Thursday, October 31, 2019
Here at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, it's Halloween - and time for big screen fun.
And that means Gothic horror flicks made at Universal by James Whale!
And loving homages to James Whale's movies courtesy of Mel Brooks!
And, of course, Halloween cartoons. . .
It's also time to watch spooky comedies yet again, starting with Laurel & Hardy.
And raise that spooky comedies quotient with The Bowery Boys yet again.
As well as The Three Stooges in If A Body Meets A Body.
Another opus de Stooges, Idle Roomers, is excellent Halloween fare because of the guy resembling the little bro of The Wolfman who enters at 7:01.
Universal Pictures stars Bud Abbott & Lou Costello specialized in scare comedies, starting with Who Done It.
These were such big box-office hits that feature films in which Bud & Lou did The Monster Mash in haunted houses would extend through the end of the 1940's and into the 1950's.
The comedy team frequently co-starred with Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Boris Karloff or Glenn Strange as Frankenstein and Lon Chaney, Jr. as The Wolfman.
Abbott & Costello Meet The Mummy co-stars noir queen Marie Windsor!
A&C even made an appearance on The Colgate Comedy Hour with the monster du jour of 1954, the hideous "Gillman" from The Creature From The Black Lagoon!
The creepiest of all 20th century horror-comedies was made four decades later. That would be the Razzie Award winner Nothing But Trouble, a delirious Beetlejuice-influenced Halloween offering written and directed by Dan Aykroyd that got some of the worst reviews this blogger has ever seen, both on the TV show Siskel & Ebert At The Movies and by print film reviewers in many publications. It cost 45 million bucks to produce and made 8.5 million.
Is it understandable why many disliked this nightmarishly disturbing piece that frequently ventured into gross-out territory and found it a terrible movie? Yes. Do we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog regard Nothing But Trouble (which, very oddly, was given the exact same title as Laurel & Hardy's worst feature film) as a weirdly inspired one-of-a-kind fever dream? Yes. Would it have been a lot better with Harold Ramis substituted for Chevy Chase and also assisting with writing and/or directing? Yes - and John Landis, after reading the script, turned it down.
Do we believe that the objective in making this unsettling (and at times disgusting) opus was to serve up a humorous parody of horror movies a la Mel Brooks? No, definitely not. Unlike the Bowery Boys and Three Stooges monster comedies, it is more than a tad too grotesque to get laughs - but, bear in mind, this is not unprecedented, as none other than Stan Laurel wrote macabre shock endings for such L&H vehicles as Going Bye Bye and The Bullfighters.
That said, Nothing But Trouble, described by Vincent Canby in The New York Times as "a charmless feature-length joke about the world's most elaborate speed trap" is entirely a shock ending from start to finish. In the central role as the hideous 106 year old "hanging judge" of Volkenvania, Aykroyd presides as the ringmaster.
While the film fails in many ways, as an American Gothic piece, it succeeds with flying over-saturated colors, reverb-filled echoes of theremins and imagery a la horror-meister Tod Browning's gruesome films The Devil Doll, Freaks and West Of Zanzibar viewed through a broken funhouse mirror. . . with a musical number by Digital Underground thrown in for good measure.
The not-crazy-about-gory-movies correspondent here is glad the movie was cut from an R to a PG-13, so the violence is not graphic; then it would be not just ultra-creepy but unwatchable. Why the studio released Nothing But Trouble in February 1991, instead of holding it back until October and marketing it as a Halloween movie, nobody knows.
At Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, we like a rocked-out Halloween as much as anyone.
Like Bo Diddley, Dracula preferred the Gibson Flying V.
We're well aware that only Alice Cooper could confirm that Frankenstein played a Les Paul, Dracula rocked a Flying V - and that the Groucho Marx response to Alice Cooper's show was "this is like vaudeville."
And, yes, the gang at the Psychotronix Film Festival and Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog remain well aware that songwriter/guitarist Roky Erickson of The 13th Floor Elevators and The Explosives may actually have walked with a zombie sometime.
After all, Bobby Boris Pickett didn't just do The Monster Mash, he did the Monster Swim, too.
Of course, the official Screamin' Jay Hawkins response would be that Alice Cooper and Bobby Boris Pickett stole their acts from him!
We finish today's Halloween post with none other than Count Floyd's scary Monster Chiller Horror Theater.
All the Chaney (Sr. and Jr.), Carradine, Tor and Bela-crazed reprobates at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog send our scariest wishes for a Happy Halloween!
Saturday, October 26, 2019
The last post about drummers in movies brings up the topic of the piano (and pianists) on the silver screen. While there are numerous documentaries about legendary pianists, rather few who tickled the ivories other than Hazel Scott appeared even briefly in big studio big budget movies.
The composer biopic is mostly a thing of the deep past in 2019, unfortunately.
Such biopics were more prevalent a few decades ago. None other than Cary Grant played Cole Porter in Night And Day.
Porter looked more like Fred Astaire and might have been played by a younger version of Clifton Webb. As wonderful as Grant is, there's something about the songwriting of Cole Porter, as much as his music provided cornerstones of the RKO musicals starring Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, that remains elusive to the Hollywood movie sensibility. As enjoyable and entertaining as Night And Day is, it never quite gets to the essence of Cole Porter or his art. Not even Cary Grant could do that.
A few years later, Frank Sinatra did.
Another central cornerstone of the Astaire & Rogers movies was the music of George & Ira Gershwin. One of the more amazing examples of 88s on celluloid is from the Rhapsody & Blue segment from the 1930 Universal feature King Of Jazz.
For the 88s in the most visually spectacular fashion, the Rhapsody In Blue sequence from King Of Jazz remains the gold standard.
The sequence is still mind-blowing after all these decades.
The Gershwin biopic Rhapsody In Blue, directed by Irving Rapper and starring Robert Alda, shed light upon George Gershwin while also giving a key part in the movie to George's friend and frequent cohort Oscar Levant.
Fellow pianist/composer Oscar Levant proved among the most sensitive and prolific interpreters of the music by George & Ira Gershwin.
A brilliant classical pianist and composer, Oscar wrote three books, was among the stars of the radio hit Information Please and also periodically appeared as an actor in movies, essentially playing himself.
While Oscar played his inimitable chain-smoking self, at least he usually got opportunities to demonstrate his considerable prowess on the 88s at some point during whatever the movie was. Here he is in a musical interlude from the last Astaire & Rogers musical, The Barkleys of Broadway.
And, speaking of chain-smoking concert pianists, Geoffrey Rush portrayed Australian virtuoso David Helfgott in the 1997 movie Shine.
For an example of a movie starring a pianist who drives the storyline, look no further than the Francois Truffaut masterpiece Shoot The Piano Player.
It starred the legendary pianist and performer Charles Aznavour (1924-2018), who doubles very nicely as an actor here.
It's difficult not to regard this unique blend of film noir, music, Parisian atmosphere and the cinematic stylings of the French New Wave as Truffaut's greatest film.
If not the single greatest Truffaut picture, Shoot The Piano Player certainly ranks high among the numerous movies from his distinguished career. Meanwhile, Mr. Aznavour kept on scaling the heights as an songwriter, entertainer, pianist and vocalist.
Closing this post we note that, rather amazingly, the one and only Art Tatum, a piano virtuoso like no other, did have a brief segment in Alfred E. Green's The Fabulous Dorseys. Tatum, as was customary, played all 88 of the 88s.
Sunday, October 20, 2019
The passing of Ginger Baker on October 6 and the centenary of Art Blakey's birth last weekend gets this blogger thinking about percussionists.
On the topic of percussionists in the movies, the first thing that comes to mind is the running gag in the "rockumentary" This Is Spinal Tap about the unfortunate drummers in Spinal Tap, the penultimate lumbering 1970's style dinosaur prog rock-metal band, invariably meeting tragic and untimely ends.
If a Spinal Tap drummer became a rock star a la John Bonham or Keith Moon, he'd die - immediately!
Second but foremost, we are compelled to tip our bowler hats to Ringo Starr's contributions to the two Beatles feature films. He brings likability and genuine charm to the table in both A Hard Day's Night and Help. Like his drumming as well; it is perfect for the Fab 4's group concept and genre of music.
Although drummer/bandleaders, with the prominent exception of Chick Webb, would not be prevalent until the 1940's, popular jazz bands and recording artists started appearing on the Silver Screen practically as soon as the talkies began. The Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Jimmie "The Singing Brakeman" Rogers and Duke Ellington all appeared on the silver screen in 1930.
Ellington's cutting edge big band preceded the drummer/bandleader, but certainly laid the groundwork for the concept with showcases for the group's brilliant percussionist, Sonny Greer. No doubt Chick Webb was taking notes!
Watch Duke and the Cotton Club Orchestra tear it up in this number from the otherwise unmemorable RKO Radio Pictures feature Check and Double Check, starting at 2:40 in the following clip. Ellington's group demonstrates emphatically that they were, in 1930, the wave of the future.
Although drummers actually starring in movies, due to the double trouble of the Hays Office and the color line (as far as leading man roles were concerned, very rarely broken before Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte in the 1950's) remained few and far between, deep love of the percussion arts demonstrated on the silver screen was hardly unheard of. That is why the following "Drum Crazy" number is my favorite Fred Astaire sequence in the MGM musical Easter Parade, directed by Charles Walters. The linkage between dancers and drummers, the terpsichorean and musical, is clear whenever Fred performs his rhythmic and elegant tap routines.
Unquestionably, many of the artists who made animated cartoons loved drummers as well.
In the following Tom & Jerry cartoon, when the household's EXTREMELY stereotyped maid takes very rare time off for a Saturday night of bridge with the girls (note: by the time these cartoons made it to Saturday morning TV in the mid-1960's, scenes involving the housekeeper were either excised or re-opaqued and re-dubbed with an Irish maid voice), randy Tom and his feline buddies throw a wild party.
Jerry the Mouse cannot sleep through the partying cat ruckus, driven by hard-swinging late 1940's style jazz. Because of the jazz soundtrack, complete with Red Norvo style vibraphonist, this animation buff prefers this opus (the over-the-top maid characterization, already quite anachronistic at the time the cartoon was made notwithstanding) to those with not-bright Tom chasing wily Jerry. Clearly, Tom the Cat wants to be Gene Krupa, Jo Jones or Max Roach!
It was not uncommon for jazz drummers to appear, albeit briefly, in 1950's movies. Alexander Mackendrick's wonderfully corrosive Sweet Smell Of Success, starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis as the most detestable of men, features drummer Chico Hamilton's Quintet. In this and other dark urban tales/noir thrillers, jazz, smoke and impending doom permeate the atmosphere.
The percussionist/bandleader who did not act in movies per se but made quite a contribution on the silver screen by playing his music without compromise, not watering it down for mass consumption, was the great Gene Krupa.
The epic Drum Boogie number in the Howard Hawks classic Ball Of Fire showcased Gene's skills as drummer and bandleader, while pointing towards the swing-to-bop future in jazz music. Gene and Jo Jones of the Count Basie Orchestra were gifted musicians whose innovative ideas and rhythmic sophistication pointed the way to the next generation: Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes and Art Blakey.
The showcase in Ball Of Fire was not Krupa's first movie appearance. Here he is as a member of Benny Goodman's groundbreaking band in the Warner Brothers musical Hollywood Hotel. It is not just astonishingly cool music, all these decades later, but the first time an integrated band appeared in a movie.
Here's Gene with fellow percussion powerhouse Big Sid Catlett, appearing in the 1947 vehicle for comedian Tim Moore, Boy! What A Girl, produced for African-American audiences. Catlett was also, along with Jo Jones, in the historic Warner Brothers musical short subject, Jammin' The Blues (1944), directed by Gjon Mili.
Krupa, like Robert Mitchum, had some difficulties offscreen - which would have gotten one accepted into a band 20 years later - and was portrayed in a movie, The Gene Krupa Story. Krupa was played in this biopic by the talented and incredibly unlucky actor Sal Mineo.
There was one percussionist who did star in a movie. He made his name as frequent collaborator of music innovator John Coltrane.
After spending five years as drummer in the John Coltrane Quartet/Quintet, he would go on to be a bandleader and a prolific recording artist for Blue Note, Enja and other labels.
That would be the intrepid drummer/bandleader Elvin Jones.
He is among the stars of Zachariah, termed as acid western at the time of its theatrical release in 1971. Elvin and Cleveland rockers The James Gang are among the featured performers in this unconventional western, written by the unconventional comedy writers otherwise known as The Firesign Theatre. Mr. Jones does quite well both delivering dialogue and musical brilliance.
Mr. Jones also would be the subject of a movie in another genre, music documentaries.
Don't know if an Elvin Jones Jazz Machine Live On Tour documentary, shot in the 1970's, 1980's and 1990's, exists, but somebody certainly should have made that film!
Finishing today's post is a link to a documentary about Levon Helm, drummer and vocalist in the American roots music group The Band, noted for a stretch of outstanding records in the 1960's and 1970's. Have yet to see Ain't In It For My Health in its entirety, but it looks fantastic! The Band was far and away the greatest, most varied in repertoire and best-rehearsed rock group this blogger ever had the pleasure to hear in person.
Friday, October 11, 2019
"I believe in this music" - Art Blakey.
We love music as much as we love comedy, classic movies, animation and silent films at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog - can't stick to just one - and for today's post, the spotlight shall be on music. After all, yesterday was the birthday of 20th century music giant Thelonious Monk. Celebrated his birthday by seeing Charlotte Zwerin's documentary Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser.
Today, we enthusiastically celebrate the 100th birthday of another 20th century music giant, the great Art Blakey (October 11, 1919 – October 16, 1990).
In the powerhouse percussionist/bandleader pantheon, Art remains paramount, along with Gene Krupa, Max Roach, Buddy Rich, Roy Haynes, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams.
As fate would have it, two jazz greats, fellow powerhouse percussionist Billy Higgins (1936 – 2001) and trumpet ace Lester Bowie (1941 - 1999) shared that October 11 natal anniversary with Art.
Art Blakey, who (as far as we know) did not play Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse" in any of his set lists, started his five decade career in music with pianist Mary Lou Williams in 1942, before touring with Fletcher Henderson & His Orchestra in 1943-1944, leading his own Boston-based ensemble briefly and then joining vocalist Billy "Mr. B" Eckstine's big band.
At various points in the mid and late 1940's, the Billy Eckstine big band featured young firebrands Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon and Miles Davis, as well as Blakey. Arrangements were by Tadd Dameron, Jerry Valentine and Gil Fuller.
Vocalist Sarah Vaughan joined the group in 1944; they were both previously in the touring big band of pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines. As far as Billy's crooning goes, it's a good bet Sinatra was paying attention.
In the following clip, Billy scat-sings a la Ella Fitzgerald, preceding Mel Tormé and Annie Ross in that difficult to master vocal style. Not surprisingly, the second vocalist in the Eckstine group, Sarah Vaughan, would go on to blaze her own trails in the vocalese terrain and record acclaimed duet albums with Billy.
While playing in groups led by clarinetist Buddy DeFranco (the bop era's answer to Artie Shaw), Art met pianist Horace Silver in the early 1950's. The two joined forces and formed the Art Blakey Quintet, which featured trumpet genius Clifford Brown, alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson and bassist Curly Russell. It would be the first of many ensembles led by Art and Horace over several decades.
In 1955, Art and Horace enlisted tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley and trumpeter Kenny Dorham and formed the first official Jazz Messengers group. Blending elements of blues and gospel with modern jazz harmonies and rhythms, the Messengers recorded numerous albums for Blue Note Records.
Horace Silver left to form his own very successful band in 1956 and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, featuring stellar lineups of young musicians that changed every 3-5 years (as the group's cornerstones then left and formed their own bands).
Fortunately, the Jazz Messengers recorded and toured incessantly, so, unlike quite a few wonderful jazz and classical music artists, there are numerous examples of their concerts and TV appearances on video to enjoy.
Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers would endure and entertain audiences around the world for 35 years.
The musicians may have changed, but the winning formula and modus operandi of rhythmically propulsive, soulful, hard-driving jazz (a.k.a. hard bop) remained constant over those decades.
Happy 100th birthday, Art Blakey! For more info, see Art Blakey: Praise The Messenger by Michael J. West.
Sunday, October 06, 2019
L to R, surrounding the star of Time For Beany: Daws Butler, Stan Freberg, Bob Clampett, Jack Benny
After enjoying last weekend's Harry Langdon tribute (redux: Harry's silent features, Mack Sennett and Educational Pictures talkie short subjects are absolutely wonderful classic comedies, the Hal Roach series very odd and less wonderful, the Columbia 2-reelers frequently not-so-wonderful) we shall - yet again - pay tribute to the many classic comedy heroes who made us laugh out loud.
L to R: Bert Wheeler, Robert Woolsey, Milton Berle, Joe Penner, Victor Moore, Benny Rubin
A plethora of the very best lithographs portraying classic comedy heroes were created by the one, the only Al Hirschfeld. . . the great artist and chronicler of 20th century show business. Dearly love the Al Hirschfeld Foundation website, and, among other pieces, his lithographs of the Algonquin Round Table. How many classic comedy heroes and NINAs can you find in this one illustration?
©HIRSCHFELD Al Hirschfeld Foundation
The multi-talented and prolific comics artist, writer, illustrator, author of graphic novels and designer Kit Seaton is one serious silent comedy fan - and digs Charlie Chaplin as much as we do at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog.
We love the following ilustration she created featuring some formidable classic comedy heroes: Roscoe Arbuckle, Al St. John, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Stan & Babe, Harold Lloyd, Charley Chase and Max Linder.
We are aficionados of Kit's work across many fields and particularly love her Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd illustrations - and love knowing that somebody who's a lot younger than the baby boomers who comprise the majority of film buff-dom loves classic movies! Perusing Ms. Seaton's illustrations and seeing young people at such events as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival gives this 20th century art, music, literature and filmmaking enthusiast hope for the future.
Another silent movie comedian who was highly regarded by his peers - no less than Chaplin and Keaton paid tribute - was Lloyd "Ham" Hamilton.
Most of his starring vehicles, unfortunately, burned up in the infamous Fox film vault fire at Little Ferry, NJ on July 9, 1937. Ham's surviving films reveal a very funny, original, subtle and rather rakish persona within his overgrown boy/shameless slacker characterization. The more subtle and rakish he is, the funnier Hamilton is.
Thankfully, some Hamilton Comedies are available on DVD, thanks to efforts by silent comedy specialists Looser Than Loose Publishing and film historians Dave Glass and David Wyatt.
Those intrepid comediennes of silent movies deserve their due as well.
The films of Century Comedies headliner Alice Howell, now lovingly restored and brought back from The Nitrate Twilight Zone by Undercrank Productions, demonstrate her wacky albeit endearing personality, fearless nature and pronounced flair for physical comedy.
In many of the films on the aforementioned Alice Howell DVD collection, including her appearances with Keystone and L-Ko comedies (featuring Billie Ritchie and other comics), it is not uncommon for Alice to steal the show as a supporting player.
Shifting gears entirely and indelicately, we'll finish today's comedy-obsessed post with a trip decades after the end of the silent era to the world of standup. Asking who the first woman to succeed in the cutthroat and competitive world of standup comedy was immediately brings to mind Jackie "Moms" Mabley, who reputedly was doing standup comedy laced with satire and social commentary as early as 1933. Author Kliph Nesteroff wrote about her in Moms Mabley - Agitation in Moderation. As far as this writer knows, there are few films or recordings of Ms. Mabley's act from back in her 1930's and 1940's heydey, although she did appear frequently on TV in the latter 1960's. Here is one glimpse of her act; she even busts a move at the end.
The second female standup comedienne (we know of) and the one who blazed trails for women in the field was Jean Carroll. Have not watched the very popular current TV series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but hear that one of the comedy pioneers the main character was based on, indeed, was Ms. Carroll. The following clips reveal that Jean Carroll was a one-liner machine, in that rat-a-tat-tat tradition first associated with Henny Youngman, later associated with Phyllis Diller and Totie Fields - and especially with the king of the one-liner, the great Rodney Dangerfield.
The Marvelous Ms. Carroll lived to be 98 and hopefully received her fair share of kudos, bravos and huzzahs by later generations of comediennes. Jean Carroll, no doubt, as Moms Mabley did, provided inspiration to quite the group of classic and current comedy heroes.