Sunday, September 17, 2017

Monologists And The Movies



Writing about Eddie "The Old Philosopher" Lawrence brought up the topic of monologists who also acted in movies. First and foremost, there's monologist/satirist, movie actor, cowboy and star of The Ropin' Fool (among numerous films in silents and talkies), the great Will Rogers.



Will Rogers' monologues about The Great Depression - a time of 30% unemployment in significant swaths of the United States - have weathered the test of time and resonate all these decades later.





His commentary on hubris and politics still rings true.



Rogers would star in a remarkably successful series of feature films, many directed by John Ford or Frank Borzage. He projected warmth and likability onscreen that transcends the era and certain dated aspects of the storylines.








Without a doubt, humorist Robert Benchley, of Algonquin Round Table fame, considered himself first and foremost a writer, but ended up in movies as a lark.



To amuse his friends at parties, Benchley used to do sendups of stodgy "after-dinner speakers" and less-than-dynamic academic orators. Several were filmed in 1928 and theatrically released among William Fox' first sound-on-film Movietone short subjects.





The 1-reelers Benchley starred in for William Fox eventually led to his headlining his own short subject series for MGM and Paramount.

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Sometimes Benchley ventured into the same current events territory as Rogers, as he does in the following wry and satiric clip, courtesy of the British Pathe Collection.



In between his writings, Robert Benchley ended up appearing in 92 films, including Sir Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent.



We at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog are particularly fond of Mr. Benchley's role in the Hope & Crosby vehicle The Road To Utopia.






Three who changed the comedy world in no uncertain terms were Jonathan Winters, Mort Sahl and Dick Gregory.









Jonathan Winters very likely did not consider himself a thespian in any way, shape or form, but played a character part in Tony Richardson's 1965 satire The Loved One quite well.



Mort Sahl occasionally acted in television programs (including an episode of the Gothic-noir-suspense series Thriller), while his fellow standup philosopher, political and social commentator, the recently passed Dick Gregory, starred in the movie Sweet Love, Bitter. Gregory excelled in this drama, as he had as an activist and monologist.



Contemporaneous with this trio and, along with them, key among those who expanded standup comedy beyond the joke-punchline format, the edgy and quick-witted Lenny Bruce only appeared in a couple of films, including one, very early in his standup career, Dance Hall Racket, a tawdry and terrible movie directed by Phil "Robot Monster" Tucker. Was there a director worse than Edward D. Wood, Junior? Yes - Phil Tucker!



There aren't all that many uncut Lenny Bruce monologues available - after all, his preferred performing venue was strip joints - but here's a breathless one, including references to Jack Durant, Alice B. Toklas, Liberace and Julian Eltinge, from the Palladium. The audio element only tells a minimal fraction of the story. Just hearing his use of his voice and dynamics, one concludes that if Lenny Bruce had been interested in pursuing acting, he may well have been able to make the transition from standup comedy successfully.



Richard Pryor, along with George Carlin, could be considered among those who carried on the standup comedy approach of Lenny Bruce, while extending it into uncharted political and social territory. Richard Pryor's brilliant monologues became movies - Live In Concert, Live On The Sunset Strip, Here And Now - but he was also an actor who co-starred in Paul Schrader's Blue Collar and both starred in and directed the biographical drama Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling. Pryor's abilities as a storyteller and actor distinguish him from his contemporaries and subsequent political comedians. One envisions that Mr. Pryor could have spun off into further writing, directing and acting in indie films, not just doing comedies.



Best known of all the monologists who transitioned into movies would be the late, great Robin Williams, capable of playing rather darn and menacing characters adeptly, in a departure from his standup comedy persona.



Williams starred in World's Greatest Dad, written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, still occasionally a standup comedian, but primarily a filmmaker - and a quite original and provocative writer/director at that.



Speaking of dark and provocative movies, the latest monologist to go into filmmaking is Louis CK, who, after his brilliant yet gritty and ever-uneasy television show Louie, is now writing and directing disturbing indie films.



This does not seem a stretch to this writer, as Louis CK's standup performances frequently focus on finding humor in the dark side of human behavior - and especially his own behavior. And that recalls another brilliant monologist who ultimately made movies.



Woody Allen would be the most famous/infamous and prolific among the monologists who also wrote and directed movies - and the very best of his films are, indeed, dark and disturbing. . . not far afield from those written by Bobcat Goldthwait and Louis CK.



Whether Jon Stewart, who has produced the Steph Ching and Ellen Martinez documentary After Spring, or current standups Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman and Lewis Black opt to ultimately move behind the camera as well - that remains to be seen. The more provocative and original films, the better.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

And This Blog Loves "The Old Philosopher"



There are many philosophers of the standup variety this blogger loves - Will Rogers, Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor and George Carlin - as well as satiric writers Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift, and illustrators William Hogarth and Honoré Daumier. None of them will be the topics of today's post! For the September 9, 2017 post, this jet-lagged but undaunted Blogmeister tips the cap to actor, playwright, comedian, recording artist, singer and cartoon voice ace Eddie Lawrence (1919-2014).



A bit of background: Your Blogmeister's mom, an accomplished professional woman who, off-work, possessed a delightfully goofy sense of humor, would ask her at times sad, isolated and discouraged son, "Is That What's Bothering You, Bunkie?" Only later did I realize that mi madre was referring to Eddie Lawrence, the Old Philosopher, A.K.A. monologist/comic Lawrence Eisler - and, most importantly, attempting to steer me in the direction of LAUGHS. It was her way of trying to cheer me up and help.



Eddie Lawrence, it turned out, was not just The Old Philosopher, as funny and iconic as that character was.





As much as that "theme with many variations" was key to Mr. Lawrence's fame, as the obituary in the New York Times duly noted, he was also a multi-talented director-writer-actor (onstage and in movies) and a musician.



There were numerous versions of The Old Philosopher, all funny.


Lawrence even carried The Old Philosopher persona to radio ads.



A couple of decades after the records were first released, Eddie's Old Philosopher recordings received frequent airplay on the Dr. Demento radio show. When the radio host presented the performers of the program's most requested records in a concert, Eddie, of course, was invited. He did not disappoint.



Still later, I realized that Eddie Lawrence wrote and provided voices for many Paramount cartoons and often wrote the stories as well. It turned out they were animated versions of his routines.



The following Famous Studios cartoon visualizes one of Eddie's records, Abner The Baseball.





A few of these non-prototypical Famous Studios efforts found their way to television's New Casper Cartoon Show, but this writer, much more a fan of Warner Brothers and Tex Avery MGM cartoons than of Casper The Friendly Ghost as a child, did not see any of Eddie Lawrence's cartoons back then. This is for a good reason: most of the Eddie Lawrence cartoons and other mid-1960's Paramount/Famous cartoons had not been produced yet when the six year old version of Your Correspondent was watching The New Casper Cartoon Show on TV.



The Eddie Lawrence cartoons, including the Swifty & Shorty series which re-imagined many of his routines, were in movie theaters at the time; unfortunately, I did not get the pleasure of seeing them on the big screen before a Jerry Lewis flick.


It was not until even later, the early 1990's, when this animation buff actually saw Famous Studios cartoons from this period, courtesy of a Nickelodeon program titled Cartoon Kablooey. Surprise - the 1964-1967 Paramount/Famous cartoons, directed by Howard Post, Shamus Culhane and Ralph Bakshi, in this writer's opinion, are more often than not fresh, original and funny in an unorthodox way. Unlike the 1950's Harveytoons, they do not come across as repetitive and formulaic, even though the animation and design is more minimalist.



For more information on The Old Philosopher, check out the wonderful tribute to Eddie Lawrence posted by Mark Evanier on his News From Me blog, as well as the superb interview conducted by Kliph Nesteroff, author of The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy and posted on his Classic Television Showbiz page.



Most importantly, NEVER GIVE UP, NEVER GIVE UP, NEVER GIVE UP. . . THAT SHIP!


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Cartoon Jazz On Labor Day Weekend



THIS Friday, September 1st, at Angelica's in beautiful downtown Redwood City (as opposed to beautiful downtown Burbank), Jeff Sanford's Cartoon Jazz Septet will kick off the Labor Day Weekend with a bang that sounds just a tad reminiscent of a Warner Bros. cartoon.





In store for San Francisco Bay Area music lovers: new compositions and selections from the Cartoon Jazz Septet's eclectic repertoire of compositions by Raymond Scott, Jelly Roll Morton, John Kirby and Lenny Carlson.



The Date: Friday, September 1, 2017
Showtime: 8:30 p.m.
The Place: Angelica's, 863 Main Street, Redwood City, CA.
Bell Stage Main Dining Room
Buy Advance Tickets here.

On Sunday September 3rd, the group will have an open rehearsal/concert from 6-9 at Savanna Jazz in San Carlos. This rehearsal precedes a return of the Cartoon Jazz Orchestra to Savanna Jazz on the evening of Thursday, September 14th.

The Septet will also perform on Tuesday, September 12th at 6PM, for a Sonoma Jazz Society event at Sonoma Plaza Grinstead Amphitheatre in the square. Last but not least, the full orchestra shall also give a concert at Opus One Winery in Oakville on September 16th.

For more info, check out:
Cartoon Jazz Orchestra official website
Facebook page
YouTube channel


Saturday, August 26, 2017

From The Bandstand To Hollywood: Musicians In The Movies, Part 4: The Rat Pack




In the immortal words of Joe E. Lewis, "it's post time" and passing of Jerry Lewis last Sunday brings to mind The Rat Pack - and especially Dean Martin.



In the Rat Pack, which featured three musicians who transitioned successfully into movie acting, the comedian was Dean, no doubt by fueled by a decade of setting Jerry Lewis up, often adroitly, in nightclubs, movies and such classic television shows as The Colgate Comedy Hour.



Lewis, arguably the last of that old school showbiz breed, would note that his partner, suave onstage persona notwithstanding, was a modest individual offstage who had no idea how talented he was.



Martin was an interesting anomaly in show business, perhaps more akin to Bing Crosby than to his colleague and pal Frank Sinatra.



As Bing and Dean made their names as relaxed entertainer/crooners, the concept of either as driven, unrelenting and ambitious - descriptive words that fit Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. like a glove - proved the diametric opposite of their showbiz brand, even though when they first rose to fame, that's exactly who they were.



While Dino did not necessarily want anyone to think he was anything but the devil-may-care swingin' Dino from Dean Martin Live In Las Vegas, The Rat Pack and The Dean Martin Show, he took his movie acting jobs seriously.



In particular, Dean digs into his character roles in two unbeatable classic movies, Some Came Running and Rio Bravo - and darn near steals these movies from some very big stars.





Dean also plays a most unsympathetic scoundrel of a character, the showbiz lout, in Billy Wilder's Kiss Me Stupid and pulls it off. The movie audiences of 1964 no doubt were taken aback by this - and it may not be an accident that this role would soon be followed by a return to Lil' Ol Entertainer Dino.



The larger-than-life Cult Of Personality legend of Frank Sinatra can overpower and obliterate everything, including his fine work as an actor. That said, one would surmise that The Chairman Of The Board, in one of his reflective times, would insist that transitioning from music to movies was not a transition at all, just part of an organic whole. Frank might mention Mabel Mercer and stress that singing, performed the right way, with proper attention to the lyric, was the purest method acting any artist could do.

Sinatra no doubt was intrigued by dramatic acting, and his performances in From Here To Eternity, which won an Oscar for Best Actor In A Supporting Role and Some Came Running were standouts. Among a fair number of plum character roles in Sinatra's five decades in movies, there's that baaaaaaaad bad guy, an assassin no less, in the 1954 thriller Suddenly.



Perhaps the most provocative, and still timely, of the films The Chairman Of The Board appeared in, was The Manchurian Candidate, directed by the frequently inspired and brilliant John Frankenheimer.



Sammy Davis, Jr. was arguably the last of a breed that also included Bobby Darin and Mel Torme: the entertainment dynamo.



An accomplished and acrobatic dancer with The Will Mastin Trio, Sam was the monster musician of the trio, ridiculously adept on piano, vibes, drums and other instruments. He also had a likability and warmth that was not just in his music or showbiz persona, but part and parcel of who he was as a person.






As part of Sammy's Mr. Entertainment persona, he could segue seamlessly into character acting, much as his contemporary and fellow musician, actor and child entertainer Mel Tormé did.

The first installment of From The Bandstand To Hollywood: Musicians In The Movies noted a little known masterpiece directed by Leo Penn (a.k.a. Sean's father), A Man Called Adam, in which Davis stars as a combative yet talented jazz trumpeter. As expected, Sam puts his heart, soul, intelligence and intensity into the part.



The indie film features an all-star supporting cast that also includes Tormé, Louis Armstrong and Rat Pack mainstay Peter Lawford.



Whenever Sam got the opportunity to act on stage or screen he made the most of it, right up to his last silver screen appearance in Nick Castle's 1989 film Tap.



Mostly, the 1960's did not mean character parts in dramas for Rat Packers not named Sinatra, but did mean a series of goofy comedies and spy film spoofs.









Just a few years after the ring-a-ding-ding Rat Pack movies, that is to be expected.





In closing, one could do a helluva lot worse, pally, than relaxing by listening to some great records by Frank, Sammy and Dino, enjoying their movies and pondering their wide ranging careers in music and on the big screen.








Thursday, August 17, 2017

And This Blog Loves Django Reinhardt


Today, we pay tribute to guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910-1953). This blogger and untold thousands of professional and amateur guitarists over the decades are still trying to figure out how the heck Django executed those lightning-quick runs and arpeggios with two working fingers (the others having been burned in a 1928 fire).



Preceding Django and his bandmate Stephane Grappelli in the Quintette du Hot Club de France as originators of "string swing" were Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, Lonnie Johnson and Carl Kress.







Wrote a post back in January 2012 about Django's 1946 stint with Duke Ellngton's Orchestra and have noticed that 1930's Hot Club Of France style music, now coined gypsy jazz, has gained a great deal of popularity internationally in this past 5 1/2 years.



This makes sense, as Hot Club music is fun, does not require massive amplification and gear and, while not easy to learn, is less daunting for the student than ultra-complex modern jazz and classical music. In addition, the number of currently touring and recording gypsy jazz ambassadors - former Stephane Grappelli Quartet guitarist Martin Taylor, Julian Lage, Robin Nolan, Biréli Lagrène, Tommy Emmanuel, Frank Vignola and Vinny Ragiolo, just to name a few - have no doubt helped the music's popularity exponentially.





Here are a few film clips of the guitar genius in action. Some appear to have been from newsreels, others may have been shot by audience members.





We are thankful, as film clips as such musical giants as Charlie Parker turn out to be few and far between.



After the Quintette Of The Hot Club Of France and Django's subsequent Benny Goodman influenced swing band with clarinet ace Hubert Rostaing disbanded, Django at one point toured with The Duke Ellington Orchestra. Although Django was not a fan of the electric guitar, what was recorded of the Oct. 11, 1946 Ellington featuring Reinhardt concert in Chicago is glorious. Hearing Duke's gorgeous comping and creative chords on piano backing Django's guitar genius is an added richness.







There are some excellent documentaries on Django Reinhardt on YouTube.



For those who cannot get enough Django Reinhardt music, the gentleman who posted the last clip also has put together numerous exceptional YouTube playlists, including a plethora of Django Reinhardt recordings and concerts, organized by year.

Friday, August 11, 2017

More Celebrity Endorsements & Unfortunate TV Ads



As Señor Blogmeister's writing mojo was last seen approximately 15 miles off the coast of Paraguay, today's post shall not be a thoughtful essay but a followup to the last one about celebrities endorsing what would in 21st century parlance be called "adult beverages."



This time, the celebrities shall be endorsing cigarettes.



Celebrities and movie stars hawking smokes proved ubiquitous in print advertising throughout the 1930's and the 1940's - and in the 1950's, would become a staple on television.



After all, cigarettes transformed meek, impotent, lily-livered Casper Milquetoast types instantaneously into ultra-macho cowboys!



Smoke enough cigarettes and you can even be rough and tough like John Wayne!



Once transformed from schlemiel into a free swinging he-man like The Duke, a chain smoker could get girls, too - hubba hubba! Couch potatoes rejoice as 1964 style babes emerge from the television set and bequeath one with Newport cigarettes!



It wasn't just movie stars. Dentists were cool with their patients smoking with the passion, ferocity and frequency of Humphrey Bogart - as long as the brand was Viceroy!



And back in those days, your doctor WANTED you to smoke!



After all, doctors preferred smoooooooth Camel cigarettes 2 to 1.



Since cigarette ads were officially banned from TV as of January 1, 1971, these commercials elicit quizzical looks - and massive double takes from those under 30 - in 2017, but 65 years ago, the biggest show on television, I Love Lucy, was sponsored by none other than Philip Morris.



After throwing scalding coffee in your face - that brutal Fritz Lang flick was titled The Big Heat for more reasons than one - menacing tough guy Lee Marvin enjoyed a workout at the gym, followed by a satisfying smoke - Pall Mall!



The Beverly Hillbillies were sponsored by Winston cigarettes. If only an irate, chain-smoking Granny could have confronted those responsible at CBS for the show's hideously loud laugh track. . .



Another show sponsored by Winstons was the Flintstones. Knowing the undisciplined tendencies of Fred & Barney, it's just as well there was no 420 in Bedrock!



Ads for smokes even extended to TV game shows. The appropriately named Bob Barker hosted Truth Or Consequences (which never quite touched what the long-term consequences of a 5-pack-a-day smoking habit would be),sponsored by Belair Cigarettes. Hey, in showbiz, a guy or gal's gotta work - and work it. . . and Bob Barker did.



None of this is any surprise to those of us over the age of 60 who remember seeing "Call For Philip Morris," "Winston Tastes Good Like A (tap tap) Cigarette Should," "Show Us Your Lark" and "LS/MFT" on television, as well as pondering whether we wanted good grammar or good taste. The sole message was "smoke! smoke! smoke! that cigarette!"



The "my apologies for smoking" tours, produced for the American Cancer Society, once The Duke, Yul Brynner, Bill Talman and other tobacco-lovin' stars became deathly ill with lung cancer, did not happen until a few years later.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Wide World Of Unfortunate Celebrity Print Ads



Today's post should be titled "extremely unconvincing celebrity ads," starting with none other than Orson Welles.



On the other hand, we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog have no problem whatsoever imagining Benny Hill (in a print campaign at least approximating truth in advertising) downing a shot of Black and White blended whiskey - or two or three - very likely without the rocks.



Can one envision sitting down with Lucy and Ethel - Merman that is - to quaff some Carling's Red Cap Ale? No. . . not really. Swilling cases of Canadian ale with Bob & Doug McKenzie? Yes, absolutely! Lucy and Merman? Nope.



Then again, Ethel might meet J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson for a nightcap or two later.



Olivia De Havilland for Royal Crown Cola? Yes, it happened. Joan Fontaine no doubt must have been doing print ads for Coca Cola!



The educated guess is that, of the Marx brothers, Harpo and Chico were much more likely than Groucho to invite you over for a beer. Come to think of it, even Zeppo and Gummo might be more convivial and up for getting together over a couple of brews than the brooding Groucho.



After way too many viewings of Fritz Lang's mucho corrosive noir Scarlet Street, it's easier to imagine meeting tough guy Dan Duryea to get pistol-whipped, beaten and robbed than to shoot the breeze while enjoying a refreshing Blatz Beer!



To close today's post, wrap that consciousness around the concept of Ava Gardner drinking . . . milk???



The closest Ava and Sinatra ever got to milk was (maybe) English "milk stout." That dynamic duo was more interested in Crown Royal by the case! Or rum and Coca-Cola.