Saturday, February 25, 2017

And This Blog Loves The Dyspeptic Oscar Levant - As Much As He Loathes The Thought



As Monsieur and Madame Blogmeister are currently in New York City, a principal musician stomping ground and incubator of 20th century American showbiz lore, today's topic is concert pianist and ever-acerbic movie/TV/radio personality Oscar Levant (1906-1972)



Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog's recent arc has focused on keyboard geniuses (Hazel Scott, Harry Ruby - and more to come), so the composer, virtuoso pianist, songwriter, radio star, author, music historian, actor, commentator, talk show host and showbiz outlier has been on our coffee-soaked minds. An addition, it's a good bet Oscar, an associate of the Algonquin Round Table, no doubt knew the subjects of Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog's February 5th post, fellow composers Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby, quite well.

Wrote about Mr. Levant, who deemed himself "the irreligious Billy Graham of Los Angeles," back when I started this blog in 2006. Since then, quite a few more clips have surfaced of Oscar on YouTube, so the time is right to spin that long-ago post into a new one. Oscar remains one of this writer's artistic heroes for his humor, erudition, imagination and great talent in far-flung fields.



Mr. Levant would be the premier interpreter of his friend George Gershwin's music. Here he beautifully plays Three Preludes - By George.



One of this writer's favorite segments in the MGM musical An American In Paris is Oscar as conductor and also casting himself as the orchestra performing Concerto In F.



Levant Plays Gershwin is a personal favorite album. Wish he could have recorded more - both the music of other composers and his own compositions.



Mr. Levant also periodically wrote popular music. One of his best songs, Blame It On My Youth, written by Levant and Edward Heyman in 1934, would become a jazz standard - and is performed here by several of the mid-20th century's best vocalists.









He was also something of a raconteur and also known, almost as much he was as a brilliant classical pianist, for his ability to come up with quotable quotes.




Enjoy the only remaining episode left from The Oscar Levant Show, featuring special guest star Fred Astaire. The co-host is Oscar's amazing wife, June, equally a heroine, having dealt with his serious health issues, including hospitalizations and heavyweight bouts with depression. Oscar would have nominated June for sainthood - and here she's a charming and likable co-host. While the picture and sound quality really leave something to be desired, it's all we have; many live television programs of the 1950's and 1960's - and all the other examples The Oscar Levant Show - were taped over to save money. Hey, Oscar plays and offers his usual bon mots, Fred sings, June is there for the fun - it's a treasure.




Such programs as Oscar Levant's shows and Ernie Kovacs' 1954 Dumont Network late-night comedy and the early years of The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson ended up meeting the same fate as thousands of historic silent movies on nitrate film, which subsequently spontaneously combusted. At least Edie Adams rescued many Kovacs shows and a few of Oscar's appearances on Tonight With Jack Parr survived.



Well, look on the bright side - Oscar did get to be the guest star on Jack Benny's TV show, not surprisingly, after several memorable turns on the radio incarnation of The Jack Benny Program.



Had Oscar only written his three splendid memoirs, A Smattering Of Ignorance, Memoirs of an Amnesiac and The Unimportance Of Being Oscar, it would have been enough.



Had he only appeared as his wonderful dyspeptic self in the outstanding MGM musicals The Band Wagon, An American In Paris and The Barkleys Of Broadway, his place in the pantheon would be unquestionable.







Had he only spent those many Manhattan late-nights jamming on pianos with George Gershwin and Kay Swift, Oscar - as much as he would hate to admit it - made the world a better place.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The 2017 Buster Keaton Blogathon



Late, but not TOO late I mention that today is the last day of the 2017 Buster Keaton Blogathon, hosted by historian and writer Lea Stans of the excellent Silentology blog. Buster's silver screen debut was in The Butcher Boy (1917), the first of Roscoe Arbuckle's Comique series. Arbuckle enjoyed his work behind the camera almost as much as he enjoyed taking epic pratfalls in front of it, and was more than happy to show the neophyte Buster how a 35mm movie camera worked and what producing and directing films entailed.



After Roscoe Arbuckle signed a contract with Paramount Pictures to appear exclusively in features, Buster inherited the former Keystone Comedies star's studio and key elements of his production crew and begin creating a historic series of short subjects, soon to be followed by epic features.

This blogger happily participated in the First Buster Blogathon with Parlor, Bedroom And Bath, a.k.a. Buster Does Farce and sincerely hopes he will have something to contribute to next year's blogathon.



The Third Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon features contributions by a slew of very good good writers. The roster is as follows:



Big Riot V Squad: Buster Keaton - From Stage to Screen

Caftan Woman - Three Books About Buster

Century Film Project: Oh Doctor!

Charlene’s (Mostly) Classic Movie Reviews: Our Hospitality

Christina Wehner: The Joy of Discovering Buster Keaton

Critica Retro: Review of My Wonderful World of Slapstick

Finding Nelson Evans: Keaton’s Leading Ladies in Pictures

The Fyuzhe: On Buster’s Television Work

Grace Kingsley’s Hollywood: An Early Keaton Fan: Grace Kingsley

Hometowns to Hollywood: Buster’s Hometown of Piqua, Kansas

Life Lessons - A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Little Bits of Classics: Chaplin and Keaton: Two Friends in the Limelight

The Lonely Critic: The Navigator

The Midnite Drive-In: Twilight Zone episode “Once Upon a Time”

MovieMovieBlogBlog: For the Love of Buster Keaton

An Ode to Dust - Buster Keaton Graphic Novel Project

Popcorn Optional: Buster Keaton: A Wonderful World of Slapstick

Prince of Hollywood - 100 Years of Buster Keaton: The First Films of a Comedy Legend

The Scribe Files: Buster, Italian Style (or "Due Marines e un Maestro")

Senseless Cinema: The Haunted Worlds of Buster Keaton

Silent Locations: Amazing New Keaton Discoveries">My Wife’s Relations

Silentology - Analyzing The Molasses Scene From The Butcher Boy

Silver Screenings: Steamboat Bill, Jr., Buster Keaton and the Important Things in Life

Special Purpose Movie Blog - The General: Factual or Fictional?

Welcome To My Magick Theatre: Buster Goes to College

The Wonderful World of Cinema: My First Time With Buster Keaton


Enjoying reading the entries in The Third Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon - nice work, all of you!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Remembering Film Preservationist David Shepard, We Say The Film Prayer!



“If you’ve seen a superior print of a film by Chaplin or Keaton, Griffith or Murnau, chances are David had a hand in restoring it,” Leonard Maltin



In a topic near and dear to those of us who adore classic movies and the staunch efforts of archivists around the world, we tip our Max Linder top hats both to the late, great historian and champion preservationist David Shepard, who passed at 76 of cancer on January 31, as well as the Save This Moment campaign by the Toronto International Film Festival. In the following photo, Mr. Shepard, founder of Film Preservation Associates, is flanked by Walt Disney Studios historian and author Russell Merritt on his left and Leonard Maltin on his right.



Mr. Maltin penned a tribute, Adieu To David Shepard, on his IndieWire website. Here is David with the prolific author and Photoplay Productions documentary film producer, not to mention the prime mover behind the restoration of Abel Gance's 1927 epic Napoleon (among numerous films), Kevin Brownlow.



Messrs Maltin, Brownlow and Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films and Flicker Alley share their fond memories of David Shepard.



Enjoy this clip of David Shepard talking film preservation in 2016.



Mr. Shepard's tireless efforts on behalf of the film legacy of Charlie Chaplin resulted in remarkable restorations, the first DVD release being Chaplin At Keystone: An International Collaboration of 34 Original Films.



Here's a promotional trailer for the DVD box set, narrated by co-producer Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films and Flicker Alley.



This was followed by the exceptional Blu-ray releases Chaplin's Essanay Comedies and Chaplin's Mutual Comedies.





All these sets involved going back to the gnarliest or gnarly nitrate film materials. As Mr. Shepard had exceptional recall of where negatives and prints existed in archives around the world, he was the right man for the restoration job.



These historic films were restored painstakingly, frame by frame, using the latest 21st century digital technology.





The Toronto International Film Festival produced a promotional short, The Film Prayer, based on a reverent guide for projectionists which is said to have been written by A.P. Hollis in 1920 and made available to all non-theatrical film distributors to promote careful handling of film. The Film Prayer could be found inside film cans, unfortunately a few decades before Monsieur Blogmeister's time! Everyone who has ever threaded an 8mm, 16mm or 35mm projector will relate. Thanks to Caroline Martel for posting this.



Narrated by Keanu Reeves, the Toronto International Film Festival video on The Film Prayer features evocative music by Menalon and is part of the Save This Moment campaign to fund the acquisition, restoration and archival storage of 35mm film prints.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

And This Blog Loves Harry Ruby



When it comes to 20th century pop culture, there were many witty, clever and wonderful wordsmiths in the days of Olde Broadway, but none more brilliant and nimble than the prolific songwriter, screenwriter and Groucho Marx pal Harry Ruby (January 27, 1895 – February 23, 1974). Here he is, on Ralph Edwards' This Is Your Life show.



Harry is top row center in the following snapshot of show business luminaries.



The 20th century music lovers at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog hold Harry Ruby in extremely high regard as a songwriter for stage, screen and television. Today's post pays tribute to the songs of Harry Ruby, who, frequently in collaboration with his partner, lyricist Bert Kalmar, was responsible for so many memorable Tin Pan Alley tunes.



Kalmar & Ruby wrote songs for the Broadway shows High Kickers, The Five O' Clock Girl, The Ramblers, Good Boy, Animal Crackers, Top Speed and Marc Connelly & George S. Kaufman's Helen Of Troy, New York.



The list of Harry Ruby songs is so lengthy, it's tough to know where to begin. Even diehard film buffs may not know Harry's name or face, but will definitely know his songs. Marilyn Monroe's vowel-caressing performance of I Wanna Be Loved By You is just one among many blazing scenes in the Billy Wilder masterpiece Some Like It Hot.



In his four decades writing songs, Harry Ruby, with collaborators Bert Kalmar, Edgar Leslie, Rube Bloom, and Fred E. Ahlert, penned everything from Broadway scores to movies to TV show themes, such as The Real McCoys.



We'll kick this homage to the great songs of Harry Ruby off with Frank Sinatra's stellar rendition of Nevertheless, I'm In Love With You.



To follow Sinatra, here's a version of A Kiss To Build A Dream On, performed beautifully by Louis Armstrong. As usual, Pops expresses the song's heart, its essential meaning.



Talented songstress June "Something Cool" Christy from the Stan Kenton Orchestra waxed a fantastic version of Give Me The Simple Life by Harry Ruby and Rube Bloom.



Gotta love pianist Dorothy Donegan's take on this tune as well.



Most famous, celebrated and beloved among all the Kalmar & Ruby songs would be their great work with The Marx Brothers. The songs from Animal Crackers (both stage and screen), Horse Feathers and the arch-satirical Duck Soup, delivered with great enthusiasm by the Marx Brothers, exemplify what the team is all about - and still make this writer laugh out loud.









Even the secondary tunes featuring the non-comedic players are pretty wonderful, such as this ditty from Animal Crackers, penned for the 1928-1929 stage production at the 44th Street Theatre, Why I Am So Romantic?.



Sung by Hal Thompson and the charming Lillian Roth, who appeared in many Paramount Pictures features and musical shorts in the late 1920's and early 1930's. Oddly enough, Groucho doesn't then sing it to Margaret Dumont!



Groucho was particularly fond of singing Harry's Father's Day song. There are a couple of versions. I like the one Groucho performed on The Dick Cavett Show, but even more, the second one, from Music Scene, hosted by screen and TV comedy "triple threat," comic-writer-director David Steinberg.






Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby penned many songs for other popular comedians of stage and screen, including George Jessel and Eddie Cantor.



The team's songs are mainstays in the RKO films of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, the topics of two Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog posts, Two Guys I Like: Wheeler And Woolsey and and New On DVD - And As Randy As Ever: Wheeler & Woolsey, both laden with songs by Kalmar & Ruby.



I Love You So Much, ends up serving as a motif through much of the movie The Cuckoos, and is the background music for the plot's slapstick denouement towards the end.



Just Keep On Doin' What You're Doin' from Hips Hips Hooray, performed hilariously by Bert Wheeler, Robert Woolsey, Dorothy Lee and Thelma Todd, may be my individual favorite musical number from all the Wheeler & Woolsey features.



Just Keep On Doin' What You're Doin' is one of Kalmar & Ruby's best and such a great song, none other than The Manhattan Transfer covered it on The Tonight Show, hosted by Johnny Carson.



No less than the great Zero Mostel recorded an album of Harry Ruby's Songs My Mom Never Sang



MGM produced a biopic about Kalmar and Ruby, starring the team of "Fred n' Red" - Astaire and Skelton - as the songwriters.



We tip our top hats worn by Fred Astaire to Mr. Ruby, who was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and close today's tribute with several renditions of with possibly Monsieur Blogmeister's favorite all of Harry Ruby tunes, and one embraced by Broadway, the movies and especially by virtuoso jazz singers and improvisers, Three Little Words.



















For more info on the great songwriter, check out:

All Music.com - Artist Biography by Joslyn Layne

Archive.org entry for An Evening With Groucho

Broadway World website: list of Harry Ruby stage shows

DBOPM - The Database Of Popular Music

Harry Ruby, from the Songwriters' Hall Of Fame website

Harry Ruby Song List - Songwriters Hall Of Fame

Internet Broadway Database

Interview with Harry Ruby, June 12, 1971 by Max Wilk: audio, can be heard onsite in The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Parts of this interview ended up in Max Wilks' book They're Playing Our Song: Conversations With America's Classic Songwriters

Wikipedia - Harry Ruby

Wikipedia - Kalmar & Ruby