pains to show Mac which portion of the northern sky to look for comets when he’s in Scotland.

Once there, Mac meets Johnny (Peter Capaldi), his Scottish counterpart from Aberdeen, whose social awkwardness masks his knowledge of the oil business. The two descend upon Furness, expecting to meet resistance from the villagers, considering how their town would be fairly obliterated to make way for the Knox complex.

Mac’s friendship with Gordon gets off to a rocky start.

They meet with Gordon Urquart (Denis Lawson), the local attorney/innkeeper/bartender, who undertakes the negotiations. But isn’t long before Mac begins to find himself awed by the beauty of the scenery, and by the pure, simple lives of the town’s inhabitants. His business-like demeanor (and suit) soon give way to friendly chit-chat and more causal dress (a lesson for writers and filmmakers on how to show a character’s development without using dialogue). He even manages to develop a crush on Gordon’s beautiful wife, Stella, and, as he marvels at the quiet night

sky, is mesmerized by the sight of a meteor shower, and later, his first aurora borealis, prompting him to race to the town’s phone box and excitedly call Happer with his eyewitness report. Johnny, meanwhile, falls for a beauty as well, a company oceanographer (Jenny Seagrove) who just might be a mermaid.

Johnny takes a shine to Marina (and vise-versa).

To Mac’s surprise, the villagers are all for selling their properties for the big money Knox is offering, regardless of what it would to do to Furness. Ironically, it is Mac and Johnny who find themselves regretting the deal. But unexpected developments await. I won’t give any more away, for those of you poor souls who have yet to experience this truly magical film.

Bill Forsyth in 2015.

Within minutes into that random first viewing of mine, Forsyth’s comic style became apparent, and very appealing to me. Unlike the brash, often crude American film comedies that tend to rely on gags involving drinking binges, sex, and/or various bodily functions, Local Hero (and all of Forsyth’s comedies) carries an unmistakable dignity about it. His “Scottish trilogy” films, including 1984’s Comfort and Joy, are fairly quiet movies, and the humor is subtle, but all are also genuinely very funny and–in a word often used by reviewers of his films–charming.

What else does Local Hero have going for it, other than the screenplay (I own a copy of an early draft, and can attest to the brilliant improvements Forsyth made along the way), its spot-on cast, the gorgeous cinematography, the gentle, exquisite musical score written and performed by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits? Well, how about this:  After following Mac’s visit to Furness, the film concludes with a closing shot that, to me, is the most perfect, most beautiful closing shot I’ve ever seen in a film. If it doesn’t bring a happy tear to your eye, check your pulse.

In 2003, the town of Pinnan, where most of the village scenes were filmed, hosted a special viewing of the film, to commemorate its 20th anniversary. Forsyth attended, and spoke briefly to the crowd, who expressed their appreciation for his masterpiece, and his respect for their tiny hamlet on the sea.

 

P.S.: When my wife Karen and I were on our honeymoon in Scotland in 1997, Pinnan was, of course, one of the stops we knew we had to make.

Until next week…

 

 

The first Winter Olympics on TV

Those of us who enjoy watching the excitement of the Olympics are also prone to complaining about the TV coverage. For every viewer who feels his/her favorite events are being shortchanged, there is another who can’t stand some other event dominating a big chunk of air time, at the expense of sports that never seem to get their due. The availability of live-streaming on various online outlets, or coverage from other sources via satellite, have improved the situation for some. But most of us remain at the mercy of what NBC and its sister networks on cable decide to highlight each day and night. Never mind that the events are sent to us instantaneously from halfway across the planet–we’ll find something to complain about.

Alas, this has always been the case, beginning with the very first network coverage of the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, in 1960.

To set the stage, historically speaking, the Berlin Olympics of 1936, under the menacing auspices of the Nazi party and watchful eye of Adolf Hitler, were the first ever to be televised, but only in Germany. With precious few TV sets in private homes at the time (mostly for party officials), public TV parlors were set up throughout Berlin, where about 160,000 viewers watched portions of the competition. The Games of 1940 and 1944 were, of course, canceled due to the war. They resumed in 1948 in London, but only limited newsreel highlights were seen on American TV.

Disney discussing the ceremonial events.

It wasn’t until the 1960 Squaw Valley Games when network television began to take a more active interest. Originally, ABC paid $50,000 for the rights to cover the event, but later backed out. At that point, as the legendary Roone Arledge (one-time president of ABC Sports and ABC News) explains, “CBS had picked up the Games, not out of any love for the Olympics, but as a favor from [CBS president] Bill Paley to Walt Disney.” What did Disney have to do with it? He was chairman of the Pageantry Committee, responsible for the opening and closing ceremonies. And Paley wanted to see his friend’s efforts televised from coast to coast.

Cronkite on the beat at Squaw Valley.

The reporters covering these Games included Walter Cronkite, still two years away from assuming his role as anchor of the evening news, Bud Palmer, and future ABC stalwart Chris Schenkel. But the CBS coverage was nothing like what we’ve come to expect from network coverage of the Olympics. The Squaw Valley broadcasts were initially limited to 15-minute recap segments each evening, beginning at 11:15 p.m., thus precluding the opportunity for any younger viewers to see the highlights. The miniscule time slot also didn’t allow for any in-depth reporting on the individual events or participating athletes. The New York Times TV critic Jack Gould blasted the arrangement. “For an event that occurs only every four years and is a matter of international interest,” he fumed, “it borders on ludicrous that only fifteen minutes a night should be allotted to the games…To assume that a day’s multiple list of events can be compressed into a visual account of ten minutes or so may make economic sense to a broadcaster, but it can only be regarded as foolhardy by the winter sports fan.”

However, CBS did expand its coverage later in the week, to include figure skating, hockey, and ski jumping, prompting Gould to backtrack: “These events were part of the original CBS plans for the Olympic coverage, not an afterthought,” he conceded in a follow-up column, “so that viewers who legitimately complained about those earlier 15-minute summaries, including this corner, were perhaps too quick in their judgments.”

Later in 1960, CBS also offered limited coverage of the Summer Olympics in Rome. This was still before Telstar and other satellites enabled live broadcasts from abroad, so films of the Games had to be flown to New York for broadcast.

For the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, NBC used the Syncom 3 satellite for its coverage, which included live, color broadcasts of the opening and closing ceremonies. These were the first color transmissions via satellite from overseas to the U.S., but only the ceremonies themselves were shown in color.

The modern era of coverage began when ABC secured the rights to the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, and the Summer Games in Mexico City, which were broadcast in color throughout the 44 hours of coverage. NBC aired the ’72 Winter Games from Sapporo, Japan, but the

Summer Games in Munich were famously covered by ABC, as the sportscasters there (led by studio host Chris Schenkel) had to suddenly shift into hard-news mode during the final days of the Games, with the tragic events surrounding the terrorist attack and subsequent murder of the Israeli team. It was Jim McKay in particular who emerged as the personality viewers turned to for

the latest updates, and whose steady and compassionate reporting of the tragedy, including his chilling and heartbreaking announcement, “They’re all gone,” secured his role as host for ABC’s coverage of the 1976 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria, and the Summer Olympiad in Montreal, the rights of which were purchased for a then-whopping $25 million, for 76 hours of coverage. It was an early peak of ABC’s Golden Age of Olympics coverage.

McKay anchors the Montreal Games.

McKay’s easygoing personality, genuine interest in the athletes’ stories (highlighted in the “Up Close and Personal” features), and eloquent commentaries won him fans, praise from the critics, and multiple Emmys. NBC won the rights to the Moscow Summer Olympics in 1980, but the U.S. boycott put a kibosh on the coverage, except for occasional updates. ABC then returned for both 1984 Winter Games(Sarajevo, Yugoslavia) and paid a cool $225 million for rights to the Summer Games (Los Angeles), and later the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, Canada.

Capital Cities’ purchase of ABC came with the announcement that the network would no longer bid for future Olympics, opening the door for NBC to secure the rights for all Games through the 2032 Olympiad. Bob Costas became the prime time host; he voluntarily left that post after the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. Mike Tirico has replaced him for the current Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.

So here we are once again, watching another two weeks of the Olympics on TV, which will no doubt lead to complaints about the coverage, and which has already prompted objections to comments by an NBC on-air analyst about the history of relations between Korea and Japan. Yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. But as long as I get to see the competitions I’ve always enjoyed watching since childhood, I’ll take the bad with the good.

Until next week…

(This week’s blog was adapted in large part from a section in my book For the First Time on Television. See more about it on my web site!)

 

 

 

The grandfather of cell phone cameras

It’s interesting, if a little disconcerting, that people of a certain age today remember when taking a picture and seeing the results almost instantly was quite exciting–and that people of a certain younger age today, who seem to think they’ve invented the “selfie,” appear to be totally oblivious to so much that has been accomplished before they were born.  Although taking pictures with phone cameras has become second nature to us, there was indeed a time when instant photos were new, even revolutionary.

In 1932, Edwin Land co-founded a company with his former Harvard physics professor for the purpose of developing and manufacturing polarizing filters for sunglasses and photographic lenses. Their work found several other applications in the fields of science and entertainment, and in 1937 the company was re-named the Polaroid Corporation.

Land was vacationing with his family in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1943, and had been taking photos of the trip. At one point, he took a picture of his 3-year-old daughter Jennifer, after which she asked why she couldn’t see the photo of herself right away. Land didn’t have a satisfactory answer, but the question set his mind working overtime. “As I walked around that charming town,” he explained years later, “I undertook the task of solving the puzzle she had set for me. Within the hour the camera, the film and the physical chemistry became so clear that with a great sense of excitement I hurried to the place where a friend was staying, to describe to him in detail a dray camera which would give the picture immediately after exposure. In my mind it was so real that I spent several hours on this description. Four years later we demonstrated the working system to the Optical Society of America.”

In 1949, Polaroid introduced the revolutionary instant camera to the public. The first advertisements for it, such as this (somewhat cluttered) magazine ad, even credited Land as the inventor, in the fine print under the main copy, and his camera would henceforth be known as the Polaroid Land camera.

In late 1972, Land caused another sensation when he introduced the SX-70, a camera that, after taking a picture, mechanically ejected a card-like photo which would develop the image in the open air, enabling the photographer to actually watch the colors and details materialize within a minute’s time. The developing chemicals were encased under a dry, transparent protective shield, unaffected by the touch of a finger or anything else. This eliminated dealing with the sticky chemicals and negative paper that accompanied Polaroid prints as they were pulled from the earlier models. The SX-70 itself could be folded down into a flatter, 4 x 7 inch shape after use.

The ongoing competition between Polaroid and camera giant Kodak led to memorable TV advertising by both companies. Kodak preferred scenarios that tugged at the heartstrings, such as the “Times of your life” series set to Paul Anka’s tune, while Polaroid boasted a long-running series of spots with James Garner and Mariette Hartley trading snappy retorts as they demonstrated various new Polaroid innovations and camera models.

In the meantime, Polaroid spent a total of $250 million to build manufacturing facilities for the SX-70. The camera’s initial price tag was $180.00, plus about five dollars for a pack of ten prints. Life magazine called it “both a marvelous toy and a stunning technological achievement.”

Kodak developed its own instant camera in response, leading to a patent battle between the two companies, until Kodak ceased production of its camera in 1986. Land died in 1991, as changes in photography began to affect both companies. The novelty and convenience of instant photos began to wane, as services such as 1-hour film developing shops became more common. And, of course, the arrival of digital cameras was seen as a major threat, prompting Polaroid to introduce an early, unsuccessful digital model in 1996.

The company declared bankruptcy in October of 2001 and re-formed shortly thereafter, but stopped making its trademark instant cameras in 2007. It made another attempt to take on the digital photography market the following year, and stopped making instant film altogether in 2008, much to the consternation of its most ardent amateur and professional users.

But the story doesn’t end there. In 2010, a group called The Impossible Project (now known as Polaroid Originals) bought the trademark Polaroid name and intellectual property, with the goal of re-launching the manufacture of film and other products for use in vintage Polaroid cameras, including the SX-70 and older models. A Polaroid manufacturing center in the Netherlands was leased for continuing the production of the new supply of films.

And so, the “old-fashioned” method of taking instant pictures lives on, even in the age of cell phone cameras. Even Steve Jobs cited Edwin Land as a hero and major influence (alas, it won’t be long until people will be heard asking, “Who’s Steve Jobs?”) And, while the use of a Polaroid might trigger a “why bother?” response among younger generations, it somehow provides some comfort to those of us who remember the excitement and anticipation of watching an image come to life in our hands just seconds after clicking the shutter.

We’ll take a look at other gadgets and inventions that are common now, but were once brand new (and not that long ago), in future posts, in addition to the usual assortment of stuff about TV/movies/music. Watch this space!

Until next week…

 

 

The Comedy Life of Thelma Todd

Long before there was Lucy & Ethel, Laverne & Shirley, or the 2 Broke Girls, there was Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts. No, these aren’t made-up names. In the early 1930s, when legendary comedy producer Hal Roach decided to create a female version of Laurel & Hardy, he chose Thelma and Zasu for the assignment. And they were wonderful in the 17 short subjects they starred in together.

But let’s back up a bit and focus on Thelma especially.  Why? She made more of a mark on film comedy than even many fans of the classic films may realize, as a great number of revered comedy stars benefitted greatly from their onscreen collaborations with her.  She has the distinction of having played the comic foil for Ed Wynn, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and others, but not simply as the passive object of raised eyebrows, leering smiles, and snappy one-liners. She knew her stuff, and more than held her own playing opposite film’s comic geniuses. Her work deserves to be remembered and enjoyed, even more than eight decades after her untimely death in 1935.

With Charley Chase.

Thelma was a ridiculously beautiful blonde who had won the Miss Massachusetts beauty pageant while awaiting acceptance to Paramout Studios’ school for aspiring actors. Before long, she was playing various supporting roles in silent comedy shorts until producer Hal Roach signed her to begin her comedy career in earnest. In her most notable early films for Roach, she appeared star Charley Chase in his own series of sound comedies for the studio, beginning in 1929. The two were a team in all but official billing, given their onscreen chemistry. Many of the movie plots were variations of Charley’s attempt to win over Thelma, with inevitable complications or misunderstandings getting in the way.

Thelma’s classic reaction to the size of Charley’s engagement ring (Looser Than Loose, 1930).

The most famous of these shorts  include The Pip From Pittsburgh and Looser Than Loose (both of which I highly recommend). Just as it seemed the two would be officially billed as equal co-stars, Roach decided he wanted to pair Thelma with another female to create his new, female incarnation of Laurel & Hardy, to star in a separate series of two-reelers .

Zasu Pitts (pronounced “Zay-su”) had made a name for herself primarily as a dramatic silent film actress, but her occasional forays into comedy proved even more popular, with her sad eyes, put-upon demeanor and gently fluttering hands as she spoke. When teamed with the vivacious and energetic Thelma, she provided a perfect contrast as the more cautious and socially awkward of the two, usually getting pulled into Thelma’s plans without time to object, or landing them in any number of uncomfortable situations.

On the Loose (1931).

Roach was so enthusiastic about the new team that he directed many of their shorts himself, until his other duties as studio chief necessitated him to leave the directing to others.  A few of the best in this series include Let’s Do Things, Pajama Party and On the Loose.

 

With Stan and Ollie in Chickens Come Home, 1931.

Thanks to Roach’s generous contract, Thelma was also busy working on other films at the time. She foiled for silent star Harry Langdon in his first sound film appearance, worked to great comic effect with Laurel & Hardy in their own first talkie, Unaccustomed As We Are,  served as the object of desire for the Marx Brothers in both Monkey Business and Horsefeathers, and appeared in still more films with Laurel & Hardy throughout the early ’30s.

Horsefeathers, 1932

She also shared a number of memorable scenes with Buster Keaton in his 1932 sound film Speak Easily (in which he was reluctantly partnered with Jimmy Durante).

When Zasu left Roach studios in a contract dispute (but continued an impressive career of her own in both comic and dramatic roles) Roach replaced her with

Patsy Kelly, who provided a more brash, streetwise, New York-style persona to mesh with Thelma’s onscreen character. The two continued the series by filming twenty-one more shorts together, most of which offer great comic energy, with some surpassing the Thelma-ZaSu shorts.

It was fortunate that Thelma was, at the time, recognized for her comic skills, and not just for her beauty. In 1934, she became hostess of Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café, a restaurant/night club on the Pacific Coast Highway, which became a popular night spot for Hollywood types, as well as those of a less savory variety. Thelma was not the owner (her ex-lover, Roland West, was), but she was happy to greet guests and keep the fun going among the patrons. Unfortunately, the site also attracted a number of gangsters who sought to acquire a piece of the establishment, in order to turn into a gambling den. Thelma was adamantly against the idea.

On December 16, 1935, Thelma was found dead in her garage, sitting in her car, from carbon monoxide poisoning. While the coroner ruled it an accidental death, most observers question the many incongruous details connected with the scene. It had the appearance of suicide, but those who mingled with her at her restaurant the previous evening didn’t notice anything unusual about her behavior, especially nothing resembling depression or distress. Several murder  suspects have been considered in the decades since, but the case has never been satisfactorily solved. Thelma was only 29 years old.

There’s no telling how far her career could have continued on its upward trajectory, possibly including starring roles in comedy features, a la Carole Lombard.  Fortunately, we are still able to enjoy Thelma’s beauty, comic timing, and appealing energy in dozens of comedy (and dramatic) films.

 

The Thelma-ZaSu shorts will be released on DVD October 9, and the Thelma-Patsy shorts are already available, as is the Charley Chase series featuring Thelma. So, do yourself and favor and have some laughs, courtesy of the wonderful Thelma Todd and cohorts.

Thanks to my friend Michelle Morgan, who lives across the pond, and who wrote the wonderful and much-needed Thelma biography Ice Cream Blonde, which helped me keep my facts straight for this blog entry.

Until next week…

 

 

A musical milestone at Carnegie Hall

We’ve happily noted a few 50-year anniversaries in pop culture lately, but today marks the 80th anniversary of a legendary Carnegie Hall concert by the great Benny Goodman big band, on January 16, 1938.

The big bands and their leaders were the rock stars of their day, generating a growing excitement for swing music among young people all over the country, ever since the style took over the genre, largely credited to the Goodman band’s three-week run at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in 1935.  Dance halls and jazz clubs found themselves stuffed to capacity whenever big names like Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and dozens of others appeared.

To make a long story short, by late ’37 swing bands were the national craze in music, and enjoying tremendous popularity. Goodman’s band in particular favored high-energy arrangements by the likes of Fletcher Henderson and Edgar Sampson that had music mavens dancing in the aisles at concerts. This led to the unprecedented step of booking the band in the prestigious Carnegie Hall–the first jazz concert ever to be performed there. Goodman himself was only 28 at the time, but didn’t seemed unduly fazed by the prospect of performing in the Mecca of classical music. When asked how long an intermission he wanted for the concert, his reply was, “I don’t know. How long does Toscanini have?” Trumpeter Harry James sounded considerably more awed by the circumstances when, before the concert began, confessed “I feel like a whore in church.”

 

There was no telling how the music would be received, or even how a big a crowd would turn up for the occasion. The answer lies in both the recording made that night, and the fact that rows of overflow seats were set up right on the stage itself, within reach of the musicians. The band was at its peak, having spent the previous few years touring constantly, and trying out new numbers and arrangements, always gauging audience reactions. By January of ’38, the set list was about as reliable as Goodman could make it.

The Benny Goodman Quartet (Teddy Wilson obscured at piano).

The program for the evening presented a mix of numbers by the full band with those featuring Goodman’s trio (with Teddy Wilson on piano, Gene Krupa on drums), and Lionel Hampton joining in on vibes for the quartet. It should be noted that, at a time of segregation among virtually all aspects of American culture, Goodman welcomed black musicians in his band as well as those he brought on as guests that particular night. The concert was greatly enhanced with appearances by Count Basie, along with a few members of his band, including tenor sax god Lester Young, plus a few members of Duke Ellington’s band, most notably the awesome Johnny Hodges on alto sax.

As for the performance itself, the concert was recorded for posterity, with an edited version not released until 1950 by Columbia Records. An unedited version was released in 1999, with the true running order intact. Full band numbers such as “One O’clock Jump,” “Life Goes to A Party,” and

“Swingtime in the Rockies” provide thrilling moments, with “Swingtime in the Rockies” in particular featuring a wild, climactic trumpet solo by Ziggy Elman that fairly blows the roof off of Carnegie Hall. To this day, it’s one of the most frenetic trumpet solos I’ve ever heard.  Another point of interest, the improvised jam session, uses the standard “Honeysuckle Rose” as its starting point, and which includes exquisite sax solos by Young and Hodges. After a bit of meandering, the group follows Harry James’ dramatic lead-out to a satisfying conclusion.

Lester Young.

There were quieter, slower-paced numbers scattered throughout, including a few by the trio and quartet, but the grand finale came with the granddaddy of all swing arrangements, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” originally written by trumpeter and all-around showman Louis Prima, and expanded over time into the gargantuan arrangement Goodman’s fans always anticipated at his appearances. The main section of the piece gives way to a series of solos, and on this particular night, a surprise solo by band pianist Jess Stacy. Accounts seem to differ on whether it was Goodman who unexpectedly gestured to Stacy to take his solo, or if Stacy himself found a split-second opening in the beat to jump in with an improvised creation of its own.

Either way, his sudden, plaintive, quiet solo set a sharp contrast to the band’s musical adrenaline rush that had just preceded it, and, once his 96-bar solo hit its soft, final note, the audience erupted into tremendous applause. It’s a moment that has been discussed and written about by music historians ever since.

A few encores followed, the crowd went wild, and the swing era had reached an early peak. Swing music wouldn’t begin to lose its mass popularity until the end of World War II (and the coming of bebop jazz).  But as of January of 1938, the music–and Benny Goodman’s band–were the talk of the music world.

Until next time…