Archive for August, 2012

Phyllis Diller’s Greatest Film Role

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), OBITS, Women with tags , , , , on August 21, 2012 by travsd

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Ever since Mr. Pinnock and I discovered a copy in the 99 cent bin about five years ago The Fat Spy has been my favorite movie. It possesses all the avant-garde technique of Jean-Luc Godard, mixed with none of the intentionality. A sort of home movie with nationally known third tier stars, directed by Phoebe Cates’ father, with music by the Wild Ones, it stars Borscht Belt comedian Jack E. Leonard in dual roles as “Herman” and “Irving”, the incomparable Jayne Mansfield as a girl named “Junior”, B-movie villain Brian Dunlevyminor pop sensations Johnny Tillotson and Lauree Berger (a bit behind the curve stylewise in 1966), and  Phyllis Dillerin her best film role ever (because she is not playing second fiddle to Bob Hope): the Cruella Devillesque “Camille Salamander”, who schemes to get the secret of the Fountain of Youth away from Herman…or is it Irving? The film is so dubious that, despite the fact that it’s supposed to be set on a desert island, throughout the movie we see Miami a short distance away, across a harbor dotted with boats. I screened it at the Brick Theater a few years ago, and Hope Cartelli, who is the very definition of life itself, fell asleep. THAT, MY FRIENDS, IS HOW GOOD IT IS.

Anyway, who doesn’t admire Phyllis Diller? I thought she was as funny as hell, and she kept right on being a pistol right to the very end. We salute her today as she heads off to that great comedy club in the sky.

Mae West on the Dick Cavett Show

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Mae West, Television, TV variety, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , on August 17, 2012 by travsd

Here’s an awesome nugget! Dick Cavett interviewing Mae West in 1976. (It’s her birthday today — see my full essay on her here). I love this artifact…Cavett seems wary. It’s hard to tell if he’s (appropriately) intimidated by West, or if he’s afraid she’s going to keel over and lapse into an “episode”. Similarly, West seems reserved and halting: she didn’t give many TV interviews, and by this time (she was 83) she was very frail, both inside and out. Most of it is pretty canned, but there are a few illuminating moments.

To find out more about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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The Shirley Temple Show, a.k.a. Shirley Temple’s Storybook

Posted in Melodrama and Master Thespians, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2012 by travsd

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A few words about an interesting artifact the Countess and I watched last night, a 1961 episode of The Shirley Temple Show a.k.a Shirley Temple’s Storybookdevoted to an adaptation of Hawthorne’s masterpiece The House of The Seven Gables. Temple’s tv series ran from 1958 through 1961. Normally they presented adaptations of fairy tales; this is one of the few works of adult literature they produced.

My reasons for recommending it are many. One is simply that I love all Golden Age tv drama…it is just like theatre for the electronic age. I got to dabble in directing such shows at NYU and if there were any way to revive this now defunct method of producing for the modern era, I would be the first in line to participate. The magic, the surprise, the unpredictability of live theatre PLUS a mass audience: it’s the best of all possible worlds.

What makes this series cool is that it’s in color….the earliest example of color tv I have seen with the exception of some Ernie Kovacs programs. It is wild to see Golden Age tv in color…all the seams and artifice show up that much more, but to me that’s part of the fun. Perhaps this is an unintentional editorial comment, but it was a lot like watching BBC.

And the rewards of this particular episode lay in the casting. The 33 year old Temple herself plays Phoebe Pynchon. As anyone who has seen John Ford’s Fort Apache knows, the adult Temple was, while still fairly adorable, not the strongest actress. Like most of the rest of us, she peaked at about age two. If she is robotic however, it was only fitting that she should be cast opposite Jonathan Harris (Dr. Smith of Lost in Space) here in his glory as the villainous Judge. Needles to say, his performance filled me with so much glee I almost fell off the sofa. Also in the cast, Agnes Moorehead as Hepzibah (you can almost hear her saying “Eh, it’s a paycheck” as you watch her acting beside the vacant Temple); a young Martin Landau, playing 30 years older as the distracted brother Clifford; Robert Culp as the love interest Holgrave, and John Abbott (a character actor you will recognize in an instant) as Uncle Venner.

Really, why watch contemporary television ever again when there’s so much rewarding stuff like this to watch?

For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Steve Martin, Vaudevillian

Posted in Comedy, Contemporary Variety, Stand Up, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , on August 14, 2012 by travsd

Today is the birthday (1945) of a man who may be the supreme neo-vaudevillian of the late 20th century, Steve Martin. Would this man have headlined at the Palace? Oh yes, I think so. A portmanteau act that included surreal joke telling, crazy dancing, a little banjo playing, balloon animals, and silly props from the joke shop like Groucho glasses and an arrow through the head?  Unfortunately his autobiography Born Standing Up came out a couple of years after No Applause, otherwise I would have definitely incorporated him into my New Vaudeville section, with his background working in hokey melodrama theatres and performing at Disneyland. How surreal — and heartening — that he became a comedy rock star who filled stadiums with such an act. I of course worshipped him as a teenager. To his serious fans, his film career (while no doubt lucrative for him) has been a sad disappointment. You could forgive us for expecting something on the order of Chaplin. But, la! There are always memories.

Now here he is at the height of his fame in the late 70s, fooling around for tens of thousands of people. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds? Or simply the Best Thing That Has Ever Happened? Probably a little of both.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Melodrama and Master Thespians, STEAMPUNK/ VICTORIANA with tags , , on August 13, 2012 by travsd

Simon Callow is a rarity, highly accomplished both as an actor and as a writer of non-fiction. He created the title role in Amadeus on the stage (and played a smaller role in the Hollywood version) and may best be known to American audiences for his performance in Four Weddings and a Funeral. I’d previously read his biography on Charles Laughton and the first part of his three-volume life of Orson Welles, both of which were tremendous. In the current work, he combines both of his careers. Having played Charles Dickens countless times on the stage and on television, and having read everything ever written by Dickens in preparation for his roles (including private correspondences, magazine articles and transcripts of his speeches), he brings that intimate knowledge to bear in this narrowly focused biography, which looks at Dickens through the prism of his relationship to the theatre.

Now, it’s well-known by most educated people that Dickens throve on the lecture stage giving highly animated readings of his work, playing every character himself to the delight of his audiences. It’s also fairly well known that he enacted proper stage roles in amateur theatricals. One of the main revelations of Callow’s book is a more accurate picture of what that consisted of. When I hear “amateur” or “private” theatricals, I get a picture of someone’s living room, charades, party games, productions involving one’s visiting relatives, and a bonnet tied to the head of the family dog. No doubt there was a copious amount of this sort of activity in Dickens’ life as well. But Callow makes plain that what Dickens was involved in was much more than that. These were full fledged productions, usually organized for charity, employing all the resources of stagecraft then available at the time.  The modern American phemenon of “community theatre” is almost analagous — indeed, some of the community theatre companies that exist in New York are just about the equivalent. Provincial community theatre, while not incapable of being excellent on rare occasion, is apt to be amateurish. The apparatus is there (including, ironically, resources most New York theatre companies would kill for, in terms of lights, stage, wings, storage, etc) but the artistry is often crude and untrained. In New York however (as in the London of Dickens time) with its intense competition and its high concentration of talent, amateur or community theatre can often be as good as that of the professional theatre, the only difference being one of mission. Dickens’ charity productions were reportedly amazing theatrical experiences — and this is coming from the lips of the great thespians and critics who witnessed them. Especially harrowing was said to be Dickens’ performance in his adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ arctic adventure The Frozen Deep.

The theatre, indeed, was Dickens’ first love. His childhood dream was to go on the stage. Why didn’t he? Life happens. His family, though genteel, was often poor. His first decent opportunity was as a court stenographer, which led to journalism, which led to fiction, which led to a little prosperity, which led to marriage, which led to a large family, which led to a need to a support a large family, which led to needing to make money in the surest, quickest, most proven way possible, which happened to be, for him, writing fiction. But the dream was always there, and he always kept a hand in.

As the title implies, Callow’s book speaks not only of Dickens the theatrical raconteur, but of Dickens, the public man, and all the ways he “performed” throughout his life’s amazing journey. Callow paints a picture of a man never at rest, of a man who goes out to take a brisk walk and winds up ten miles away. Editing magazines, turning out serialized novels, writing letters, lecturing, acting in and staging plays, traveling, micromanaging the lives of his children — and getting very little sleep. Seemingly indefatigable, he died at age 58, it seems clear, of exhaustion.

Callow seems cut of that same overachieving cloth. If you come to this book (or any of his previous ones) expecting some dilettante’s hackwork, you’ll be sorely mistaken and mightily impressed. Not only is his book rich in research, much of it original, but it is stylistically elegant and mercifully brief. As someone who has toiled at non-fiction, I can tell you that a major portion of the job lies in pruning the facts back to something that is pleasurable to read. Callow manages to do more than that. His vivid portrait makes you feel like you have gotten very close to Charles Dickens.

George Harrison: Living in the Material World (the Film)

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Movies (Contemporary), Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , on August 12, 2012 by travsd

It seems to me Martin Scorsese is one of those artists who improves with age. Always the most masterful of stylists, he was best during his early years when probing the most ugly, violent human behavior, as in Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. This is a valid aspect of experience. The passions are human and accessible and he harnessed them to do what all artists are supposed to do (yet few manage) which is take us someplace new.  Still, his preoccupations in these films seemed almost entirely aesthetic. Oddly for someone who once wanted to be a priest, he seemed to have almost completely abdicated any sense of moral sense or voice or duty: “These horrible people do what they do, and we show it, and we’ll let you judge for yourself.” To me, this is unfortunate. It gives too much credit to the audience, which is composed of members of one of the most savage species  that has ever walked the earth, and will only too gladly revert to its pre-civilized ways if given the nod. To me, if you don’t give a few signals of disapproval in your discourse, that’s as good as giving some people the nod. People get off on violence. Forgive me if I think that’s a thing to be discouraged.

Interestingly, during the first few decades of his career, when Scorsese ventured away from gangster/thug themes (as he sometimes did) the results often seemed lackluster, as if – like a sadist – he couldn’t get it up without punishing his characters. Or, on other occasions he would be unable to restrain himself from staging inappropriate excesses of brutality into stories that might have done just fine without it (e.g. New York, New York and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More).

But, as I say, in recent years I think he has grown – at least he has grown a powerful second strain of work, one now sufficiently developed to cast a new light over his entire legacy. This is the documentary strain, closely related to a couple of other aspects of his career, i.e., his handful of bio-pics and his behind-the-scenes efforts as a film preservationist.  This thread of Scorsese’s body of work of course dates back at least to The Last Waltz (filmed 1976, released 1978) long lauded by many as the best rockumentary ever made—and even farther back to Woodstock and Altamont , both of which he worked on, though not as director. In recent years, he has produced (and directed one the episodes of) a documentary television series on the history of the blues, as well as a film about the Rolling Stones, and American Masters installments on Bob Dylan and Eliza Kazin. At the same time, he has turned out these rich, mature bio-pics like The Aviator and last year’s biographically inspired children’s story Hugo, which I rave about here. What a leap forward from the disappointing The Gangs of New York, in which real people were reduced to so many meat puppets. In recent years, it’s as though he feels the weight of his responsibility to treat the stories of the people he admires with maximum care and respect. Scorsese the film-maker is starting to act like a citizen.

These thoughts were prompted because I finally got around to seeing George Harrison: Living in the Material World, released incredibly, in the same year as Hugo, an achievement comparable to my mind to Spielberg delivering Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park the same year (1993). I really didn’t set out to review it; I just wanted to enjoy it. But I loved it so much I couldn’t resist taking notes and it impacted me so much I feel the need to share it.

As in No Direction Home, his Dylan doc, Scorsese assumes the audience already knows a lot about the subject. This isn’t a Beatles primer or George 101. If you don’t already know who the players are (right down to the name of the Beatles’ roadie, or their first photographer), you ought to take those courses – and a few more –before you come here. And that’s one of the film’s many, many rewards. In an effort (I suppose) not to alienate the average viewer, most documentary makers tend to stick to talking heads with a High Q factor, ignoring many of the very people longtime Beatle fans would be THRILLED to see and hear, such as Astrid Kirchherr, Klaus Voorman, Neil Aspinall, and Patti Boyd Harrison. Scorsese not only foregrounds people like these, but he assumes we already know who Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliff are. Zero time or energy is wasted getting you up to speed, from the film’s very first frames, when Scorsese sets the tone for the film by juxtaposing the title track from All Things Must Pass with shots of bombed out WWII Britain. There is no reason for a subtitle, no reason for anyone to say “George  Harrison was born in 1943”. The picture tells it, and it sets the context for Harrison’s young life and you either get that or you don’t.

A bullet list of some of my favorite moments:

  • An interview with two of George’s brothers, who paint a vivid portrait of the family’s modest circumstances during George’s childhood years – as well as a picture (by example) of the provincial lower-middle-class bloke he might have become if he hadn’t been endowed with a bit more brains and talent than those around him
  • Tons of period footage of Hamburg in the early 60s
  • Cavern-era recording of the Beatles version of “A Taste of Honey” underneath photo stills of the romance between Stu and Astrid
  • Footage circa 1968-69 of George watching a 1964 Beatles performance of “That Boy”. It’s only four years later – might as well be four decades for all the changes that have taken place
  • McCartney’s appreciation of George’s four-note riff for “And I Love Her”, a contribution that he feels “makes the song”
  • Some great early photos and recordings of Harrison’s earliest dealings with Ravi Shankar from early ’65 or ’66.
  • Great interviews with Phil Spector (filmed in jail, I guess) about the sessions for All Things Must Pass and The Concert for Bangladesh
  • Many illuminating interviews with musical colleagues like McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Martin, Eric Clapton (also a lifelong friend), Billy Preston, and Jim Keltner
  • “Isn’t it a Pity” underscores the breakup of Harrison’s marriage to Patti Boyd
  • Interviews with auto racing buddy Jackie Stewart – who turns out to be amazingly articulate and wise gentleman
  • Interviews with Python pals Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam about the circumstances surrounding the creation of Handmade Films
  • Candid footage of the Traveling Wilburys sessions
  • Lots of candid footage around Harrison’s picturesque estate Friar Park
  • Harrowing accounts of a crazed intruder’s attack on Harrison’s life; heartbreaking accounts of his last days and his struggles with cancer
  • Interviews with his only son Dhani, who seems like a fine young gentleman

The film mainly focuses on Harrison’s spiritual quest, largely embodied by his music, but not limited to it.  It doesn’t shy away from warts, although we are surprised to learn there are any. We get our first inkling when McCartney, who is always only too happy to knock his sainted bandmates down off their pedestals, volunteers in his artful way that George was “only a man” and a “red blooded male like any of the rest of us.” Harrison’s second wife Olivia shades the picture a bit more and we glean that there continued to be many extramarital lovers in his life, Holy Man or no. (Ironic, since such revelations are what drove the Beatles away from the Maharishi) And Klaus Voorman divulges that Harrison got back into drugs in the 1970s, notably cocaine, which isn’t a bit surprising when you see footage of the normally reserved Harrison acting like an extroverted fool in performance footage from his disastrous Dark Horse tour.

If there is a small lapse (an omission really) it’s the absence of much of Harrison’s music between Dark Horse (1974) and the Wilburys (1988). While Dark Horse marked a decline, he did have subsequent highwater marks including 1976’s Thirty Three and a Third and Cloud Nine (1987). But ya can’t put EVERYTHING in! Nearly every Harrison Beatles song is in the film, and many important post Beatle ones…including one of my favorite songs “What is Life?”, which Scorsese obviously loves too, since he used it in Goodfellas. And Scorsese puts the closing credits to one of my favorite FAVORITE Harrisongs, the lovely, ephemeral, haunting “Long, Long, Long” , which Harrison always said was about his quest to find God.

Harrison’s wife Olivia (interviewed muchly throughout the film and indeed the impetus for its creation) relates that Harrison had told her that he tried to live his life as a preparation in a sense for dying. In other words for dying properly, with nothing left undone, with nothing left unsaid, and with lots of effort to bring beauty and healing to the world. Astoundingly, he actually manage to accomplish this. His is a worthy story, and Scorsese has told it in a worthy manner. I can’t stop thinking about it.

Don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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R.I.P. David Rakoff

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Drag and/or LGBT, Jews/ Show Biz, OBITS with tags on August 10, 2012 by travsd

Oh, I am very, very sad. David Rakoff has lost his battle with cancer. He was a very good friend to me and a generous supporter of my work. In gratitude, in 2010 I wrote an appreciation of his most recent book Half Empty, which I think also sums up my feelings about him. I re-post it here in his memory.

Half Empty

David Rakoff doesn’t ask that you be afraid; he just wants you to know that he is. The thrice-published author and frequent This American Lifecontributor has become not only a chronicler of quirky excesses, he is also perhaps the finest satirist of conspicuous consumption sinceThorstein Veblen. Timid and retiring by nature, and a gay Canadian Jew by circumstance,  his usual modus operandi is to place himself in some situation that might be expected to frighten, annoy, or alienate him (frequently all three). The results of these experiments are richly rewarding, both because of the humorous culture clashes, but also because Rakoff is a gifted enough writer, and a big enough human being, to shade the experiences with nuance. He has that least fashionable of attributes, a moral compass. (“His parents raised him right,” I often think.)  Consequently, he can be as mean as a viper when he wants to be (with hilarious results), but only to the people, places and things that deserve it – usually some exponent or manifestation of one of the Seven Deadly Sins. He does not exclude himself from these unsparing analyses, which I like even more. In his previous books Fraud and Don’t Get Too Comfortable, he took us to Miami Beach, fashion shows in Paris, Loch Ness, an airline run by the Hooters restaurant chain, and a spiritual retreat run by action star Steven Seagal. That’s funny already, right?

In his new book Half Empty, the tone is at once more autobiographical and more somber. Though, flashes of the old Rakoff are still there. The most formally ambitious of the pieces, and the one most consonant with the tone of his past work is “A Capacity for Wonder: Three Expeditions”. Laid out as a triptych, the piece traces his immersion in three of America’s “constructed Edens”: Epcot Center, Hollywood and Salt Lake City, poking much fun at their cartoonish artifice before settling, Goldilocks-like, on a porridge more to his liking: Robert Smithson’s 1970 earthwork sculpture “Spiral Jetty”. But, for the most part, the book deals with issues of far greater moment than mere aesthetic distaste and inconvenience. The book’s opening lines, which may rank with those of Moby Dick and A Tale of Two Cities for pithiness, set the tone: “We were so happy. It was miserable.” His acid pen now records observations about September 11, the death of his therapist, his freakishly small size as a kid (4′ 10″ in tenth grade), the metaphysical torture of writing (like Dorothy Parker, he worries those mots justes, which is why we have to wait five years between books), and being fired from a Hollywood movie and replaced by Bronson Pinchot (his revenge came this year when a short film he co-wrote and appeared in won an Oscar). In this book he is more overtly political, more apt to give vent to his anger, and tends more to resort to the cussword over the much-deliberated word-pearl, as formerly was his wont.

In the last piece, we find out where this is all coming from. In “The Other Shoe”, we learn that the author, who’d written about his brushes with cancer in the past, has been revisited by the scourge, this time in a more virulent form. By now, the humor has evaporated almost entirely — the darkness that undergirds his brilliant comedy is exposed and naked and lies there pure for us to contemplate. His anger and his terror are no longer foibles, but the entire pulse of the universe, a raw nerve impervious to consolation. He is in a Vonnegut-like place now. The irony, though, is that the very existence of the book carries with it implied promise. Today we lose a job, can’t write a word, get bad news from the doctor. Tomorrow, as his own life has proven, we win an Oscar, publish a book, the cancer is in remission. And, while Rakoff might like to remind us that the day after tomorrow we will lose another job, get more writer’s block and get sick again….I would like to remind him that the day AFTER the day after tomorrow, etc, etc, ad infinitum, ad nauseam….

Half Empty was officially released yesterday, and Rakoff is out there hustling it even as we speak. Reason enough, say I, for optimism.

Originally Posted September 22, 2010

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