Wednesday, January 18, 2017
With the realization that laughs are among the few balms that work in difficult times, we celebrate the 125th birthday of Oliver Norvell Hardy, born on January 18, 1892.
Times may be good, bad, awful or in the "don't ask" department, but laughs are eternal. And the Laurel & Hardy films deliver them - boy, do they deliver them!.
We do not have much to add - kind of like Ollie saying "I have nothing to say" - except that Mr. Hardy has enriched the life of this blogger and lifted his spirits incalculably - as have the key Hal Roach Studio behind-the-camera comedy aces seen in this photo (snapped on the set of Below Zero), L&H director James Parrott and Charles Parrott (a.k.a. Charley Chase).
Ollie a.k.a. "Babe" made his name as a supporting player in dozens of films for Lubin in Jacksonville, then later with such comedy producers as L-Ko and Vitagraph. Rob Stone's book Laurel Or Hardy: The Years Before The Teaming delves into the extensive Babe filmography in detail (and with humor). Starting in 1919, Mr. Hardy starts turning up frequently as a key stock company player in the comedies of Larry Semon, the ultra=wacky Vitagraph comic and former cartoonist who resembled either Max Schreck as Nosferatu or Bill Griffith's comics character Zippy The Pinhead.
The latest edition of Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind The Movies by Randy Skredtvedt is just what the doctor ordered for fans of the team and of Hal Roach Studios.
Equally indispensable: the Laurel & Hardy Onstage combo of CDs and a book (also by Mr. Skredtvedt) about the team's 1940's tours.
The Boys will continue to rock audiences as long as their films are shared with a group. This is what it is important to continue the good work Sons Of The Desert tents, film festivals and archival organizations do: assemble a group of people to watch the L&H films - and laugh!
All at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog doff those battered brown derbies in tribute to Mr. Hardy, as well as two other comedy powerhouses with January 18 birthdays, Danny Kaye and Cary Grant! Cheers!
Sunday, January 15, 2017
A topic of great interest to us at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog is which stars and character actors in classic films made a direct transition from fame in the world of music to silver screen stardom.
The epitome of a multi-talented musical giant who could also act was Louis Armstrong.
Once it was obvious that Mr. Armstrong was a crossover artist with broad appeal, both to a racially divided America and to the international market, he began appearing in films. While Louis' first silver screen appearances in Paramount short subjects were very likely regarded as racially insulting even back in 1932, the moment Armstrong plays the trumpet, the mores of the times are obliterated by his musical genius.
Of course, once captured on film outside America, Louis could just play. Here's Pops, soaring in Denmark.
Once Louis Armstrong signed his contract with Decca Records, placing him effectively alongside Bing Crosby as a pop star, he transitioned from just playing and singing in movies to character parts and would continue doing occasional dramatic roles in movies and TV for the rest of his life.
In the pre-Belafonte and Poitier days, the roles almost always left something to be desired. Again, Armstrong's personality and investment in the part shined through. One wonders if any of the method actors and Stanislavsky students noticed his ability to get into a part, even a very flimsy one, and make the most out of it.
Satchmo continued touring as goodwill ambassador, bringing outstanding music to the far corners of the earth - and back again.
Periodically, between tours, Pops would bring that megawatt personality, creativity and originality to motion pictures and TV. Whether playing music or acting, Louis lights up the screen whenever he gets the chance.
The empathy that is front and center in his music translates to Louis' acting and he played quite a few character roles in movies and TV over his long career. One of Armstrong's best performances is in Marty Ritt's film Paris Blues. He co-stars with one of the entertainment world's equivalents of Jackie Robinson, actor and director Sidney Poitier, plus two more icons, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
Mr. Armstrong also does a beautiful job in a supporting role in A Man Called Adam starring Sammy Davis Jr.
CROSBY, COLUMBO AND VALLEE!
The key figure in early 1930's music who became a star of feature films, of course, was Bing Crosby. Here he is with Louis Armstrong in the famous musical number from High Society.
Bing's first screen appearance was in The King Of Jazz, as part of The Rhythm Boys with Harry Barris and Al Rinker.
Bing's also a musical guest in the 1930 film Reaching For The Moon, one of the very few talkie appearances of swashbuckling Doug Fairbanks, Sr.
Between many gigs, Bing would make an occasional short subject. The crooner gets chased around by lions in Mack Sennett Star Comedies (by this time in the early 1930's, pretty darn low budget), not unlike Mabel Normand in The Extra Girl and Billy Bevan, Andy Clyde, Sid Smith, etc. in countless silent 2-reelers.
Bing's charm and singing ability was massively evident in these short subjects and he soon graduated from occasional small parts in features to starring roles. MGM and Paramount saw his potential star power and cast Bing in musicals: College Humor, Going Hollywood, We're Not Dressing.
While usually headlining musicals and comedies, notably setting box-office records in 1944 playing the laid-back priest teaching the boys' choir to harmonize in Going My Way, Bing would also ace non-singing dramatic roles in such films as The Country Girl.
Even more of a challenger to Bing's pop music preeminence than fellow crooners Rudy Vallee and Al Bowlly: bandleader-vocalist-violinist, radio star and prolific recording artist Russ Columbo.
The Italian American crooner started his career as a violinist and occasional vocalist with The Gus Arnheim Orchestra. He can be seen in the following Vitaphone Variety.
A rising entertainment superstar and the paramour of movie actress Carole Lombard, Russ Columbo began appearing in films in 1933. These include musical short subjects (That Goes Double) and such feature films as Broadway Through A Keyhole.
He subsequently appeared in two more features, Wake Up And Dream and the musical Moulin Rouge.
In this clip from the latter film, Russ sings the first choruses of "Coffee In The Morning (And Kisses In The Night)" with co-star Constance Bennett before The Boswell Sisters swing the next choruses with their customary blue-note filled flair.
Russ Columbo may well have, like Crosby, Sinatra and Doris Day, enjoyed a lucrative career as a star of Hollywood movies but, tragically, he died on September 2, 1934 as the result of a freak accident.
The first popular crooner, Rudy Vallee, turned out to be the first radio star to headline a feature film, The Vagabond Lover in 1929.
Vallee subsequently starred in musical short subjects for Paramount (including Kitty From Kansas City, an all-time favorite "follow the bouncing ball" cartoon of this blogger) as well as the 1935 Vitaphone film Sweet Music with Alice White and Ann Dvorak, but found his movie mojo in the 1940's as a comic character actor in Preston Sturges movies, both at Paramount and Fox. These include some great classic movies: The Palm Beach Story, Unfaithfully Yours and The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend.
The best story regarding Rudy Vallee and his ultimate trouper approach - along the lines of "wherever you perform, give it everything you've got" - is in Illeana Douglas' excellent "my life and times in showbiz" bio, I Blame Dennis Hopper.
Scat-singer supreme Mel Tormé was not a particularly prolific actor, besides those numerous walk-ons on the 1980's TV sitcom Night Court. That said, Tormé shared with fellow entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. a background as a child actor and performer. Mel's acting career preceded his music career, beginning with parts on such radio serials as Jack Armstrong: All-American Boy and The Romance Of Helen Trent. Mel's music career commenced when he was hired in 1942 to be the drummer/arranger in Chico Marx' band! Soon after that gig, Tormé would head the vocal quintet The Mel-Tones and be associated with Artie Shaw's group.
As Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra did, Mel would periodically act in films and television during breaks between intense touring schedules.
While the prolific recording artist known as "The Velvet Fog" - a nickname he loathed - mostly appeared in such movie musicals as Higher And Higher (which also was Sinatra's screen debut) and Good News, he also portrayed one of the most miserable poor bastard sad-sack downtrodden characters ever in an episode of Playhouse 90. Mel played the perennially abused doormat brother of raging psychopath comic Sammy Hogarth, played by Mickey Rooney with slimy misanthropic fury.The Comedian was directed by John Frankenheimer and penned by Rod Serling with fever-pitch intensity.
Stage and screen actor, activist for social change, vocalist and recording artist Harry Belafonte is known for co-starring with Dorothy Dandridge in the classic Carmen Jones, but is also responsible for a remarkable performance in Robert Wise's hard-hitting noir thriller Odds Against Tomorrow.
Jerry, granted, is not a crooner in the same sense that Columbo, Sinatra and his partner Dino were - and unlike Bing and Satchmo did not start in the world of music - but would frequently sing as part of his nightclub act.
Lewis is first and foremost a musical comedian, mightily influenced by song-and-dance goofballs The Ritz Brothers. "The Typewriter Routine" is both brilliant and inspired by the musical physical comedy of Harry Ritz.
Other musical Lewis bits include his lip-synching to Mario Lanza's Be My Love on The Colgate Comedy Hour and his pantomime to The Count Basie Orchestra in The Errand Boy.
Jerry very likely enjoyed recording and performing the show-stopping tune associated with Al Jolson, "Rock A Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody" as much or more as doing comedy.
Currently making personal appearances at 90, Jerry Lewis could certainly be considered a musician as well as a comic - and, like Johnny Carson, did enjoy getting behind the drum kit on his and other TV shows.
As Sinatra and Dino did and the overwhelming majority of musical comedians did not, Jerry made a seamless transition into character parts. Just one role of many in movies and TV was in Martin Scorsese's wonderfully creepy drama about celebrity obsession, The King Of Comedy.
Mr. Lewis did something few actors have accomplished, playing a character part at 90, in the 2016 film Max Rose.
And then there was. . .
THE RAT PACK!
Ocean's 11. . . Sergeants Three . . . Four For Texas. . . Robin & The 7 Hoods. All funny films, intentionally and unintentionally. And as full of outrageous jokes (mostly at each other's expense) as The Rat Pack performances were, Frank, Dino and Sammy all handled dramatic roles quite well.
It's showbiz legend that The Chairman Of The Board pulled the entertainment grand slam, his performance in the megahit From Here To Eternity arriving along with his first (and among his best) albums for Capitol, Songs For Young Lovers and Swing Easy. He had already done marvelous work in 1940's MGM musicals, but branched out into dramatic acting in the 1950's.
As was the case with Louis Armstrong, Sinatra brought the directness and emotion so prevalent in his music to character parts. The polar opposite of such lighthearted (albeit wonderful) musical films as Anchors Aweigh and On The Town, Otto Preminger's The Man With The Golden Arm showed Sinatra's range and fearlessness as an actor. While never known as an opiate user - Crown Royal was more Frank's style - it's a good bet he knew friends, colleagues and acquaintances in the music business who had experienced exactly what his character in this harrowing drama about drug addiction does.
As top-notch as Sinatra and Shirley McClaine are in the Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running, the cast member who is quite surprisingly powerful is Dean Martin. Dino gives the storyline a boost with his excellent performance.
He does the same in Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo.
Sammy Davis, Jr.
Never to be outdone, ever, Sammy Davis, Jr. stars as a self-destructive jazz trumpeter in a little known but superb movie directed by Leo Penn (a.k.a. Sean's father), A Man Called Adam.
The film is quite the sleeper, with an all-star supporting cast that includes Louis Armstrong, Ossie Davis and Cicely Tyson.
And The Rat Pack, during their early 1960's heydey, had been hearing and attempting to ignore the footsteps from this guy for seven long years. . .
An icon in the world of entertainment, Elvis played the acoustic guitar on his early albums for Sun Records and was a strong vocalist and a dynamic performer in multiple mediums - well, before a very bad diet, plus the prescription painkillers and opiates prescribed by his doc got him. In many of his movies, Elvis has a breezy and likable screen presence that goes hand-in-hand with that undeniable charisma.
Had Elvis wanted to chuck the music career and concentrate on acting, he would have done quite well. One would argue that Kid Creole is tops among Elvis' performances as an actor.
tops musically of all his films, including Jailhouse Rock? That would be Viva Las Vegas, co-starring firebrand entertainment powerhouse Ann-Margret.
Finding the Elvis Presley movies much more entertaining and fun then they were ever cracked up to be, this writer recommends Jim Neibaur's book The Elvis Movies.
The Beatles & The British Invasion
The Beatles never quite crossed over to become character actors, but the Fab Four's immense personal magnetism and abilities as comic actors - and the fact that the camera loved them - were part of what made their movies so enjoyable.
The one Beatle who did tackle a serious acting role was John Lennon. After making the two Beatles films with Richard Lester, John showed acting chops in a supporting part in the director's 1966 anti-war satire of the war movie genre, How I Won The War.
1960's pop stars soon followed into feature films. This would include Paul Jones from the Manfred Mann Group in Privilege, several Mick Jagger movies (Performance and Ned Kelly best known among them) and Two-Lane Blacktop, starring James Taylor - yes THAT James Taylor - and the only Beach Boy who actually surfed, the band's matinee idol, drummer-keyboardist and (whenever he got the opportunity) talented songwriter Dennis Wilson.
Subsequently, the late great David Bowie and Prince would follow suit. The former brought epic theatricality to his tours - Diamond Dogs especially - so it was no surprise that he would demonstrate creative acting acumen in Labyrinth. Prince starred in two films which express his spin on movie and pop music iconography. Freddie Mercury did not star in movies, but is another dynamic performer who may well have crossed over into acting had he lived longer.
In closing, it is apparent that comediennes, then as now, tend to get short shrift. One suspects that many could play multiple musical instruments skillfully - and wishes there were more film clips demonstrating such virtuosity in addition to unique abilities to sing, dance and be brilliant comediennes. We imagine Charlotte Greenwood whipping out a viola, banjo, trumpet or trombone and stopping the show. Her role in Oklahoma is sheer character actress glory.
There will be more in Part 2 of From The Bandstand To Hollywood: Musicians In The Movies, as additional vocalists and instrumentalists who made the transition to silver screen acting come to mind. This will include everything from musicians who occasionally appeared in a film to such full-blown silver screen icons as Doris Day, the former band singer turned major star for Warner Brothers.
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
In NOT sunny California this Saturday, Angelica's and Montuno Productions present the swinging sounds of Jeff Sanford’s Cartoon Jazz Septet, accompanying a program of silent movies selected by your correspondent, Paul F. Etcheverry (co-founder of the KFJC Psychotronix Film Festival), as well as entertainment by the internationally celebrated sleight of hand artist and illusionist Patrick Martin.
The intrepid septet shall tackle the wonderfully original and challenging music of Raymond Scott, Jelly Roll Morton and the John Kirby Sextet's Charlie Shavers (1917-1971), as well as new compositions by Lenny Carlson, the composer-in-residence for both the Cartoon Jazz Septet and the Orchestra.
Mr. Carlson has composed more than 30 original pieces for the Cartoon Jazz Septet and Orchestra in a variety of styles, combining classical and jazz elements with klezmer, folk and other international sounds.
The Date: Saturday January 17, 2017
Showtime: 8:30 p.m.
The Place: Angelica's, 863 Main Street, Redwood City, CA
To see Jeff Sanford's Cartoon Jazz Septet, cool vintage films, plus a magic and comedy performance by Patrick Martin, click here to purchase Advance Tickets
For more info, see:
Cartoon Jazz Orchestra official website
Cartoon Jazz Orchestra Facebook page
In New York, starting on Friday the 13th, historians Steve Massa, Dave Kehr and Ben Model shall be kicking off their latest series about silent film comedy, Cruel and Usual Comedy: Astonishing Shorts from the Slapstick Era.
The New Yorker write the 15 program silent comedy retrospective up in an entry from their Goings On About Town section, Silent Films Comedic Soul. The program notes for all shows in the MoMA series are available via the Cruel & Unusual Comedy podcast. Maybe will see a preview of things to come in Steve's next book about silent film comediennes.
In addition, Tommy Jose Stathes of Cartoons On Film is initiating a new film series that will hold forth at House Of Wax Bar in City Point Building, 445 Albee Square West in Brooklyn. East Coast animation mavens: stay tooned!
Back in the Bay Area, the following week will include the opening of the NOIR CITY Film Festival at San Francisco's Castro Theatre - this blogger's favorite film fest that he's not personally involved in producing - and some terrific programs at the newly expanded Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.
Saturday, January 07, 2017
"Why would anyone come to hear me, a Negro," she told Time Magazine, "and refuse to sit beside someone just like me?"Hazel Scott"
Ringing in the new year by, you guessed it, watching 1940's movies and looking up excerpts from same on YouTube, this blogger found himself totally flabbergasted by the following clip: an awe-inspiring keyboard wizard playing two pianos at the same time.
The thought, who was that lady - an astonishing musician and strikingly beautiful, elegant woman, giving Paderewski, Gershwin, Earl "Fatha" Hines and Teddy Wilson a run for their money?
The answer to "who was that lady?" was not "that was no lady, that was my wife" but the exceptional virtuoso pianist, vocalist, performer, actress and recording artist Hazel Scott (1920-1981).
Among various points in her relatively brief but eventful life, she was a prodigy, concert pianist, radio star, social and political activist, celebrated Parisian expatriate and actress in television in the late 1960's and early 1970's. Clearly, from reading such articles as Hazel Scott's Lifetime Of High Notes from Smithsonian, a bio penned by Dwayne Mack for Black Past.org, as well as watching the following 20 minute YouTube piece, those researching her life were mightily impressed.
Her influence spread far beyond the confines of the concert hall. Ms. Scott was quite the social activist: a mover and a shaker, at one point married to Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell. Karen Chilton's biography, Hazel Scott: The Pioneering Journey of a Jazz Pianist, from Cafe Society to Hollywood to HUAC, tells her story in detail.
Hazel was born in Trinidad and mastered the Euro-classical and jazz repertoires at a very tender age. She studied at Juilliard and recorded prolifically, starting in the late 1930's. Her specialty would be "swinging the classics."
As a jazz pianist and vocalist, Hazel rose to fame demonstrating pianistic prowess at the Greenwich Village nightclub Café Society, opened Café Society, opened by Barney Josephson in 1938 as a showcase for Billie Holiday and such fellow music luminaries as pianist Mary Lou Williams.
In her early work as a jazz piano soloist, arguably only Art Tatum (and later) Oscar Peterson and Jaki Byard could rival that ability to fly up and down the 88 keys and execute double-time and triple-time in "Super Waller" fashion.
Her movie career spanned several performances in 1943-1945, appearing as herself in musicals. One particularly jaw-dripping clip is Hazel's performance in the MGM revue picture I Dood It, which also featured Lena Horne.
Insisting on better roles for African-Americans in movies, Hazel turned down any and all roles as maids and other servile characters and took on no less than Harry Cohn at Columbia over demeaning costumes chosen for her female co-stars in The Heat's On.
That run-in with the not genteel, refined and forward-thinking Columbia Pictures chief would end the flurry of roles for the concert pianist in American movies. Hazel would make one more American film, Rhapsody In Blue, then record, tour and, in 1950, host her own TV show for the Dumont Network. Unfortunately, no clips of this exist.
While Hazel preceded Nat King Cole as a person of color to host a TV show, her progressive political activism made her a target. She was listed in the infamous "Red Channels" publication. Seems that in 1950, if one was an activist, union supporter or progressive - and didn't slip at least $50,000 bucks under the table to the right people to make sure that one's dossier gets overlooked - one's hosting gig and showbiz career could end abruptly. The show was cancelled a week after her appearance before HUAC, as she didn't "name names."
Undaunted, Ms. Scott relocated to Paris and resumed her music, acting and recording careers there.
Hazel did continue to play with her trio in clubs and record albums.
There were more acts in her life, including a comeback in frequent cabaret performances and, in the late 1960's and early 1970's, a return to acting in television. But before that, she made her mark with some exceptional albums.
Arguably her greatest recording as a jazz artist was Relaxed Piano Moods on the Debut Label. The style is less flashy and more contemplative than the earlier recordings, more akin to the ballad sides of Bud Powell and Powell's friend and fellow composer Elmo Hope. It is a fitting coda to her brilliant career in music.
Saturday, December 31, 2016
Happy New Year (and Sappy New Year) to all from George & Gracie and the gang at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog! After all, it's already 2017 in some parts of the world!
We join Last Week Tonight's Jon Oliver and many more around the world in sending wretched 2016 away with a well-earned and much deserved middle finger, between several rousing rounds of f-bombs.
Of course, we must ring out the old year with some laughs. Here are two of this blogmeister's favorite standup comedy clips. Take it, Mitch Hedberg and Louis CK!
Then let's follow that with a few rounds of Auld Langsyne, performed by guitar virtuosos Tommy Emmanuel and Duck Baker.
While bidding this rotten year "good riddance", don't forget, once one has quaffed a few belts - or many - there is no such thing as an expensive cab ride.
Since it's darn cold here in upstate New York, Madame Blogmeister and I plan to stay home, stay warm and ring in the New Year with some cool Myrna Loy flicks!
To all of you, Cheers and Happy New Year!
Saturday, December 24, 2016
Here at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, we are tickled to have made it through another year. Feel very lucky in many ways, even if we did not receive one of those exclusive invites to time travel over to Harold Lloyd and Mildred Davis Lloyd's house for a festive Christmas party.
Or find that Clara Bow in a Santa outfit is soon to arrive bringing plenty of good cheer - which we can always use - from the next world.
Prompted by a thoughtful Christmas season post he read on social media, Your Correspondent notes a few important things as the holidays commence and traipse, sometimes stumbling, towards New Year's Day. To paraphrase said post:
It is important to remember that not everyone is looking forward to Christmas. Not everyone is lucky enough to be surrounded by wonderful families and friends.
Many have no one to spend these times with and are besieged by loneliness. Others face the holidays out of work, stone broke, wondering how they will make ends meet in the new year and worried about the future.
In all families, there are times of feeling overcome with great sadness when remembering loved ones who are not with us.
This can be particularly difficult when the first Christmas without a particular loved one takes place and especially for those who lost family members and friends at Christmas time.
We all need caring, loving thoughts right now.
If possible, give a moment of support to anyone struggling with family/relationship problems, health struggles, job issues, financial woes, chronic physical pain and worries of any kind. Let 'em know that someone cares.
Extend a kind word or gesture.
Remember those in need and do what you can.
A shared laugh is good, too.
And with that, Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog wishes all a Merry Christmas and completes this post with a few apropo and inevitable Yuletide film clips.