Friday, October 02, 2015

This Saturday In Moraga: The Classic 50's Science Fiction Film Festival, Part 2

Tomorrow, one can take a headlong leap into the 1950's science fiction time capsule at the New Rheem Theatre on 350 Park Street, Moraga, CA 94556.

Headlining The Classic 50's Science Fiction Film Festival, Part 2: The Thing, It Came From Outer Space, The War Of The Worlds and Forbidden Planet - and a personal appearance by actress Ann Robinson.

Programmer/curator Derek Zemrak did a tremendous job with Part 1 of the Classic 50's Science Fiction Film Festival, back on May 16th.

It will be a day of Big Screen Fun for all 1950's sci-fi film fans. To contact the New Rheem Theatre's box office, call (925) 388-0751. Main office: (925) 388-0752. And. . . by all means, watch the skies! watch the skies!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

More 1930's Musical Shorts

Since the great George Gershwin was born on this very day, September 26 in 1898, today we shall focus on musicals; after all, Your Correspondent grew up (or chose not to) watching Fred n' Ginger features, the frequently musical Ernie Kovacs Show, Looney Tunes, Robert Youngson slapstick comedy compilations AND Jay Ward Productions' Fractured Flickers on TV.

Here at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, we plead "guilty as charged" (no contest) to liking 1930's musical 1-reelers, very likely enough to be a charter member of the "Men Who Love 1930's Musical Shorts Too Much" 12-step group.

Here, in a Vitaphone Melody Master short featuring Vincent Lopez & His Orchestra, is a teenage version of megawatt musical comedy powerhouse Betty Hutton. Our favorite part is when she clucks like a chicken. Take it, Betty!

Just one of several tremendous musical short subjects directed by Joseph Henabery for the Vitaphone Melody Master series is this massive entertaining 1-reeler starring innovative big band swingmeisters Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra.

Two of the "string swing kings" were Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang, in a clip from the 1930 Universal feature, The King Of Jazz. It's a safe bet that across the pond, Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli were paying big time attention to the duo's recordings.

Eddie Lang also appeared in The Big Broadcast with Bing Crosby. Tragically, the virtuoso guitarist died in 1933 as the result of a botched operation.

Also performing "Dinah" on the silver screen, as Bing Crosby did in the previous clip, were the gold standard for vocal groups in the 1930's: The Mills Brothers.

The Mills Bros. popularity was such that Decca recorded sides in which the harmonizing brothers collaborated with none other than Louis Armstrong. Fortunately, Paramount Pictures also captured The Mills Brothers' four-part harmony heroics on film in a slew of 1-reel musicals and Fleischer Studio Screen Songs cartoons.

Next on the itinerary is a quick detour from the 1930's back to the Roaring Twenties. The genre of the musical short subject actually began in 1923 with the historic DeForest Phonofilms, and then, starting a couple of years later, the Vitaphone Varieties and Fox Movietone Musicals.

As a result of several 1930's Merrie Melodies cartoons devoted to radio stars (I've Got To Sing A Torch Song, The Coo-coonut Grove, Toy Town Hall, The Woods Are Full Of Cuckoos), dyed-in-the-wool film buffs born long after the popular bandleader's death in 1943 know who Ben Bernie was.

The orchestra leader, among those credited for the song "Sweet Georgia Brown", was enormously popular on radio. Here he is, The Ol' Maestro, in 1925!

In the Vitaphone Varieties, vaudeville met the early days of big band and jazz. These ensembles unquestionably feature a strong fun element and goofiness that goes hand-in-hand with the musicianship. How can one not like a band with the name Dick Rich & His Melodious Monarchs?

Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog is also "guilty as charged" of possessing an abiding love for stage and screen songstress Lillian Roth - and not just because she appeared with favorite comedians The Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers and was the featured live-action performer in several incredible Fleischer Screen Songs cartoons (just "follow the bouncing ball").

Known more for her offscreen difficulties (largely due to the book and movie I'll Cry Tomorrow) than her show business comebacks and stage triumphs, Lillian Roth, was a legendary vocalist. The following photo from The LIFE Picture Collection, one of many historic shots, is a better way to remember Miss Roth, a dynamic, show-stopping performer who could belt 'em out with the best of them.

The following Paramount 1-reeler, Meet The Boyfriend, isn't quite as cool as Lillian singing Little Alimony Sal in the 1934 Vitaphone mini-musical Story Conference, but demonstrates her beauty, chutzpah, winning charm and ability to put a song - ANY song - over nonetheless.

Big thanks to all of the above for their invaluable assistance in keeping this blogger's Sunny Side Up.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

See You In The "Fall" Blogathon

There are numerous blogathons - alas, way more than this correspondent could actually contribute to - these days. That said, we are smack dab in the middle of a good one! Steve Bailey of Movie Movie Blog Blog hosts the See You In The "Fall" Blogathon. "Fall" refers not to Nat King Cole singing Autumn Leaves or Stan Getz playing it on the tenor saxophone, but to the sacred pratfall.

While the focus is on physical comedy, the topics within this blogathon prove quite wide-ranging. Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog is thrilled, delighted and tickled to participate with a piece originally penned for Eat Drink Films and subsequently posted on this blog here.

Here's the lineup as of this writing:

BNoir Detour - Keenan Wynn’s flipper scene in Shack Out on 101 (1955)

Caftan Woman - The “setting up for rehearsal” scene in The Sunshine Boys

CineMaven - Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974) and the “Mr. Muckle” scene in W.C. Fields’ It’s a Gift (1934)

Critica Retro - Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

Girls Do Film - Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle

How Sweet It WasDick Van Dyke and the ottoman on “The Dick Van Dyke Show”

In the Good Old Days of Classic HollywoodSend Me No Flowers

Love Letters to Old Hollywood - The Nutty Professor (1963)

Moon In Gemini - The chase scene in Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc?

Movie Movie Blog Blog - Steve Martin as “The Great Flydini”

Movies Silently - Lupino Lane in Naughty Boy (1927)

Nitrateglow - The chase scene in Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr.

Old Hollywood Films - Harold Lloyd in Safety Last

Once Upon a Screen - Laurel, Hardy and the Biggest Stoop You’ve Ever Seen in Your Life

Reel Distracted - Jacques Tati’s Playtime

Serendipitous Anachronisms - The British sitcom “Keeping Up Appearances”

Silent-ology - Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton’s flirting scene in Good Night, Nurse!

Silver Screenings - The Disorderly Universe Of Laurel & Hardy

Wolffian Classic Movies Digest - Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921)

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Shout, Sister, Shout! "Close Harmony" Documentary Spotlights The Boswell Sisters

Wrote about The Boswell Sisters, three gals linked in sweet harmony, back in 2011 upon hearing about a documentary covering their illustrious career. To some degree, nobody has quite accomplished what the vocal trio did before or since - although many have tried!

High on the long list of New Orleans' finest musical talent, the fabulous Boswell Sisters, Martha (1905 - 1958), Connee (1907 - 1976) and Vet (1911 - 1988) were a truly groundbreaking act.

With Glenn Miller charts and the skilled backing of New York session musicians Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan, Tommy & Jimmy Dorsey, Carl Kress, Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti, The Boswell Sisters recorded numerous sprightly tunes for Okeh and Brunswick.

They waxed great song after great song, as did their early 1930's contemporaries - Satchmo, Duke, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson And His Orchestra and Don Redman.

They were certainly among the advance guard in their early career on radio and recordings, possibly were the first vocalists to tackle the songs of Duke Ellington.

Back to the documentary, the Kickstarter fundraiser for Close Harmony was successful and recent rumblings indicate that production is on a roll. It's highly likely to include at least one clip of the Bozzies singing Rock And Roll!

From the Facebook page by the documentary filmmakers, Joshua Tree Productions: "It's been too long since we've updated anyone here, but we've been very busy and are progressing steadily, even rapidly now."

"There's a lot of exciting things happening, some of which we can't yet talk about in a public forum yet. But, today we were making a presentation to a group of fans at the Historic New Orleans Collection as a part of the "Boswell Sisters, Their Music Goes Round and Round" symposium. We will now be spending the next two days recording material HNOC has graciously allowed us to use. It's a huge accomplishment for us, and we are enormously grateful to them."

We wish the filmmakers well and thank them for the following still of Bing and the Bozzies, posted on their website.

Music fans around the world await the completed film. Here's "The Boswell Sisters: Close Harmony" trailer on Vimeo.

For more info on The Bozzies, check out:

The Boswell Legacy: The Story of the Boswell Sisters of New Orleans and the New Music They Gave to the World by Kyla Titus and Chica Boswell Minnerly. Introduction by David W. McCain

A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers by Will Friedwald

Jazz Singing: America's Great Voices From Bessie Smith To Bebop And Beyond by Will Friedwald

And, last but certainly not least, The Historic New Orleans Collection, 533 Royal Street, New Orleans, LA 70130 (phone - 504-523-4662).

Think there's a good bet material on other New Orleans greats - Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Henry "Red" Allen, Irma Thomas, Fats Domino, Guitar Slim, Dr. John, James Booker, Professor Longhair, Harry Connick Jr., all variations on The Meters, Radiators and The Wild Tchoupitoulas, Allen Toussaint, Ed Blackwell, The Marsalis Family, The Batistes, The Nevilles, Donald Harrison, Terence Blanchard and Nicolas Payton, to name a few - will be found there.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Let's Face The Music And Dance - Or Watch These Cool Clips Instead!

The above sign is a stroke of genius - and brings to this music-obsessed blogger's consciousness versions of the Irving Berlin standard it refers to.

So let's begin today's post with a few renditions of this great song. First up: the "swooner crooners", starting with the ultimate one, Frank Sinatra.

Among the top movie stars of the 1950's was the adept light comedienne, dancer and former big band singer Doris Day. The star of several sprightly Warner Brothers musicals (Calamity Jane) waxed a very nice version of Let's Face The Music & Dance.

For many decades after co-starring with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen in an MGM musical beloved by this blogger, White Christmas, as well as headlining her own TV show, movie actress and vocalist Rosemary Clooney continued performing music and recording. Here she is on her 1984 album, Rosemary Clooney Sings The Music Of Irving Berlin.

The tendency is to associate Shirley Bassey with her bravura performance of the theme song from Goldfinger, but also she recorded standards. On her 1962 Let's Face The Music album, arranger extraordinaire Nelson Riddle was loaned out from Capitol to lend some swingin' Rat Pack magic to the proceedings. Could Dame Shirley Bassey belt 'em out? Yes, definitely.

One vocalist who recorded standards and nailed them every time was Ella Fitzgerald. Her series of songbook albums for Verve still can't be topped.

Although a scant few vocalists, then and now, would even attempt to go toe-to-toe with Ella Fitzgerald in the jazz singing department and especially scat and vocalese, one who could at least give it the old college try was Anita O'Day. Here, Anita swings those standards with virtuoso pianist Oscar Peterson.

She also recorded this song with style and swagger to spare on her 1956 album Pick Yourself Up With Anita O'Day.

Two of the most amazing vocalists are also two of the most mindboggling pianists - Nat King Cole and Diana Krall (who also recorded with the aforementioned Rosemary Clooney).

When thinking of strictly instrumental takes on the standards, look no further than the arranger of many Capitol Records recordings by Frank, Dino, Judy Garland, Keely Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Rosemary Clooney, the incomparable Nelson Riddle.

It comes as no great surprise that a fine instrumental version of Let's Face The Music And Dance can be found on The Nelson Riddle Orchestra's 1966 album of the same name!

Riddle's brassy orchestra frequently slips a double dose of bebop into the pop and brings to mind the post-Charlie Parker jazz virtuosos who explored the harmonically rich compositions of Berlin, Gershwin, Porter and Arlen with a sublime vengeance.

Clifford Brown, Curly Russell, Lou Donaldson and (on right behind drum kit) Art Blakey - Birdland, February 24, 1954

Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean

On the 1959 Swing Swang Swingin' album, just one of a slew of classic recordings Jackie McLean recorded for the Prestige, Blue Note and Steeplechase labels, a program of standards gets supercharged with the driving "hard bop" sound. As usual, Jackie shows a highly original and wonderfully angular approach - and swings like mad.

From modern jazz this itinerary takes a big turn back to where this the Great American Songbook stuff started and tips the top hat to Broadway - not Funky Broadway - with pianist, singer historian, scholar and prolific recording artist Michael Feinstein. And, please, don't monkey with Broadway!

This post would not be complete without a respectful nod to the guy who performed songs on Broadway, in many cases in their very first performances, before standing room only crowds, delivering the goods night after night - yes, under just a little bit of pressure - the one, the only Fred Astaire.

Not surprisingly, practically before the RKO studio cameras stopped rolling, The Vincent Lopez Orchestra recorded 78s of the Cole Porter and Irving Berlin songs from the Fred n' Ginger musicals. Popular dance bands covered hit tunes from Flying Down To Rio, Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, Follow The Fleet, Swing Time, Shall We Dance, etc. And this song was no exception.

Back to the incredible Frederick Austerlitz, the penultimate show-stopping version of Let's Face The Music And Dance, of course, is from Follow The Fleet, directed by Mark Sandrich. There they are, Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, defining the art of terpischore in the movies and dancing into eternity.

Thanks, you sublime entertainers, for all that love on the silver screen. And big time thanks to Irving Berlin and to each and every one of the musicians involved in this post.

"There may be teardrops to shed
So while there's moonlight and music and love and romance
Let's face the music and dance"
Irving Berlin

Monday, September 07, 2015

Fundraiser For Bray Studio: Animation Pioneers DVD - Ends September 9

On the heels of the first Cartoon Roots Blu-ray/DVD set, film historian and collaborator with Andrew Smith on the upcoming Cartoon Carnival documentary, Tommy Jose Stathes, is on to his latest restoration: Bray Studio: Animation Pioneers.

Here's the trailer for the new release, which is the logical extension of the Bray Animation Project that Mr. Stathes established in 2011.

Now just who the heck was John Randolph "J.R" Bray? No, you dumb bunny, he wasn't an oily oil baron played with villainous glee by Larry Hagman in the 1970's TV show Dallas.

John Randolph Bray was one of THE pioneering producers of animation in the United States. To quote Mr. Stathes: "From 1913 to 1927, the New York City production company, headed by John Randolph Bray, produced well over 500 animated films."

John R. Bray began making cartoons back in the days when Charlie Chaplin, the first "British Invasion" in American pop culture, had just arrived in America to join "Madcap Mabel" Normand, Ford Sterling, Fred Mace and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle at Mack Sennett's Fun Factory.

J.R. Bray's first film, The Artist's Dream, was produced at a time when the innovators of animation production - Ladislaw Starewicz and Emile Cohl and Winsor McCay - were relatively few.

The Artist's Dream was a hit and earned J.R. Bray a contract to produce more cartoons for Pathe. The Bray Studio's first popular cartoon character was the the first recurring animated character created specifically for the movies, the Baron Munchhausen style "tall tale teller" Col. Heeza Liar. For the first few years of the series, Bray darn near animated the cartoons single-handedly.

And then another innovator, Earl Hurd, quite literally the father of cel animation (he patented the technique in 1915) joined forces with Bray in 1915. To list of all the ways that the J.R. Bray Studio helped establish the art of cel animation, as well as mass production in the industry, would be longer than the grocery shopping list possessed by those responsible for an NFL team's post-game banquet.

Hurd's "cels-and-backgrounds" process of drawing characters on clear sheets of celluloid which were then placed over still background paintings or drawings during photography was quite the breakthrough; up to that time, such animators as Winsor McCay painted new backgrounds for every frame. Hurd and Bray held a patent for the process, for which they received licensing payments from all studios using it until 1932.

The patents and technology established by Bray and Earl Hurd were the cornerstones of a foundation that subsequent animation producers, led by Walt Disney, would develop into a new industry in the following decades.

Earl Hurd's Bobby Bumps cartoons were the first to be produced using cels.

The sheer number of groundbreaking animators associated with Bray, who transitioned to a behind-the-camera producer's role as the WW1 era progressed, is mindboggling. A host of future producers got their start in Classic Cartoonland with films made under J.R. Bray's auspices. These include:

  • New York's Fleischer Studio, led by Max and Dave, later the most successful challengers to Disney (creating Bimbo, Betty Boop, Talkartoons, Popeye and Superman) in the sound era, which developed the Out Of The Inkwell series, starring Ko-Ko the Clown.

  • Paul Terry's first Farmer Alfalfa cartoons

  • Walter Lantz (Woody Woodpecker, Andy Panda, Swing Symphonies) created his own first series, Dinky Doodle, at Bray Studios.

Lantz, before ending up as the producer of the Universal talkie cartoons featuring former Disney character Oswald The Lucky Rabbit, made the last series of Colonel Heeza Liar for Bray Studios from 1922-1924.

While the initial dough-re-me goal for producing the Bray Studio: Animation Pioneers Blu-ray/DVD set has been met, the Kickstarter fundraiser nonetheless has been extended, with high hopes to fund an additional restoration of silent animation rarities from glorious vintage film prints.

The cartoon-crazed gang at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog enthusiastically supports this fundraiser, which runs through September 9.

Friday, September 04, 2015

W.C. Fields 100th Anniversary

"Bill never really wanted to hurt anybody. He just felt an obligation."
Gregory LaCava

100 years ago, vaudeville star W.C. Fields began his movie career with the 1915 short subject Pool Sharks, the signature Fields mannerisms and timing are already readily apparent.

After spending Wednesday's post pondering the future of Turner Classic Movies, possibly needlessly, we note that the channel shall be paying tribute today to one of the favorite comedians here at Way To Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, the great W.C. Fields. The tribute, W.C. Fields: 100 Years In Film, celebrates the centenary of the actor, comedian and Ziegfeld Follies star's first silver screen appearances.

As The Marx Brothers did, Fields enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the 1960's and 1970's. In a development that seen today - in an era when anything that hits the airwaves or the internet enjoys much LESS than Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame and anything more than 30 minutes in the past is instantaneously looked down upon - would be unthinkable, the youth of the era embraced the razzing of the social order and the anti-establishment modus operandi exemplified by both comics.

TCM's tribute to the cantankerous, iconoclastic, booze-swilling comic kicks off with his best known and most nose-thumbing film, The Bank Dick.

Mr. Fields' granddaughter, global health advocate Dr. Harriet A. Fields, along with Ben Mankiewicz, will be co-hosting. It's not the first TCM homage to the inventive and original comedian, as he was the featured Star Of The Month awhile back.

Although it is tough for Fields fans to watch him in a silent movie - you just want to hear that nasal drawl and the muttered asides he would do so brilliantly in talkies - he starred in several 1920's features for directors D.W. Griffith and Gregory La Cava. At the end of silents, Fields was teamed with Mack Sennett Studio, Fox Sunshine Comedies and Charlie Chaplin Productions favorite, the diminutive and very prolific comic Chester Conklin. None of these late 1920's features the pair made for Paramount Pictures exist at this time.

After the last Paramount features Fields found himself briefly making short subjects at Radio Pictures.

Fields apparently was signed for the 1930-1931 season of short subjects, but, noting the low billing in the following advertisement, one wonders if he had already left Radio Pictures by the time this got published.

The first and only Fields Radio Pictures short, The Golf Specialist, is the first time in a talkie we get to see the famous Fields golf routine.

Fields would appear in the Marilyn Miller musical comedy Her Majesty Love for First National, along with fellow Ziegfeld Follies comic Leon Errol and silent film comedian, known as the Keystone Cops chief from Mack Sennett and Henry Lehrman comedies (as well as numerous 1920's character roles), Ford Sterling.

His next opportunity would be the four short subjects produced by Mack Sennett and released in 1933: The Pharmacist, The Barber Shop, The Dentist and The Fatal Glass Of Beer. The last of the group is a stinging sendup of the Victorian melodramas ("The Drunkard") that were the rage in the late 19th and early 20th century. Fields skewers 'em with relish!

The return of Fields to Paramount in 1933 would result in many of his very best films, ranging from the bizarre Million Dollar Legs and International House to his pairings with actress Alison Skipworth and arguably his greatest starring vehicles, It's A Gift and Man On The Flying Trapeze, produced in 1934-1935.

Most notable of the Fields Paramount features on TCM tonight: It's A Gift, which stars Fields in his beleaguered every man character.

He owns a small-town grocery store and is surrounded by obnoxious patrons, the mischievous and irritating Baby LeRoy and a domineering, constantly complaining spouse (played to a T by Kathleen Howard). The sight gags, routines and Fields' performance in this are impeccable. Here's the famous "sleeping on the porch" sequence.

Also on the bill: the Dickensian version of Fields, shining as Micawber in David Copperfield, and one of his last group of films produced by Universal, You Can't Cheat An Honest Man. See W.C. Fields: 100 Years In Film for more details. We thank TCM for spotlighting the iconic and hilarious comic.

We also thank Amanda Garrett for her review of The Bank Dick on Old Hollywood Films and Aurora for her wonderful homage to Fields on Once Upon A Screen.