How Jerry Lewis Saved American Film Comedy

You’ve probably heard it all before, about how Jerry Lewis was both a comedy genius and hopelessly difficult egomaniac, how he raised billions of dollars for muscular dystrophy, while also making personal enemies (either real or perceived) as naturally as the rest of us breathe.

What often gets overlooked in reviews of his life and career, however, is the fact that he almost single-handedly revived American film comedy, i.e. real, pure, slapstick comedy, after a full decade of creative drought. As fashionable as it became for cinema snobs to denigrate him and his comic style, Lewis can be credited with helping American film comedy crawl out of its doldrums, which, throughout the 1950s, was no laughing matter.

Just as the magnetic attraction of films and radio lured vaudevillians off the stage in the ’30s and placed them in front of microphones and movie cameras, television in the late ’40s and early ’50s exerted its own irresistible influence on performers–in many cases, those very same former vaudevillians. Television represented the future. Radio comedians abandoned their medium with TV’s rise to dominance, but movie comedy in the ’50s suffered from an even greater vacuum. At the time, those veteran movie comedians who didn’t turn their attention to television simply left the film industry outright. By the end of 1950, the motion picture business found itself without all of its true comedy giants, such as W.C. Fields (who died in 1946), Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, the Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy.

” A Night in Casablanca,” 1946.

Here are the specifics: The Marx Brothers ended their movie career with their last film, Love Happy, released in March of 1950. Love Happy was made mostly because Chico was broke and needed money, even though it is Harpo who dominates the screen time, with Groucho doing little more than serving as narrator, and appearing in a brief scene late in the film. This swan song was only their thirteenth film in twenty years. Groucho had long lost his enthusiasm for making films, but was riding high as the host of the radio quiz show You Bet Your Life, which would make a successful transition to TV later that year.

Laurel & Hardy, after making a handful of inferior comedy features for an uncaring 20th Century Fox studio in the mid-1940s, released their own disastrous final film in 1950, Atoll K, which was made in Europe with a confused, multi-national, multi-lingual production team, and with a very ill Stan Laurel. After Stan recovered, he and Ollie resumed their career, most notably with a British stage tour, but they had left their movie days behind them.

As for comedy’s other elder statesmen of the screen, Charlie Chaplin, having appeared as his “Little Tramp” character (without speaking) for the final time in Modern Times (1936), offered only two features in the 1950s–Limelight in ’52, and A King in New York in ’57. His friend/rival Buster Keaton enjoyed a new lease on life on television (much to Chaplin’s chagrin), starring for a time on his own syndicated program, as well as in numerous commercials.

Abbott & Costello’s films, wildly popular throughout the 1940s, suffered a steady decline in quality after 1950, as they too turned more of their attention to television. They began their stint as rotating hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1951, and stared in their own half-hour sitcom the following year for two seasons.

Even the Three Stooges’ comedy suffered throughout the 1950s, first from the loss of Curly Howard, who was forced to retire in 1946 after a series of strokes (he died in 1952). Shemp Howard dutifully stepped in for his brother, but despite his own considerable comic abilities, his films with the Stooges did not have the comic impact as Curly’s had. Shemp died in 1955. His successive replacements, Joe Besser, and later Joe DeRita, joined too late in the game to make much of their own mark on the franchise. More significantly, Columbia Studios, the Stooges’ home for a quarter-century, closed its short subject division in 1958, and chose not to renew the team’s contract.

But what about Jerry Lewis, you ask? Don’t worry, we’re getting to him.

The break-up of Martin and Lewis in 1956, exactly ten years after they first became a team, dealt another major blow to comedy. They had been the darlings of the entertainment world, complementing their successful film career (where they became the country’s #1 box office attraction), with legendary nightclub stage shows and rollicking sketches as rotating hosts of The Colgate Comedy Hour.

But Dean, growing weary of Jerry’s onstage antics–with at times interfered with Dean’s earnest attempts to sing–decided it was time for the two to go their separate ways.

Later that same year, Abbott & Costello, considerably older than Martin & Lewis, and just as tired of each other’s company, released their final film together, Dance With Me, Henry. They split up after twenty years of tremendous success in every mass medium there was.

There were still more developments that did not bode well for comedy as the decade neared its end. Gracie Allen retired from show business in 1958, leaving George Burns to carry on without her. Lou Costello, who had been enjoying life as a frequent TV guest without Bud Abbott, died in 1959. He was only 52 years old.

On the silver screen, the meager output of feature film comedies by decade’s end was such that it’s almost possible to count on one hand the quality comedies produced by major American studios in that ten-year span. Only Born Yesterday, The Seven Year Itch, Mister Roberts, Pillow Talk, Operation Petticoat (Blake Edwards’ directorial debut), and Billy Wilder’s much revered Some Like It Hot have demonstrated any true staying power in the decades since their release. However, even these films did not star established comedians, but rather light comic actors, such as Judy Holliday, Rock Hudson, Doris Day, Tony Randall, and Jack Lemmon–similar to how the screwball comedies of the 1930s starred the likes of Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, William Powell, and Cary Grant. But being a comic actor does not make one a comedian.

In 1960, Bosley Crowther, film critic for The New York Times, lamented how true slapstick, so popular in the silent comedies of the 1920s, and revived via montage tribute films such as When Comedy Was King, assembled by producer Robert Youngston, had given way to bland, suburban comedies like Please Don’t Eat The Daises. “Considering the pallid quality of most screen comedy these days,” he wrote, “it is gladdening but saddening, we must tell you, to look at When Comedy Was King.”

If there was anyone to assume the role of the shining knight on a white horse coming to rescue comedy at that time (even if he was prone to slipping halfway off), it was Jerry Lewis. The critically maligned genius had a lot to live up to, following his decade of onstage and onscreen madness with Dean Martin. But history shows us that it was Lewis who brought true slapstick comedy back to films after the nearly comatose decade of the ’50s.

Miming to a big band number in “The Bellboy,” filmed at Miami’s Fountainbleau Hotel.

He began his solo film career soon after the break-up of the team, but it wasn’t until he took full control–writing, directing, starring, editing–that his films took on their special quality. These films of the early ’60s, such as The Bellboy, Cinderfella (both 1960), The Ladies Man, The Errand Boy (both 1961), and, of course, The Nutty Professor (1963), may have lacked anything resembling comic subtlety or restraint.

But to his credit, and despite the grumbling from the critics, Lewis kept throwing his gawky screen persona and preposterous sight gags straight at his audience’s heads, without let-up. He provided what had been missing from films for so long: an anything-for-a-laugh philosophy favoring silly, often surreal sight gags and a plethora of pratfalls (which led his considerable discomfort and addiction to pain-killers), designed to do nothing more than to keep filmgoers in stitches.

As comedian Gilbert Gottfried said in tribute to Lewis this week, “The French were right all along.”

 

35 Years with Marshall Crenshaw

I enjoy marking certain pop culture milestones and anniversaries. It helps bring largely forgotten creative achievements back into the light, years or decades after they first made a splash. In keeping with that spirit, this summer marks thirty-five years since I first heard the just-released debut album by a rather unassuming rock singer/songwriter from Detroit named Marshall Crenshaw (the album’s title being, appropriately enough, Marshall Crenshaw). In 2017, it remains one of the finest pop-rock albums of its kind ever made.

Crenshaw’s band on this debut consists of himself on guitar, his brother Robert on drums, and Chris Donato on bass–a small combo playing Crenshaw’s songs in a pop style positively oozing with the influences of Buddy Holly and other late-’50s rockers, and, of course, the early Beatles (with a little rockabilly thrown in for good measure).

Crenshaw as Buddy Holly, with Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens.

In fact, Crenshaw had once portrayed John Lennon in the touring company of the ’70s stage show Beatlemania (well, nobody’s perfect), and had a small role as Holly in the 1987 feature film La Bamba.

The sound on the Marshall Crenshaw album is free of frills and clutter–just the trio, with a few vocal and guitar overdubs to enhance the overall sound. But oh, those songs! Crenshaw is an intelligent, clever, and straightforward lyricist, able to give age-old themes of love found and/or lost a fresh look, without clouding the picture with time worn clichés, pesky metaphors, or obscure meanings. This becomes evident in the first few bars of the brilliant opening track, “There She Goes Again,” which sets mood for the rest of the album. The tempo is upbeat, and the melody ridiculously catchy, but Crenshaw sings of how he often catches sight of his ex-girlfriend driving past his home with her new guy in tow. Even though he had convinced himself he’s over her, he admits:

“…It makes no difference how I’ve tried,
I get that feeling when she drives on by,
And there she goes again with another guy…”

He would continue to write a truckload of incisive and frighteningly relatable songs about the ups and downs of romance, both recent and long past. Listening to them, you don’t have to suffer from paranoia to suspect Crenshaw has been spying on you during some of the most joyous and heartbreaking moments of your life. Many of his songs seem to say, “I’ve been there, pal. I know what’s going through your mind.”

Robert Crenshaw, Marshall, and Chris Donato.

The best known track on this debut album is perhaps “Someday, Someway,” which was released as a single and became Crenshaw’s only Top 40 hit.  As bouncy and fun as it is, though, it’s not even the strongest song on the album; that’s how good this debut collection is. Crenshaw and his band retain an amazing consistency throughout. Other highlights here include the sock-hop energy of “She Can’t Dance,” the mini-classic “Cynical Girl,” the lovely “Mary Anne”–oh, hell, it would make more sense just to list all of them (but I won’t). He also throws in his cover of the 1962 Arthur Alexander hit “Soldier of Love (Lay Down Your Arms)” which fits in well among the originals.

Crenshaw has never been one to crave superstardom, even during the heady days of this first album. At that time, MTV was only a year old, but had already become a pop culture sensation. Record companies quickly learned the promotional value of music videos, and got busy cranking them out for their artists. The New Wave of British acts, with their techno-pop sounds, quirky clothing, make-up, and dyed hair (and that was just the guys) was especially perfect for MTV. Alas, Crenshaw wasn’t.

He didn’t seem to want any part of it. His sole “concept” video–as opposed to an excerpt from a live stage performance–was for the single “Whenever You’re on My Mind,” off his follow-up album, Field Day. In it, he doesn’t look particularly comfortable or happy, which no doubt led to it becoming his only such promotional clip. He also wasn’t the best interviewee, being a man of few words and frustratingly brief answers (even Dick Clark wasn’t able to get much out of him during their chat on American Bandstand). But, as the cliché goes, he’s always preferred his songs to do the speaking for him. You can, however, catch an interview or two with him on YouTube.

From Field Day onward, Crenshaw experimented with production techniques, additional instruments, and tunes that needed a few listens for them to sink in. Field Day pretty much picks up where Marshall Crenshaw leaves off, but with a muddier sound that many listeners weren’t crazy about (including me). The songs, however, continue to make memorably pointed comments and observations about life and love.

As much as his resistance of crass commercialism may have affected his record sales, Crenshaw continued to release several superb albums throughout the ’80s and ’90s, all chock full of his recognizable, jangly guitar sounds and catchy riffs. And, again, the Beatlesque quality of his songwriting remained top-notch from one album to the next, although he began to collaborate more often, and include a higher number of cover versions with each successive album.

His most consistent albums include Mary Jean and 9 Others (1987), Life’s Too Short (1991), and #447 (1999). There are just too many impressive songs to give the attention here that they deserve, ranging from slaphappy romps (“Wild Abandon” on Mary Jean and 9 Others, “Fantastic Planet of Love” on Life’s Too Short) to melancholy break-up songs (“All I Know Right Now” on Field Day, and perhaps his most remarkable composition, “Walkin’ Around,” on Life’s Too Short).

This excellent “Best of” album is probably the most convenient way to hear a well-chosen sampling of twenty-two of his best songs, including his first single, “Something’s Gonna Happen,” a blast of pure pop-rock energy from 1981.

In recent years, Crenshaw  has given up releasing full-length albums in favor of EPs, a form popularized in the 1960s as 45 singles that contained three or four songs instead of just one on each side. Today, he still performs in smaller venues, often as a guest performer with other bands, just to let us know that his genius is still alive and kicking.

Now that you’ve reached the end of this week’s post, do yourself a favor and hop on over to YouTube, find “There She Goes Again” and give it a listen. If it hits you the way it hit me back in ’82, you’ll probably want to sit back and enjoy more of Marshall Crenshaw. If not…well…better check your pulse!

Until next week…

 

 

 

Summer Reruns, New and Old (Part 2)

Last week, I recommended a few sitcoms that may have flown under your personal viewing radar in recent years; shows that are still on the air–or have recently ended their original runs–and whose reruns can be seen on local stations and/or one of the several nostalgia TV channels that give classic (and not-so-classic) programs a new chance to be discovered.

This week, I offer a few older programs–sitcoms and dramas–that you can find without the need for YouTube, Hulu, Netflx, or other sites or online services, or buying DVD sets (although I do like DVD sets). But you would need to search your local TV grid for each week.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker – If your cable system carries the nostalgia channel MeTV, you have the privilege of being able to catch this stylish and quirky show, which was rare for its time in combining horror and humorous flair–decades before Buffy the Vampire Slayer did the same. Kolchak ran for a single, 30-episode season in 1973-74.

McGavin stars as news reporter Carl Kolchak, working for the Chicago bureau of the low-budget Independent News Service. His only wardrobe, apparently, consists of a seersucker suit and battered straw hat (we never see him wearing anything else). Kolchak has a penchant for disregarding the stories assigned to him by his blustery boss, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), in favor of reports he comes across involving citizens who have come to suspicious, even bizarre deaths.

Short-tempered Tony strongly suggests that Karl drop another of his outlandish stories.

His film noir-style voiceover fills in the details of each week’s story as Kolchak investigates various ghouls, monsters, and evil spirits throughout Chicago. He can be relied upon to pester police precinct captains and others who are less than willing to confirm his steadfast belief that the victims have run afoul of supernatural perpetrators. Each episode climaxes with Kolchak taking matters into his own hands, and vanquishing the monster of the week without the benefit of witnesses, save for his trusty camera (which usually gets confiscated and/or damaged before his photographic evidence can come to light).

In today’s terms, the monsters aren’t especially terrifying, but each Kolchak episode moves briskly, and there are a few genuine frights to be had. This is a thoroughly enjoyable series, both suspenseful and funny, and a perfect follow-up to MeTV’s run of the classic Columbo in the earlier time slot on Sunday nights.

NYPD Blue – Any self-respecting police series probably wants to be described as “gritty,” and many have been through the years, but NYPD Blue could well be the grittiest. Advanced hype before its premiere in 1993 reported that famed producer Steven Bochco (the gritty Hill Street Blues,  and not-so-gritty L.A. Law) was going to give viewers an R-rated drama series. It certainly pushed the boundaries of language, violence, and partial nudity on network television, and, in its first season, became the center of controversy because of it.

The cast at the beginning of season seven.

The ensemble cast, as detectives in New York’s (fictitious) 15th precinct, went through a number of changes during the program’s twelve seasons; the one constant lead character being detective Andy Sipowicz, a bigoted, crude talking cop whose most benign comment could still drip with sarcasm, and who carries a lifetime of anger simmering just beneath the surface. He has seen it all, and has suffered morale-crushing defeats both on the job and in his personal life, often endangering his recovery from alcoholism.

Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) worked as Andy’s partner for five seasons.

However, in between solving often perplexing cases, we get to see a few happier moments for him as well, in which he manages to briefly crack a smile. He even marries twice during the series’ run; to D.A. Sylvia Costas (who would be killed in a courthouse shooting, leaving Andy to raise their baby son alone), and later to fellow detective Connie McDowell (Charlotte Ross), whose occasional babysitting for Andy Jr. leads to romance with the senior Sipowitcz, and their eventual marriage.

Connie becomes a rare source of happiness for Andy.

Dennis Franz’s portrayal of Sipowitcz is simply breathtaking throughout, from the series premiere, to its bittersweet finale twelve years later. He deserves the four Emmys he received for his of portrayal. The rest of the cast members are no slouches, either.

NYPD Blue is currently airing on the Heroes and Icons network.

Scrubs – This, my friends, is one brilliant and hilarious sitcom, worthy of being included among the best of the past twenty years. Fast-moving and innovative, it brings us inside Sacred Heart teaching hospital, seen through the eyes of neurotic and child-like John “J.D.” Dorian (Zach Braff), whose interior monologues serve as narration throughout his progress towards becoming a resident at the hospital.

His on-again, off-again romantic relationship with the equally self-absorbed and insecure fellow doctor Elliot Reid (Sarah Chalke), provides the comic spine of the series; beyond that, anything goes. Flashbacks, surreal fantasy sequences, musical numbers, and rapid-fire cutaway gags occur regularly, as J.D. finds himself confronted not only with patients he needs to heal, but also by his near-sadistic superiors, Drs. Perry Cox (John C. McGinley), and Chief of Medicine Robert Kelso (Ken Jenkins) who prefer to dole out verbal abuse rather than anything resembling encouragement. Having a pesky janitor around, known only as “Janitor” (Neil Flynn), who constantly plays various mind games on J.D., doesn’t help either.

J. D. and Turk indulge in a musical sequence.

But J.D. finds solace in his bromance with best friend and surgeon Turk (Donald Faison), who has considerable maturing of his own to do.

By the end of each episode, J.D.’s voiceover reveals a more thoughtful side of him, as he learns a life lesson via a personal relationship, a patient he’s been treating, or simply by observing his colleagues in the hospital. It provides a nice balance to the comic invention and overall goofiness of the show that make it such a blast. For you weekend early birds, Comedy Central airs two back-to-back episodes on weekend mornings, and a three-hour block on weekday mornings.

I could cover many other terrific series, from ER to Gilmore Girls, that have perhaps been relegated to the back of our minds in recent years, but are still easily found as reruns today. My goal, though, is to keep each week’s blog to a reasonable length. Plus, I’m never good at making tough choices!

Until next week, when we might explore a totally different pop culture topic, have a good one!

 

 

Summer Reruns, New and Old (Part 1)

It’s never too late to discover, or rediscover, a TV show that you may have found late in its original run, or have never seen at all. Thanks to a plethora of cable networks that need to fill their schedules with a mix of old and new programs–plus the networks that were specifically created for nostalgic baby boomers in mind–its easy to indulge (even without the help of Hulu, YouTube, or other on-line sites) in shows you haven’t seen yet, whether they’re still on the air in their first runs, have recently ended, or haven’t been on for decades.

So, here are a few recommendations for shows that you may have missed at first (as I did, in some cases), or that have slipped your mind in recent years, but can be found in reruns somewhere on the schedule grid if you look carefully enough. This week, let’s look at sitcoms that are either currently on the air, or have just ended their original runs. Next week, we’ll reach a little further back in time.

Bonnie and Christy in a rare tranquil moment.

Mom (CBS) – I missed the entire first season of this terrific show, but once I gave it a try, I was instantly hooked. The main characters, Bonnie Plunkett (Allison Janney) and her adult daughter Christy (Anna Faris), are both recovering alcoholics/drug abusers, struggling to stay sober and make something of their lives. We see them meet regularly at AA meetings with their close friends and sponsor, and seek happiness in meaningful relationships. Sounds like a downer? It’s not. It’s hilarious.

Creator/producer Chuck Lorre (The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men) has the characters tackle tough personal issues, and suffer occasional setbacks, but the show sustains its often cynical humor throughout, which is quite a remarkable achievement.

American Housewife (ABC) – Katie Mixon, who stole scenes regularly as Molly’s stoner sister Victoria on Mike and Molly, stars here as Katie Otto, the strictly middle-class mother of three, in a decidedly upper class town of Westport, Connecticut.

As a pudgy, unkempt,harried housewife living among the town’s younger, slimmer, and wealthier trophy wives, she’s determined to push back against the snobbery, while still keeping her dignity intact–which proves a tall order. Katie is no stranger to public humiliation. Her laidback husband Greg, a college professor (Diedrich Bader), spends much of his time attempting to ease both family and community tensions, often brought on whenever Katie finds herself on the warpath.

This show got off to a bumpy start when it premiered last fall, but quickly found its way, and will follow Modern Family on Wednesday nights in the upcoming season–a perfect combination, and part of a superb line-up!

The Middle (ABC)– Often described as an unsung but reliable sitcom on the ABC schedule, The Middle is about to enter its 8th and final season. It’s clever, funny, and often scarily relatable, as it follows the financially-struggling Heck family (again–three kids, two in college now).

The appealing thing about the show, led by perpetually-exhausted matriarch Frankie (Patricia Heaton, Everybody Loves Raymond) and husband Mike (Neil Flynn, Scrubs),is how they cope with their outdated, faulty appliances, piles of store coupons, and their struggles to pay the bills on time (give or take a few weeks).

Sue celebrates her teeth without braces. Finally.

Their only daughter, Sue (Eden Sher), is a stand-out, thanks to her almost relentlessly sunny and optimistic–if often naïve– disposition, even when faced with failure and rejection on a regular basis.

2 Broke Girls (CBS) – Yes, if you’ve ever seen an episode, you already know that the humor is juvenile, the dialogue is crude, raunchy, even shocking, crammed with references to various sex acts and bodily functions. You can almost see the actors thinking “I can’t believe I just said that on network TV” after uttering an especially risqué line.

BUT…the two leads, Max Black (Kat Dennings) and Caroline Channing(Beth Behrs) are utterly charming as diner waitresses struggling to succeed in their cupcake business. Caroline was once worth billions, but all was lost when her father was convicted of stock fraud and sent to prison.

Max’s frequent references to her rough and delinquent childhood, promiscuous mother, drug use, and worse, successively top each other from week to week, or scene to scene (but we can tell she’s exaggerating, if only a little bit). The other characters at the diner, owned by diminutive, put-upon Korean owner Han, have become a family over time. The show was canceled at the end of this past season, but it already lives on, in all of its very naughty glory, in syndicated reruns.

That ’70s Show – The oldest show on this week’s list aired its final original episode in May of 2006, after eight seasons. I didn’t get around to sitting down to watch an entire episode until season seven.

The cast is faultless, the characters will remind you of people you knew in high school, and the writing is consistently just plain funny. Even though it takes place in the mid-1970s, references to the pop culture and world events of the time flow naturally through the dialogue and stories, and are never dragged out just to remind us, “Don’t forget, we’re in the ’70s!” (the same can be said for another current favorite of mine, The Goldbergs, which takes place in the ’80s). As I write this, Comedy Central runs a dozen back-to-back episodes of That ’70s Show on weekend mornings. It deserves the weekly marathon.

These are just a few of the sitcoms whose reruns are as entertaining now as when they first aired, and are worth seeking out if you’ve never gotten around to them. Next week, we’ll take a look at older comedies and dramas that are being given a second chance for us to find again on nostalgia networks and local stations.

Until then, happy watching!

 

Bossa Nova Summers (with Jobim)

Anyone who knows me fairly well also knows that the music I listen to almost exclusively in the summer is Brazilian bossa nova–a mellow jazz style that evokes images of lounging in a hammock strung between two palm trees on a sandy beach. I’ve even shared a number of videos by Brazilian artists on my Facebook page through the years, hoping to spread the word. Here, while I’m neither an expert nor a musician, I’ll offer a bit of history and a few recommendations, in case you might be so inclined to add bossa nova to your music collection (sorry, hammock and palm trees not included).

Bossa nova (rough translation: New Wave), first appeared in the late 1950s, descended from established South American styles such as samba and salsa. But bossa nova arrived as the mellower, more quietly sensual musical cousin, deliberately replacing samba’s harder-edged percussion with soft brushes on the drums, and shakers. The lead instruments most often include a gently-strummed or picked nylon-string classical guitar, piano, and flute or saxophone. Of course, there have always been variations in arrangements, instrumentation choices, and tempo, but it doesn’t take long to identify true bossa nova and distinguish it from its musical relatives.

Joao Gilberto and “Tom” Jobim serenade the ladies on Ipanema Beach.

The men who can be considered the “inventors” of bossa nova, composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and singer/guitarist Joao Gilberto, lived in Rio de Janeiro–Jobim as an arranger and producer, Gilberto as a musician in jazz clubs–when they recorded the first-ever bossa nova hit song and album, Chega de Saudade, in 1958.

As composer (with lyricist and diplomat Vinicius de Moraes) and producer/arranger, Jobim quickly established his reputation. Other hits from these early years that would soon become standards include “One Note Samba,” “Desinfinado,” “Corcovado,” and, of course, “The Girl From Ipanema.”  You might not know them all by name, but chances are good you’d know them if you heard them.

A compilation album, The Legendary Joao Gilberto, contains all of these original recordings, spanning between 1958-’61 (and available on CD). Many other top singers and musicians in Brazil were soon contributing to the genre, Sergio Mendes becoming the best-known in America.

Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes

By the early and mid-1960s, several American jazz musicians, including saxophonist Stan Getz, guitarist Charlie Byrd, and singers Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, had gotten wind of bossa nova, and began making their own recordings in the genre, both with and without Jobim or Gilberto by their side. Unfortunately, some of these individuals rarely gave proper credit for bossa nova to their innovative Brazilian counterparts. Being a purist, my bossa nova collection consists solely of Brazilian artists, and some of these albums contain not a speck of English. But the Portuguese consonants somehow take on a pleasantly soft, mellow sound when sung (unlike Spanish, which to me sounds harsh and chattering).

Jobim continued writing, recording, and performing after the death of his songwriting collaborator Vinicius de Moraes. Always a passionate conservationist, Jobim wrote and recorded “The Waters of March” in 1974–music and lyrics, in both Portuguese and English. The song is a celebration of nature; a few simple, repetitive notes coupled with lyrics that basically list many of the little things we rarely notice that make up life. It has been called “his masterpiece” and “his most perfect composition” by music historians, and is still my favorite song of all time (yes, including the Beatles).

It has been covered hundreds of times by artists all over the world, but to me, the definitive version was recorded by Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’77 for their album Pais Tropical.

While bossa nova began to lose favor in the mainstream by the late ’60s and early ’70s, many up & coming singers and musicians, boasting a deep devotion to Jobim in particular, were determined to keep the genre alive. And, a still younger generation continues to do so today.

These followers include Jorge Ben, Oscar Castro-Neves, Djavan, Leila Pinheiro, Ana Caram, Elaine Elias, and Celso Fonseca. Jobim honored his disciple and student Caram on her debut album by playing on some of her renditions of his classics (he died in 1994 from complications following surgery).

 

Elias is a sort of Brazilian Diana Krall, i.e. a world-class jazz pianist with a soft singing voice and tremendous respect for her musical predecessors. She, like Ana Caram, has recorded several albums consisting only of Jobim’s songs, giving her unique interpretations of them.

Even the pop singer Basia, born and raised in Poland, and whose early ’90s hit “Time and Tide” established her in America, is a devoted bossa nova fan. She lists Astrud Gilberto, former wife of Joao and original singer of “The Girl From Ipanema,” as one of her singing heroines.

Basia co-writes her own songs, and her albums are chock full of her and collaborator Danny White’s tasteful bossa nova arrangements (she covered “The Waters of March” as well).

By the way, the albums by all of the above artists are available at Amazon.com, so they’re not as tricky to find as you might think.

There are so many more recordings I can recommend (feel free to contact me for details), but I’ll close for now, and head out into the summer sun with bossa nova on my iPod, and mentally replace the pretty but common maple trees here with exotic, gently-swaying cocoanut palms.

Next week, I just may have a sequel of sorts…

Breaking the Fourth Wall

It isn’t something we think about much while we’re watching the characters in a film, a play, or on TV. They might be interacting in a living room, bedroom, office, or other indoor setting, but we are essentially viewing them through an invisible “fourth wall.” After all, if every production set retained all four walls, as they would in a real life home or building, we wouldn’t be afforded a very good view of the action, would we? Moreover, since we’re following the characters within a fictional story, we certainly don’t expect them to acknowledge us, the audience, as we sit in a theatre or on a sofa at home. However, there have been films and programs featuring characters who would break the fourth wall, however briefly, by turning to the audience directly to share exactly what he or she is thinking at that moment. They might do so by expressing a thought verbally, or with a raised eyebrow, frown, or weary look.

Breaking the fourth wall isn’t used often in comedy, but it can create a stronger affinity with the character who briefly acknowledges us. A handful of the most popular film comedies in the past few decades (the Airplane! and Naked Gun films, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) have indulged in the practice, but the gag hearkens back to a much earlier era.

Oliver Hardy is most commonly credited for being the first film comedian to break the fourth wall, via his exasperated looks and silent pleas for sympathy to the camera/audience, in response to a ridiculous comment or inept action by his pal Stan Laurel.

Ollie perfected the look in their silent films, and carried it into the sound era–however, he didn’t actually speak to the audience.

 

On a more verbal level of wall-breaking, Groucho Marx habitually spoke to his audience from the screen, beginning with the Marx Brothers’ first film, The Cocoanuts (1929). His asides become increasingly brazen in the brothers’ second feature, Animal Crackers, released in 1930 (both films were adapted from their Broadway hits). In one Animal Crackers scene, after he delivers a weak pun, Groucho turns to the camera and admits, “Well all the jokes can’t be good, you’ve got to expect that once in a while!” This practice reaches an apex of sorts in Horsefeathers (1932).During a scene in which Groucho, Harpo, and Chico vie for co-star Thelma Todd’s affections,

Groucho must wait his turn while Chico flirts with Todd at the piano. Finally, Groucho gets up, strides to the camera, and says, “I’ve got to stay here. But there’s no reason you folks shouldn’t go out to the lobby until this thing blows over.”

 

W.C. Fields, known for his delightful way of muttering now-classic lines to himself throughout most of his films, takes a casual turn to the camera in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941). Awaiting an ice cream soda at a snack counter, he informs us, “This was supposed to take place in a saloon, but the censor cut it out. It’ll play just as well.”

Breaking the fourth wall surfaced in the early television age, most notably on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, which premiered in 1950. In each episode, Burns takes periodic opportunities to offer his comments on that week’s plot before returning to the action, or would turn to the camera in mid-scene to register a look of skepticism on the proceedings.

In addition, he often retreats to his den on occasion, turns to us, and says something along the lines of, “Let’s see how Gracie’s going to handle the vacuum cleaner salesman,” before switching on his TV to watch Gracie and the other characters in conversation within the story–thus allowing Burns to both retain and break the fourth wall at the same time!

Other sitcoms have featured characters known to take a moment to speak to us directly. In The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, thoughtful teenager Dobie (often seen mimicking the pose of Rodin’s The Thinker) keeps us apprised of each new dilemma, perhaps with an idea of how to deal with the situation and its consequences.

The 1965 season brought us Gidget, another smartly-written sitcom, following the life of California teen Frances “Gidget” Lawrence. Like Dobie, Gidget, in her moments alone, often takes time to share with us her hopes, frustrations, and questions of the day.

Comedian Garry Shandling revived the technique in his 1980s cable sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and the technique also worked well for the 1990s children’s sitcom Clarissa Explains It All, starring Melissa Joan Hart. In each episode, clever pre-teen Clarissa speaks to her viewers much in the same manner as Gidget had a generation before.

Then there is The Office, created in the U.K. by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, using the “mockumentary” style of filming.

Gervais’ character, David Brent, and others in the fictional office of a paper company, go about their day while being followed and interviewed by a documentary crew. With this style, of course, there is no fourth wall to begin with, and therefore no wall to “break” (but the sideways glances Gervais gives the camera are priceless nonetheless).

Perhaps the most interesting way of breaking the fourth wall on TV has come with Modern Family, winner of five consecutive Emmys for Best Sitcom (and topic of a future blog here). The members of the extended Pritchett/Dunphy family are also subjects of a documentary crew, and, when not being filmed in their daily activities, periodically take part in brief interview segments, as they sit on their respective living room sofas and speak to the camera about the events we’ve either just witnessed, or are most likely to see shortly.

And, during the “action” scenes, they treat us to the same kind of sideways glances and/or mortified stares at the camera, much to the same hilarious effect Oliver Hardy achieved 80 years earlier. The show has always walked a razor-thin line of having the characters aware of being filmed, but without overindulging in the conceit (i.e. a character never turns to the camera mid-scene to remark on the action within that scene, but he or she often does so during an abrupt cutaway to their sofa interview). To me, it’s television bliss.

There’s likely to be still more wall-breaking in future films and TV shows, so here’s hoping they’ll continue the line of innovation established by their comic predecessors.

Two Smashing Films, With Love, at 50

Anglophiles, take note: This year marks more than the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Recently, I realized that 2017 also marks the 50th anniversary of two films that don’t have much in common with each other, except that they were filmed on location in London during the height of the “Swinging Sixties” era of fads in music, fashions, and lifestyles that came and went with the wind. One of these films, To Sir With Love, is a drama, and the other, Smashing Time, is a daffy, slapstick comedy. While the two obviously had very different goals when they were made, they’re still enjoyable today for what they brought to movie screens in 1967.

To Sir With Love, written and directed by James Clavell (based on E.R. Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel), stars Sidney Poitier as Mark Thackery, an engineer who lands a teach job in London’s East End, until something more suited to his skills comes along. He positively reeks of personal integrity in a hostile environment of rough, Cockney-speaking hooligans. And those are just the girls. The boys are jaded, angry, and definitely uninterested in actually learning anything in school. In his classroom, the articulate and patient Mark struggles to get a handle on what makes his students tick, and tries to teach them anything he can think of that might make an impression on them. Early failures, plus one or two tense confrontations, leave him discouraged. His weary fellow teachers look on with sympathy, but without much optimism that his efforts will succeed.

Clockwise from bottom: Lulu, Judy Geeson, Sidney Poitier, Suzy Kendall

Then it dawns on Mark that conventional lessons and textbooks would be useless to his class, and what they really need is an education on how to enter the real world as mature, responsible adults. He insists that they address each other as “Mr.” and “Miss,” but, with some prodding, he also opens up a bit about himself and his early life, which they find intriguing.

Seeing a glimmer of hope, gives them a cooking lesson, and arranges a field trip to an art museum. In perhaps the most beautiful sequence of the film, we’re treated to a photo montage of the students as they explore the museum and its classical art and sculptures. The images are accompanied by the famous “To Sir With Love” theme song (sung by Lulu, who plays one of the students). It’s an unforgettable scene.

The two women who have fallen for Mark: Pam…

There are setbacks in Mark’s growing relationship with his class, however. He learns that one of his students, Pamela Dare (the charismatic Judy Geeson), is falling in love with him–and so is one of his teaching colleagues, Gillian (Suzy Kendall).

…and Gillian

At semester’s end, Mark is offered a job as an engineer in an electronics firm, which he accepts, but he isn’t prepared for the heartfelt goodbye his once-rebellious students have prepared for him. The final scene…well, if you’ve seen the movie, you remember it. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for? It’s been out for fifty years!

 

Smashing Time, written by George Melly and directed by Desmond Davis, couldn’t be a more different film, yet it gives us another but cheerier helping of London in 1967, as seen through the eyes of adventurous extrovert Yvonne (Lynn Redgrave), and her put-upon best friend Brenda (Rita Tushingham), who have traveled from the north to seek fame and fortune, and all the city has to offer.

Once there, they soon lose their money, get themselves hired and fired from a number of jobs, and encounter characters ranging from a snooty boutique owner, to a lecherous, middle-aged playboy (Ian Carmichael) who has Yvonne in his sights, until Brenda masterfully sabotages his attempted seduction. The girls also meet a slick manager (Jeremy Lloyd) who actually succeeds in turning tone-deaf Yvonne into a singing sensation.

Meanwhile, Brenda finds herself attracted to a young, arrogant, but successful fashion photographer Tom Wabe (Michael York), who is equally attracted to her, and quickly makes her a print and TV model, rivaling Yvonne’s own inexplicable popularity. The girl’s friendship then threatens to veer into a personal rivalry.

Along the way, we’re treated to a bit of music (sung by the girls), a good old-fashioned pie fight, a hilarious satire of the pop music recording industry, and even a parody of the Candid Camera style of hidden-camera reality TV shows. Cramming so much into the film makes for a few uneven patches, and it’s all very silly, but mostly very funny, and the two leads are charming.

Yvonne and Tom Wabe find themselves victims of several airborne pies.
Yvonne’s awful singing is magically transformed into a #1 hit.

 

 

 

 

 

Unlike her shy, frumpy title character in her film Georgy Girl the previous year, Redgrave barrels through Smashing Time like a bull in a china shop, with Tushingham equally wonderful as her more sensible, eye-rolling foil. Their hijinx gives the film an undeniable energy. Plus, we even get to wander down the famously trendy Carnaby Street, set to Redgrave’s cheerful warbling on the soundtrack, giving us a glimpse of London’s symbol of pop culture among the “with it” young people at the time.

Seek out both of these films, and enjoy!
Until next Tuesday…

Today, I am a blogger.

Considering how long it’s been taking me to get comfortable with 21st century technology, today marks a big step for me. I still don’t use a smartphone. I don’t text. I don’t tweet. But, as of today, I do blog! While it’s already become a commonplace thing to do (and, in some circles, mocked), I hope this weekly blog will prove to be both informative and entertaining. It will focus mostly on various aspects of pop culture, and from a historical perspective, whenever possible.

I’ve written five non-fiction and three fiction books. Hopefully, there is more to come from each side of my writing brain. I’ve always had diverse interests competing for my attention: science, history, world events, and, of course, pop culture–probably before it was even called pop culture. Ever since my childhood, I’ve absorbed whatever has fascinated and/or entertained me in movies, television, music, etc., and I’ve always been curious and eager to learn, rather than just experience it passively, without knowing the story behind the creation.

A little bit about how I got to be this way…

One day, when I was in the 5th or 6th grade, I was having lunch at home (back when we had an hour to go home every day for lunch), when I decided, for no reason other than curiosity, to listen to my parent’s 8-track tape of Beethoven’s Greatest Hits. I liked it! So, for the next few years, I became obsessed with Beethoven, reading about his life, and listening to records of his music, given to me as birthday and holiday gifts by somewhat confused but supportive family members. I didn’t really understand Beethoven’s music the way an adult with a more sophisticated set of ears would, and I probably didn’t read his biography from cover to cover, but I just thought he was cool. Plus, I kind of liked impressing my elders with my new musical preferences (even though it wasn’t much of a chick magnet in the 6th grade).

A year or two later, I gave a random listen to a Benny Goodman album, featuring the big band music my parents had grown up with in the 1940s. I loved that too, and promptly immersed myself in big band jazz. Around the same time, I discovered the Marx Brothers films on TV, and read about them as much as I could as well. I often talked my parents or older brothers into driving me from our home in suburban New Jersey into New York City, so I could attend all-day Marx Brothers film festivals. My current love of past and present comedy grew from the Marxes, Laurel & Hardy, and W. C. Fields. Again, it was always important to me to learn as I laughed, even if I had to teach myself. Watching “The Odd Couple” film and sitcom led me to buy a collection of Neil Simon’s plays. I memorized “The Odd Couple” and a few others, just for the love of his brilliantly funny dialogue. And, I learned how to write comedy from this–or so I like to think.

And then there were the Beatles. They’ve been a constant in my life since I was about three years old, dancing to “I Want To Hold Your Hand” even before I could sing it. The Fab Four are still a presence in some part of my consciousness every single day.

Many Beatles fans are also Anglophiles by extension, and I’m no exception. I spent my ninth birthday in London, where my family visited my brother during the college year he spent studying there. I fell n love with London and its environs and culture, all while peeking around every corner with the hope of catching an errant Beatle walking by or crossing the street.

And, most Anglophiles love British comedy, too, and again I’m no exception (how’s that for a segue?) Upon discovering “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” and the wave of Britcoms that followed that classic series across the pond, I videotaped hundreds of hours, and eventually decided to do something constructive with all of that footage, resulting in my book “Best of the Britcoms.”

You get the idea, even though I’m leaving out quite a lot. But his is just my introductory blog, and with some luck I’ll fill in the gaps as I go from week to week, and from pop culture topic to pop culture topic. Some weeks I’ll use this space to delve more deeply into topic I’v discussed in my books; other weeks I might give new life to a passage from a book or magazine article I’ve written that never got to see the light of day. And there are a fair number of past and present movies, TV shows, and albums about which I’d like to offer my two cents. Hopefully, you’ll find yourself equally interested in may of the topic that clutter my mind on a regular basis, and will return each week to share a bit, and even learn a bit.

See you next week!

–Garry