Saturday, August 29, 2020

August 29: Astaire's Top Hat and MJ's Birthday



On August 29, 1935, the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical Top Hat, produced by RKO and directed by Mark Sandrich, was released to movie theaters.



It is tough to pick just one favorite from the nine Fred & Ginger RKO flicks, as they are all wonderful.



Top Hat remains a standout and a musical comedy to top all musical comedies.



The combo of wit, sophistication, Irving Berlin music and terpsichore can't be beat.



Everything works, from direction to cinematography to comic relief. Edward Everett Horton, a comic character actor go-to in several Astaire & Rogers vehicles, is particularly hilarious in Top Hat.



Even film critics love Top Hat!



A certain entertainer and avid classic film buff who just happened to be born on August 29, Michael Jackson, was also a fan of dancing in Hollywood movies and applied original spins on ideas from Fred Astaire to Gene Kelly to The Nicholas Brothers to Sammy Davis Jr.



Michael cited James Brown, The Godfather of Soul, as the number one influence on his songs, performances and dancing.



That said, Michael's patented "Moonwalk" brings to mind The Godfather Of Soul, The Nicholas Brothers, Gregory Hines - and a hint of Astaire.



Michael very likely watched Astaire's terpsichore over and over before learning the routines from all his movies step by step.



Realizing that Madame Blogmeister was born on the exact same day as Michael Jackson - and that this blogmeister and she LOVE classic films - today is as good a day as any to ponder the stylistic links between MJ and movie musicals.



One gets the impression that Jackson delved VERY deeply into the world of movie musicals, as deeply as his did to such r&B and pop performers as James Brown and Jackie Wilson. The following excellent compilation shows MJ dance routines alongside slick moves by Astaire, Bill Bailey, Eleanor Powell and John W. Swillett (Bubbles of Buck & Bubbles) - and of course, James Brown. The Astaire-Jackson connection is particularly strong.



MJ made his name as the pint-sized star of Motown Records' 1960's Top 40 juggernaut The Jackson 5. Michael's signature dance moves are already evident in this 1974 Tonight Show appearance.



Right up through their 1984 reunion tour, Michael and his brothers were a terrific entertainment act.



As soon as his solo records, especially the Thriller album, met unprecedented popular success, Jackson found himself an international concert sensation, touring the far corners of the earth.






In many of his videos, Michael Jackson was profoundly influenced by Astaire's choreography, grace and styleHe noted, "Fred Astaire told me things I will never forget. Gene Kelly also said he liked my dancing. It was a fantastic experience because I felt I had been inducted into an informal fraternity of dancers, and I felt so honored because these were the people I most admired in the world."



The King of Pop had numerous influences and studied all of them in detail. Universal Horror movies and the cinematic adaptation of West Side Story are obvious ones.





In this writer's opinion, Jackson's very best work was just before the hype, before the innumerable plastic surgeries and before he had experienced years of supersonic stratospheric fame a la Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and The Beatles.




Film director (and Monsieur and Madame Blogmeister favorite) Preston Sturges was also born on August 29, but there is no indication that Michael Jackson was a fan of his (that I know of). MJ never sat down for an interview with Robert Osborne on TCM and talked classic movies.

While Jody Rosen's Michael Jackson obit in Slate discusses how the runaway success of the MJ brand wreaked havoc on his life, the most insightful and incisive look at the corrosive nature of super-duper-stardom remains A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined As a Grotesque, Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations by Cintra Wilson.



Brutally honest, sensitive and perceptive, this book examines the venal aspects of American fandom, the twisted worship of pop culture heroes and the symbiotic relationship between Michael Jackson's showbiz existence (including an abuse-filled childhood) and the immolating cult of celebrity. Wilson is a gifted writer and prescient social critic.

There have been some fantastic late 20th century and 21st century bands (including Miles Davis) that have found, in the 10 studio albums of Michael Jackson, which featured killer arrangements by none other than Quincy Jones, a springboard for new ideas.



The Jazz Mafia, an organization that has been offering fresh takes on multiple music genres since the 1990's, played a series of concerts devoted to Michael Jackson. Here's the Jazz Mafia's excellent r&b ensemble Supertaster with a guy who I would have liked to see wax an entire album of songs with Michael - and trade off vocals - Stevie Wonder.



Here's a clip from a Jazz Mafia MJ tribute concert this writer arrived at 10 minutes after it officially sold out. Love hearing it now!



Do we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog miss seeing live music, hearing the buzz of the reeds, the lip-on-mouthpiece sound of the trumpet and the bite of a Fender Stratocaster in this stay-at-home COVID-19 era? YES! The Jazz Mafia always had a certain sweep and grandeur to their music - and I do miss concerts a great deal.



R.I.P. Fred and Michael - and thanks a million for what you do, Jazz Mafia. Today's post shall with one of the most amazing excerpt from an astonishing August 20, 1983 concert in which Michael Jackson, James Brown and Prince all performed. MJ moonwalks and Prince's original and inspired synthesis of protean elements from Jimi Hendrix, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, James Brown and Mick Jagger is in top form.



Hope we see a brighter day . . .

Friday, August 21, 2020

This Weekend: Niles Museum Spotlights Silent Movie Musicians, The Thanhouser Studio and The Great Train Robbery



Sipping on excellent iced tea in Kingston, New York, thinking of the residents of Santa Cruz County in Northern California (some of whom have been evacuated from their homes due to the still raging wildfires), as well as the friends and family in the Bay Area I cannot see because of the incompetent, ignorant, catastrophic and lethal non-response to COVID-19, I am very much missing the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum. Glad to hear the museum is hosting Zoom events on Saturday and Sunday. The links will be available at 12:01am daily.

Saturday, August 22
A Silent Cinema Cover Cavalcade




Tim Lussier presents various artists, some famous and some not, painted portraits of silent film stars that graced the covers of all the major fan magazines during the silent era. This slideshow features dozens of covers from his collection of magazines spanning the 1916-1928 years of silent cinema. Enjoy!



Talk to the Silent Movie Musicians

ZOOM 1:00 pm PDT / 4:00 pm EDT

The museum website adds:
As regular Niles attendees know, silent films were never silent and always had music, and we continue to honor that tradition today. But how do the musicians do it? How do they come up with scores for films? How did they learn to do this? How did they get started? Who inspires them? Learn the answers to these questions and more as Jon Mirsalis moderates a panel of internationally recognized silent film accompanists, Frederick Hodges, Makia Matsumura, Ben Model, Philip Carli, and Andrew Earle Simpson. A lively discussion will be followed by Q&A with the audience.

Sunday August 23rd



All About Thanhouser Studios includes the documentary The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema (2014, Thanhouser Company Film Preservation, Inc.) – as seen on TCM and numerous film festivals. There will also be streaming films from the Thanhouser Company, the New Rochelle-based production company,.



The Thanhouser Studio was one of the earliest independents and among those who invented American cinema in the early 20th century, sophisticated in approach and concept. They were making films quite advanced in filmmaking technique for the early teens and stylistically closest to those Alice Guy Blaché at Solax. Edwin S. Porter, D.W. Griffith and Alice Guy Blaché were not the only ones inventing and developing cinema technique in the first decade of the 20th century.



The museum press release elaborates: This multi-award winning documentary recounts the untold story of the rise and fall of this remarkable pioneering motion picture studio during the first decade of the twentieth century. It traces the evolution of one family’s career as it transitioned from producing live theater to establishing one of the most successful independent silent motion picture studios in early cinema. Set against a backdrop of Thomas A. Edison and his Motion Picture Patents Trust companies dominating the industry, the story plays out in New York, Florida and California. It is a compelling story of fame and fortune, twisted by the vagaries of fate and ending on a bittersweet note.

Sunday ZOOM EVENT - 5pm PDT / 8pm EDT

• Q & A with the keeper of the films, Ned Thanhouser himself!





The Thanhouser Studio made 1000 films and was among the cutting edge production companies before the outbreak of World War I. Thanhouser's principal star was Florence La Badie



Sadly, the silver screen career of Florence La Badie was cut short by her passing in an automobile accident in 1917.




Finding a Location for The Great Train Robbery



Sunday August 23 (Links available at 12:01am daily)
Historian and author David Kiehn explains how he used modern technology in his research and detective work to identify one of the locations for this iconic classic shot by Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Studios in the “wilds” of New Jersey.



Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson was featured in three roles in this 12-minute film which gives an extra connection for us as the Edison theater, the home of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, CA. Highway 80 in New Jersey continues all the way to California and the East Bay near the city of Fremont and the historic district of Niles.


Sunday, August 16, 2020

On August 16th, The Maestro's Birthday - This Blog Remembers Bill Evans


"Just think truth and beauty." Bill Evans


Watching film noir gems has led this scribe to gems of jazz yet again - and, as fate would have it, jazz pianist and composer Bill Evans was born on this day in 1929.



As fellow pianists and geniuses Bud Powell and Art Tatum did, Bill Evans featured an original blend of protean elements from classical music and improvisational jazz. A cornerstone among many in the 20th century modern compositions of jazz giants and music innovators Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Cecil Taylor, this quality is especially notable with Bill's first trio, which featured bassist Scott LaFaro and percussionist Paul Motian.



Bill periodically worked with vocalists and his albums with Monica Zetterlund and Tony Bennett remain among the most memorable.











Bill usually recorded and performed with his trio, but also periodically expanded his group to quartets and quintets. Here's Bill with alto saxophonist Lee Konitz.



The concert Bill did with Stan Getz at the Montreux Jazz Festival is amazing as well.



Bill led several trios between the 1950s and his passing in 1980, each one of them musically different from the other. All feature an interplay between the upright bass and the piano which is frequently on a telepathic level.











In addition to Sir Duke, Bill Evans is right up there with those jazz composer-pianists (the aforementioned Art Tatum and Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Lennie Tristano, Elmo Hope, Herbie Nichols, Andrew Hill) who can send this music aficionado over the moon and back.



Something indescribable about Evans' harmonies and melodies resonates with this listener on a deep and profound level. No matter how many times I hear "Waltz For Debby" and "Emily," the songs tear me up in their own sweet way.



Bill plays on the best selling and arguably the best known jazz record ever waxed, Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis and changed the Davis group's style and approach by his presence.



Almost 40 years after his death, the response to Bill Evans' name around the world remains LOVE - as it does when I listen to his appearance on the following exceptional episode of Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz.



In this particularly wonderful Piano Jazz show, the dynamic duo of pianists talk music and, when playing duets, express the "truth and beauty" Bill spoke of to Tony Bennett.


Photo: David Redfern/Redferns

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Born on August 8, 1900 - Film Noir Maestro Robert Siodmak



After binge-watching comedies and cartoons for months, we at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog are ready for a deep dive into film noir - and nobody made more uncompromising, gripping and vividly atmospheric noir thrillers than Robert Siodmak (1900-1973).



Robert Siodmak arrived in Hollywood in 1939 and made 23 movies there. Many of them were hard-hitting crime dramas as The Killers, notable for exemplifying the themes and mise en scène of film noir.



That said, it is simplistic to describe him as a director who only excelled at film noir, as brilliant and prolific as Siodmak was at the genre. He worked in all genres, both in America and Europe.



From Robert Siodmak's first U.S. produced opus that dipped an unsuspecting toe into the icy waters of film noir, Phantom Lady, it was clear that the Dresden-born director could adapt the UFA German expressionist visual style to mysteries and crime thrillers with exceptional panache.



Since we can't go out to the movies for big screen fun, here are some trailers from Robert Siodmak masterpieces that positively oooooooooooze the pungent essence of film noir.







The Spiral Staircase is among the most terrifying and paranoid psychological thrillers and more than a tad reminiscent of Robert Wiene's way-out 1920 chiller The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari. Can't discuss the plot without spoiling this tense and diabolical film!



Robert Siodmak began making films in Germany in 1929, but, after making Brennendes Geheimnis (The Burning Secret) in 1933, found himself on minister of propaganda Josef Goebbels' hit list and attacked for not being a Nazi shit-bag. He immediately high-tailed it to France, where Siodmak would both avoid being a victim of The Night Of The Long Knives and work successfully as an émigré director for the rest of the decade. In Paris, Siodmak was more of a Howard Hawks style "all genres" director than a specialist in thrillers. He even made Dannielle Darrieux musicals!




Over their long careers, Robert Siodmak and his brother Curt, novelist, science fiction author and screenwriter, hit bulls-eyes in many of 20th century pop culture's sweet spots. We wager that one of the main reasons the Siodmak brothers were not fawned over and lauded as great directors and screenwriters was their uncanny skill at genre pictures.



The Siodmaks consistently hit many favorite B-movie genres of the gang at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog - Universal Pictures' signature Gothic horror, science fiction, murder mysteries, crime dramas, film noir - out of the park.



Our introduction to Robert Siodmak was the excellent Universal horror movie Son of Dracula, a late-night television Creature Features perennial back in the 1970's and 1980's.



After many viewings, it still lands squarely in our genre picture wheelhouse as does The Wolfman, just one of many classic movies with a screenplay by Curt Siodmak.



Filmmaker Joe Dante elaborates on the inventiveness and stylishness of this very Gothic opus. Have a hunch Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder watched Son of Dracula while planning Young Frankenstein. Robert Siodmak's uber-creepy contribution to the Universal horror genre emphatically illustrates that it is not a good day when a fortune teller informs you that you're destined to marry a corpse!



Some of Robert Siodmak's American films turn tried-and-true genres upside down. In Christmas Holiday, what looks like a small town Americana tale starring Hollywood musical stars Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly turns out to be a thriller, imbued with the leads' most un-prototypical performances. While Gene Kelly periodically played character roles in such films as Inherit The Wind, he portrays a psycho (actually, quite well) here who at no point dances or sings "I Got Rhythm."



The Killers, featuring a script by John Huston, is the feature film debut of Burt Lancaster, who makes the most of his part. This adaptation of a short story by Ernest Hemingway ranks among the masterpieces of film noir.





Another masterpiece of film noir is Criss Cross, a white-hot, delirious, yet also subtle, sensitive and beautifully realized nugget of cinematic genius. Along with Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy, no movie before or since expresses the sex-crossed lovers theme quite like this.



Don't have to see the doomed couple drool all over each other to get the picture - they're hornier than Maurice Chevalier in The Smiling Lieutenant. Throughout, the incendiary performances by Burt Lancaster and femme fatale Yvonne De Carlo are on the money. Want to die anytime soon? No. Want to have as good sex as Lancaster and De Carlo do (offscreen) in this movie? YES!



Founder of the Noir City film festival, author and Czar of Noir Eddie Muller elaborates on this unbeatable classic movie on TCM's Noir Alley.





While many of the great Robert Siodmak films, from Fly By Night to The Suspect to Christmas Holiday to The Strange Case of Uncle Harry to The Dark Mirror to Cry of the City to The File on Thelma Jordon, can be seen in their entirety on YouTube, they lose approximately 95.7% of their dramatic, cinematic and emotional impact on the small screen. That's as diminished as the signature diminished scale riff frequently played by jazz trumpeter Lee "The Sidewinder" Morgan!

Although going out to the movies, unfortunately, remains a non-option for the foreseeable future, don't watch these fantastic and atmospheric classic films on your Iphone any more than you would watch a 70mm print of Lawrence Of Arabia, here in his 1971 "Dirty Larry" incarnation, on a tiny screen.



After his career making memorable American films ended, Siodmak returned to Europe and continued directing films, including noir thrillers, through the end of the 1960's. Particularly notable: The Devil Came At Night (1957), a crime drama about a serial killer on the loose in Nazi Germany.



Robert Siodmak's swan songs as a filmmaker would be westerns, historical dramas and sword-and-sandal epics. In that respect, his career parallel another principal architect of film noir, the great Anthony Mann.







For more info, there's Deborah Lazaroff Alpi's book Robert Siodmak: A Biography, with Critical Analyses of His Film Noirs and a Filmography of All His Works. Buying a copy, as it has been out-of-print for quite awhile, will cost mucho dough, but, if you are lucky enough to live near a interlibrary loan program, check it out! The research, writing and analysis is thorough and impeccable.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Ringing in August with The Silent Comedy Watch Party, Felix, Ozzie and Cartoon Roots!



Ringing out July 2020, not at all happily, with the passings of guitar genius Peter Green, actress, author and scat singer supreme Annie Ross, silver screen legend Olivia DeHavilland and Danish film music composer/pianist Bent Fabricius-Bjerre A.K.A. Bent Fabric - all favorites at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog - leaves one pondering how the heck to ring in August 2020.



Good news? The blogmeister has, with the exception of grocery shopping, stayed home, washed his hands according to Alton Brown's helpful instructions, wore a stylish jet-black face mask whenever leaving the house and, as the new month begins, happily can attest that he's not dead - and here to write the August 1, 2020 blog post!



JUST kicked off August with today's edition of The Silent Comedy Watch Party, which delivered sorely needed LAUGHS!


Silent Comedy Watch Party logo by Marlene Weisman



Today's lineup begins with Pep Up (1929 - Educational Pictures) starring Cliff Bowes.



Then it's on to Love's Young Scream (1928) a very funny 1-reeler produced by Christie Comedies featuring Anne Cornwall and Jack Duffy and episode 20 of The Silent Comedy Watch Party's piece-de-resistance, Fluttering Hearts (1927 - Hal Roach Studio), starring Charley Chase, Oliver Hardy and Martha Sleeper. Thanks a million, Ben Model, Steve Massa and Mana Allen!


We're delighted to hear that Ben is spearheading a Kickstarter for The Everett Edward Horton DVD Project. The fundraiser runs through August 17. The gang at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog are enthusiastic fans of Mr. Horton, from his late 1920's silent comedies produced by Harold Lloyd to his brilliant comedy relief work in Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers pictures, inspired narration of Jay Ward Productions' Fractured Fairy Tales and memorable work in a host of enjoyably silly 1960's sitcoms, including F-Troop. The gang here is happy to contribute to this Kickstarter!




Last Sunday's episode included, as half of a 1913 Keystone split reel, A Little Hero (starting at 50:41 in The Silent Comedy Watch Party ep. 19 program), featuring a cast of intrepid fur-bearing stars, led by Pepper the Cat. LOVED IT!



There are numerous heroic canines, led by Pete the Pup of Our Gang and Luke of the Sennett and Arbuckle Comique short subjects, in silent movies. One of our favorites is Cameo the Dog. Here's a crude video copy of a Mack Sennett comedy featuring canine comedienne Cameo, who clearly gets the best of his human co-stars Billy Bevan and Harry Gribbon.



Pepper the Cat and the blogmeister's intrepid felines at home DEMAND equal time - so here's Otto Messmer's Felix the Cat.





We at Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, which devoted Memorial Day Weekend 2020 to silent era cartoons, enthusiastically support animation produced from Winsor McCay's heydey through the pre-Code era, but has never devoted any posts to the silent Disneys. . . until now. . McCay, Cohl, Fleischer and Otto Messmer, yes, many times. Walt Disney's pre-Mickey Mouse cartoons from the 1920's, covered in depth in Russell Merritt and J.B. Kaufman's Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney book, no.



Am partial to the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series over Disney's Alice in Cartoonland, partly due to the more advanced animation in the 1927-1928 series. There was even a terrific book by David A. Bossert, J.B. Kaufman (Foreword) and David Gerstein (Archival Support) devoted to the Disney Oswalds.



The Walt Disney Treasures - The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit DVD came out a few years ago, in 2007. It's still available and a tad pricey, but well worth it for those who love animation history, silent cartoons and the evolution of Disney.



For cartoon fans, it's of interest to see the distinctive animation, particularly in the Oswald the Lucky Rabbits made by Disney by 1920's Disney collaborators - those who left when Charles Mintz bought the rights to the character - such as Hugh Harman, Rudy Ising, Rollin Hamilton and Friz Freleng.






Many of our favorite DVDs and Blu-rays of early animation have been from Tommy Jose Stathes' Cartoon Roots series. We were delighted to be involved in the Kickstarter that got the ball rolling on the Cartoon Roots compilation The Bray Studios: Animation Pioneers back in 2015 and devote a blog post to said fundraiser.



After all, the Fleischer Brothers Studio, Earl Hurd, Paul Terry and Walter Lantz all cranked out cartoons for J.R. Bray during the silent era.



The subsequent Cartoon Roots: Bobby Bumps & Fido Blu-Ray from Tommy and Cartoons on Film ranks high on the Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog list of favorite silent cartoon compilations.







The animation of Earl Hurd broke new ground and the Bobby Bumps series no doubt influenced everything from the Reg'lar Fellers comic strip by Gene Byrnes to the Hal Roach Studio's Our Gang to the sound era cartoons of Walt Disney and Chuck Jones' crew at Warner Brothers Animation.



Alas, COVID-19 is still beating the you-know-what out of the U S of A on 8-1-2020, so it appears we will be staying at home, social distancing and attempting to stay safe for the foreseeable future - who knows, it may be many months into next year - so bring on the classic comedies and cartoons!