Archive for January, 2013

The Hall of Hams #14: Tallulah Bankhead

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , on January 31, 2013 by travsd

tallulah-bankhead-02

The Hall of Hams is my series on some of my favorite actors who have brought the art of melodramatic acting into the modern era.

Today is the birthday of Tallulah Bankhead (1902-1968). I’ve always felt a special connection to her because she comes from my family’s hometown of Hunstville, Alabama. There the connection stops: her father was the Speaker of the House (that’s the U.S. House) and she was the granddaughter and niece of Senators.

While she had been a professional actress on the New York stage from the age of sixteen, a London and NY stage star from the age of 21, and later a star of radio and film as well, history has unfairly (though understandably) remembered her mostly for her offstage lifestyle, her huge appetite for booze, drugs, and indiscriminate sex, and her ribald witticisms. As a mature actress, she created roles like Regina in The Little Foxes (1939), Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth (1942), and the newspaper lady in Alfred Hitchock’s Lifeboat (1944). her performance as Amanda in a revival of Noel Coward’s Private Live’s ran nearly two years.

Her untold hundreds of quotable quotations are amply quoted elsewhere. Here, we just give her a shout-out, and present some clips from her appearance on I Love Lucy, which she was enough of a professional to consider sufficiently up to her standard of dignity:

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.

safe_image

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

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

Forgotten Shows of My Nonage #28: Room 222

Posted in Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Television with tags , , , , on January 31, 2013 by travsd

5051

Folks my age or older will protest “NOT forgotten!” (after all, it was a hit show from 1969 through 1974), but younger people are less likely to have heard of this show (I’ve asked around). Room 222 was a kind of groundbreaking attempt to create a series that mixed drama and contemporary “issues” with a sit com format. On the strength of its success, its creator James L. Brooks   was hired to craft the Mary Tyler Moore Show (which was similarly innovative in its putting a single career woman front and center).

Room 222 centered on a very Poitier-esque history teacher (Lloyd Haynes) “just trying to get through to kids” at an L.A. high school. He is generally helped (sometimes hindered) by his girlfriend/ guidance councilor (Denise Nichols), a cynical principal (Michael Constantine) and an over-eager, very white-bread student teacher, a sort of prototype for MTM’s “Mary Richards” (Karen Valentine, who would come to be the series breakout star). The show would come to be a sort of template for everything from The White Shadow to Welcome Back, Kotter to Fame. 

Not having seen it since about the fourth grade I looked at a few last night, and it is a VERY embryonic version of the stuff that would follow in its footsteps, taking on very serious subjects, but then adding a very cheesy laughtrack at hugely inappropriate, racially-charged moments, as though the producers were afraid of repercussions. (Example: a tough urban black student frightens a mousy bespeckled white teacher. Followed by a laugh-track worthy of The Brady Bunch.) The effect is disorienting and downright nightmarish to say the least.

Here’s the credit sequence from the last season:

To Rome, With Love

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , on January 31, 2013 by travsd

To-Rome-With-Love

Having seen every one of Woody Allen’s nearly four dozen feature films, I now consider it my duty to see each new one, just to keep on top of it. The trouble is, he turns them out so fast, I never make it to the theatre in time, so I’ve ended up catching the last few when they come out on DVD.

I’ve always admired him, although he’s the farthest thing from perfect, and once in a blue moon, downright dreadful. My usual take on him is that he makes too many movies, leaving ingenious ideas insufficiently exploited and explored and a finished technical product that can be workmanlike rather than beautiful or even interesting. In this recent post I wrote that since 2005 or so he’d been bucking that trend. Most of the films since Matchpoint have been pretty terrific. But lately he seems to be slipping somewhat again. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger was not just boring, but  execrable. He rebounded substantially with Midnight in Paris (see my review here). To Rome with Love is not awful by any stretch of the imagination, but it is, as C said last night, undercooked. He needed to keep the ziti in the oven a little longer.

The thing is, I know how to fix it! The key lies in the original title Bop Decameron. (The craven string-pullers who run Hollywood decided that audiences are too slow  to understand that title. Uh, not Woody Allen’s audiences. Isn’t that who they would be marketing to? And I know it’s an idealistic pie in the sky dream of mine, but would it be such a bad idea to teach the rest of the retarded people a new word?) At any rate, he changed the name to Nero Fiddled which really is horrible, and then finally To Rome, With Love which isn’t too bad — it evokes the films from the sixties he spends a good deal of time echoing here. But it doesn’t elucidate the film or shed light on the structure the way the original title did. In fact, I swear to God, I walked away from watching that film last night saying, “He should have made it more like The Decameron” until I remembered the original title this morning (with a little help from Wikipedia).

But we’ll get back to that.

It’s probably not correct to call someone who works so hard and is so productive “lazy”, but that’s the word that frequently springs to mind when I watch his films. His choices are sometimes unimaginative, cliched, seemingly the product of an exhausted mind. For example, he pissed me off when the music over the opening credits of To Rome turned out to be “Volare”. Haven’t we heard that in like DOZENS of movies as kitchey shorthand for “Here we are among Italians”? Doesn’t he know that? Doesn’t he watch other movies? (He’s answered that question in interviews; no, he doesn’t really). Can’t he have thought a little harder and chosen a better song? And on and on like that.

To Rome with Love is chock full of on-the-nose- expository dialogue of the sort I associate with Neil Simon, where characters tell their friends, family members and co-workers things like what they do for a living, and where they just were in the moments before this scene took place. Strangers meet on the street and strike up conversations and then spend several hours or days together. Has this EVER happened to you? It happens to EVERYBODY in his movies. It’s just lazy screenwriting.

And he’s treading over lots of his own ground here.  Nearly every single character (except the Italians, who speak in Italian) are people we feel like we have seen again and again and again in Woody Allen films, which can inspire the Allenesque phrase “Enough already!” One of the movie’s four segments, in which Roberto Bennini plays a nebbish who wakes up one morning to find himself famous feels an awful like Stardust Memories, which of course is Woody doing Fellini, whom he also “does” here.  In another segment, Penelope Cruz (Spanish, but close enough for government work, I guess) plays a gorgeous hooker. Italian cinema is rife with such hooker characters — but so are Woody Allen films, as though they are just wandering around the world and one is constantly bumping into them, like UPS men.

Granted, this is a movie. Movies are make-believe, and lately Woody has been exploring his own version of magic realism, smashing naturalistic scenes together with pure fantasy. It’s valid and it’s distinctive, but it works better when he yields completely to that surreal imagination of his, as he does in my favorite sub-plot, in which Woody himself, as an opera impresario hires a tenor who can only sing in the shower…so he casts him in operas, shower and all. The lengths to which Allen the director brazens it out with this recurring gag are heroic, and it produced my heartiest guffaws. I wish there’d been more like it in the film. Another slightly hallucinatory sequence has Jesse Eisenberg and Alec Baldwin as a young architect and an old architect respectively who meet on the street, each seeming to be each other’s hallucination. The question of which it is, is never answered, which is one of my favorite aspects of the movie, although it did raise the hackles of many of the mentally challenged consumer reporters who write for various newspapers under the misappropriated title of “critic”.

Anyway, the movie has its moments, and quite frankly (he said sagely in all seriousness) I know how to fix it!

The main mistake I think is the fact he tried to interweave these four various stories together into a single cord. But they are not sufficiently alike thematically to justify their being of a piece, other than the fact that they are set in Rome. He should re-edit the film into its four separate constituent parts, and make it an anthology film, like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask or New York Stories. That structure would be more Decameron-like, anyway. Then, I would strengthen the Decameron set-up at the top (we are introduced to the film by a narrator, a traffic cop), and have him recur to set up each little vignette. Then we wouldn’t expect so much out of this film and each little segment could sink or swim on its own. The overall film would fulfill its (lowered) ambitions somewhat better, and we wouldn’t be tempted to be so hard on it.

And I bet Allen would have realized this, if he’d given himself a little more time to work on it.

Ah, chi se ne importa! Non ha alcuna importanza…

Roosevelt Sykes: 44 Blues

Posted in African American Interest, Blues, Music with tags , , on January 31, 2013 by travsd

roosevelt sykes[1]

Today is the birthday of Roosevelt Sykes (1906-1983) a.k.a The Honeydripper. An Arkanasas native, he learned to play barrelhouse piano in the work camps along the Mississippi River, which is where he developed the raunchiness (both lyrical and musical) of his boogie-woogie style. “44 Blues” was recorded for Okeh in 1929, the launch of his recording career, although his fame became more widespread after he moved to Chicago and signed with Decca in 1934. He flourished there for 20 years until the electric blues became the dominant trend, then moved to New Orleans. Interest in his work began to re-awaken during the blues revival of the 60s and he made several more recordings after that

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

safe_image

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

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

Eddie Cantor: Whoopee

Posted in Broadway, Eddie Cantor, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies, Vaudeville etc. with tags , on January 31, 2013 by travsd

whoopee

Today is the birthday of Star of Vaudeville #112: Eddie Cantor (for my complete biographical article on this giant of stage, screen and broadcasting go here). Many contemporary people complain that they don’t “get” Cantor and that they don’t see his appeal. I’m a huge fan, but I also acknowledge that I am an odd duck in that regard. The more arcane and dated something is, the more I like it. And I also think that Cantor lost his way somewhat later in his career; you don’t see as much of what made him “him”. And what is that? There is no better example of it that than this number, which captures his personality in a nutshell. Modern audiences are more apt to know the Sinatra version, but Cantor’s  is the original, first and best (it’s the title song from the 1928 Broadway show and 1930 film in which he starred). The tempo of the film version seems a bit slow and Cantor’s choreography a bit static, possible due to the clunkiness of early sound technology (it’s also in Technicolor–very early!). But Cantor’s performance is hysterical. It’s already made this an excellent day for me.

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.

safe_image

“The Man Who Laughs” Launches Tonight!

Posted in Indie Theatre, Silent Film with tags , on January 31, 2013 by travsd
TeaserImg
 
Based on Victor Hugo’s novel, The Man Who Laughs is performed in the style of a silent film, complete with live piano accompaniment, projected title cards, and vibrant black-and-white sets, costumes and makeup. I reviewed it for TIME OUT NEW YORK in 2005 during its run at the Red Room, and loved it!

Where: URBAN STAGES, 259 West 30th Street btw 7th and 8th Avenues | When: JAN 31 – FEB 24 Thurs – Sat at 8pm, Sun at 2pm & Mon, Feb 4 at 8:30pm | Tickets: $30 Adults, $25 Students/Seniors, $21 with Code:

Show runs approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission. | Free Popcorn!

For more info visit www.StolenChair.org

Lizzie Reid: Matron in Miniature

Posted in Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Little People with tags , , , , , , on January 31, 2013 by travsd

This image from the Meserve-Kinhard collection depicts Lizzie Reid (sometimes rendered as Reed), one of P.T. Barnum’s performing little people, circa 1865. Her maiden name is given as Ames, although I haven’t been able to learn anything about her husband. I find accounts of her performing as late as 1897.

 

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.

safe_image

%d bloggers like this: