Archive for April, 2015

Tonight on TCM: Six Movies About Pat Garret

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Movies, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2015 by travsd

Tonight starting at 8pm, Turner Classic Movies will show no less than six back-to-back, wildly divergent movies touching on the legend of Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (although one of them is without Billy). Warning: we always include spoilers. 

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8:00 pm (EST) Chisum (1970)

By the time of this film, John Wayne’s deification, percolating for three decades, has finally become complete. The picture begins and ends with Wayne actually posed in tableau on a horse like a Remington sculpture. He doesn’t have to do anything to be admired but EXIST.  Set in New Mexico, 1878. John Chisum (Wayne) is a mighty independent rancher. Ben Johnson is his mumbling right hand man. Forest Tucker is the requisite crook who schemes to take over the whole territory: not just ranch land but the bank and the store too. Chisum and his friends fight him, legally at first, by starting their own bank and store. But finally it’s an all out war including a fistfight finale between the hero and the villain, in which the latter ultimately gets gored on a pair of ornamental bullhorns. The plot is paint by numbers, except for the interesting if ridiculous gimmick of introducing Pat Garret and Billy the Kid as characters and making the story partially theirs. But for a couple of tiny touches (the phrase “son of a bitch” and a couple of graphic deaths) the movie could have been made in 1955.

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10:00 pm (EST) Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973)

Sam Peckinpah’s version of the time honored tale is partially interesting yet ultimately boring and less than the sum of its parts. Great cinematography, editing, music, acting, art direction, cool lines in the script, but full of inertia. This is the trouble in a lot of Peckinpah films. They seem to be about pursuits, but a big part of the pursuit seems to be the stopovers and conversations along the way, which bore the hell out of this commentator! And for the most part, I am bored by shoot-outs, too, which is Peckinpah’s other major gear, so there’s not a whole lot for me to sink my teeth into here.

Set in Lincoln, New Mexico, 1881.  Pat Garret (James Coburn) is now a sheriff and so must catch his old friend Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson). Pat gets it from both sides. To his old friends, he seems to have become corrupt, fat, less principled than a frank criminal because he is a hypocrite and now answering to a lot of fat-cats and the government. Yet to those authorities he is suspect because he seems to be taking his time about catching Billy. Other characters include Jason Robards as the governor (with Jack Dodson, i.e. Howard from the Andy Griffith Show as a moneyed constituent!) Harry Dean Stanton plays one of Billy’s gang. Slim Pickens as a deputy. Most interesting of all, no less than Bob Dylan plays a roaming, flitting figure named “Alias”. While Dylan has a very interesting screen presence and actually gives a good performance (at least good line readings), the part is an embarrassing add-on, plainly just scribbled in. Alias plays no central role in the plot or anything, he is just kind of there. Dylan’s soundtrack is very cool in some spots. Doesn’t work in others. The song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” comes from this film.

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12:15 am (EST) The Left Handed Gun (1958) 

Arthur Penn’s directorial debut, shot with all the gloomy seriousness of late 50s black and white. Paul Newman is a very “methody” (i.e. Strasbergian) Billy the Kid.  He’s sort of a moody misunderstood youth — Hamlet with more resolve.  Having been in some trouble in Texas (shot some guys for insulting his mother!) he takes up with a cow punching outfit outside Lincoln, New Mexico. His boss becomes a father figure. Doesn’t believe in guns, teaches him how to read. The surrogate father is assassinated by a quartet of crooks in the pay of a rival beef baron, one of whom is the sheriff. Billy makes it a point of hunting them down for revenge. Doing so takes him deeper and deeper into trouble. After killing a couple of them he goes into hiding for awhile, where he gets to become friends with Pat Garrett (John Dehner). At some point he violates a general amnesty by killing another of the guys, getting back into trouble. Then he alienates Garrett by killing the last one on his wedding day (and also despoiling the bride). Garrett becomes sheriff just to pursue him. Billy decides to go completely bad. In the end, he allows Garrett to shoot him just to end it all

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2:15 am (EST) I Shot Billy the Kid (1950)

A straight-ahead B movie version starring Don “Red” Barry. I’ll be seeing this one for the first time!

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3:30 am (EST) Billy the Kid (1930)

Despite the fact that this one is directed by cinematic genius King Vidor, this 1930 version plays surprisingly like a B movie.  That old conflict of a bunch of peaceful homesteaders being terrorized by a local baron who raids their cattle etc. Billy the Kid (Johnny Mack Brown) turns out to be the hero! he is a hired gun to stick up for the homesteaders, along with his Mexican sidekick, one “Santiago”. Vidor gets many beautiful innovative shots, landscapes in extreme long shot, spectacular Arizona locations. A POV shot from a racing wagon. Wallace Beery is Pat Garret. He’s the deputy first, the sheriff is an awful, crooked character in the pocket of the baron. The traditional dilemma ensues. Billy and Garret are pals but on opposite sides of the law. One of the crooks is killed, a posse comes after the shooter, both sides square off in a shooting battle, decent folks vs. ruffians, with ruffians ironically on the side of the law . Garrett tracks Billy to the Mexican border and has to decide whether to bring him in. Garrett is a great part for Beery – rough but decent and fair. Roscoe Ates and Karl Dane are also in the cast.

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5:15 am (EST) Badman’s Country (1958)

I’ll be seeing this one for the first time too, although it sounds like an explosion of insanity George Montgomery as Pat Garrett, Neville Brand as Butch Cassidy, Russell Johnson (of Gilligan’s Island) as the Sundance Kid, Buster Crabbe as Wyatt Earp. And the other characters include Bat Masterson, and Buffalo Bill Cody. The movie seems to have everything but John Carradine as Dracula, but of course another well known western already has that. But despite all these legendary characters running around, there’s no Billy the Kid. I’ve got to see this cockamamie thing and find out what gives.

On Pete La Farge and His Illustrious Family

Posted in American Folk/ Country/ Western, AMERICANA, BOOKS & AUTHORS, Music, Native American Interest, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the late Oliver Albee “Pete” La Farge (1931-1965). With protest roiling all around it seems timely to contemplate folksinger/ songwriter La Farge’s life and works. But before I get there, I feel compelled to take a roundabout route. There’s no way for someone like me to talk about him without mentioning his lineage, for he was a member of what you might call America’s cultural aristocracy, with deep roots not only in my home state, but in my home town.

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La Farge was the great-great-great grandson of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (1785-1818), one of America’s first notable military figures, hero of the War of 1812, and also America’s quasi-war with the French, and the naval battles with Barbary pirates. He is famous for the slogan on his battle flag: “Don’t Give Up the Ship” and for uttering the immortal phrase “We have met the enemy and they are ours…” (later parodied in the comic strip Pogo as “We have met the enemy and they are us.”) Perry was born and raised in my hometown South Kingstown, Rhode Island, so I’ve known his name since I was a school child. (It turns out that I am distantly related to him as well, through our common ancestors the Wilbores).

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“Girl in Grass Dress (Seated Samoan Girl)”, John La Farge, 1890

In 1860, Perry’s granddaughter Margaret Mason Perry married John La Farge (1835-1910), an influential painter, illustrator, and stained-glass artist. Of French parentage, the wealthy La Farge was born in New York and studied painting with William Morris Hunt in Newport, Rhode Island. He traveled widely in Asia with Henry Adams (whom I recently learned I’m related to) and brought back influences of Japan and the South Seas which he expressed through his famous work, which you can read about here. 

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Of John La Farge’s eight children (all born at Newport), several were distinguished. Christopher Grant La Farge (1862-1938), the oldest, became a noted Beaux-Arts architect, whose best known work includes the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and several buildings at the Bronx Zoo. There’s a good article about la Farge’s firm here. His younger brother Oliver Hazard Perry La Farge (the first) was also a notable architect, writer and real estate developer. John’s youngest son John La Farge Jr., a Jesuit priest, became a famous and influential crusader against racism and anti-semitism.

Of the next generation, several more La Farges were equally famous.

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The best known is Oliver Hazard Perry La Farge (the second), Christopher’s son, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and anthropologist. His main field of study was Native American culture, which he wrote about in several books, both fiction and non-fiction. Laughing Boy (1929) was the one that won the Pulitzer, and remains his best known work. (This Oliver was Pete’s dad).

Oliver’s older brother Christopher La Farge, was also a distinguished and prolific novelist, poet and playwright, known for writing verse novels about life in Rhode Island. Remarkably, he also worked as an architect at McKim, Mead and White. I am one degree of separation from this La Farge! For when I was in high school, his son the poet W.E.R. La Farge came to my high school class and did a writing work shop. Not for nothin’, but he actually singled out a poem of mine and showed it to the class! (In retrospect, we behaved like, well, teenagers, and didn’t give this special opportunity the respect it deserved. If only I could turn back the clock -!) W.E.R.’s daughter Annik maintains a loving web site in his honor, and has also taken up the family business of writing and love of architecture, penning an excellent book and blog about New York’s High LineLearn all about it here.

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Now we come to Pete. Pete was the son of the Pulitzer prize winning OHP. Born in NYC, but raised largely in New Mexico and Colorado, when he was still a boy he met the legendary Josh White, who inspired him to become a folk singer.  In the late ’50s, he moved to Greenwich Village and became one of the key players in the scene I wrote about here. His western upbringing imbued him a love of both cowboy culture and the culture of Native Americans. It gave him an interesting authenticity that set him apart from many of the folk musicians of his generation, and in reality he was kind of a bridge between that older (30s and 40s) generation of folk and blues players and his contemporaries (Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, etc).

He became most famous for penning a song called “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” — a true story about one of the guys who raised the flag at Iwo Jim in that famous WWII photo. Hayes was a Pima Indian from Arizona. After all the heroism hoopa he went back home, where there was no opportunity and he drank himself to death. Johnny Cash had a hit record with the song in 1964, and Bob Dylan did a version on his 1973 Dylan LP, although the version I know best is Patrick Sky’s, recorded on his eponymous debut album in 1965. I’ve been listening to Sky’s record quite a bit over the past year…it was exposure to that version that led me on the journey to this blogpost.

La Farge also co-wrote a song with Dylan called “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow”. He made several records during the folk boom of the early 1960s, and died by accidental overdose (there are conflicting reports) in 1965.

Just learned there is a Pete La Farge web site (Peterlafarge.com) and a book and a documentary about him are out. Here’s about the doc, which came out in 2010:

Lefty Lucy & Friends: Burlesque Sketch Night

Posted in Burlesk, PLUGS, VISUAL ART with tags , , , on April 30, 2015 by travsd

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Century of Slapstick # 81: By the Sea

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on April 29, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the 100th anniversary of the release date  of the Charlie Chaplin Essanay comedy By the Sea.

One doesn’t often get a chance to say this, but this is one of Chaplin’s lazier efforts. Having just made The Tramp and A Jitney Elopement one might expect his next film to have maintained the same level of care and plotting. But By the Sea is kind of a throwback to his Sennett days — a bunch of comedians fooling around on a beach. Bud Jamison is the heavy, Edna Purviance is the girl, and Snub Pollard, in the midst of his brief tenure at Essanay, is the ice cream vendor.

As opposed to the overall picture, individual bits and routines stand out and are memorable. Charlie performs his famous flea routine (not fully elaborated for public consumption until 1952’s Limelight). Charlie slips on his own banana peel. Charlie and a guy are eating ice cream cones, getting ice cream on each other as they gesticulate. And the final shot, of five people sitting on a bench and tipping backwards, is visually striking, if (literally)  forced. On the other hand, you know what? We’re on a beach in 1915, and that’s always the place to be.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out 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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Georama: The Totally True Tale of America’s 1st Great Artist & Adventurer Told on 3 Miles of Canvas!

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2015 by travsd

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We had a pleasant and educational time last night at the Drama League’s Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley Studio Lab. Pal West Hyler, whose shows I have reviewed here, here and here, has co-written a new musical about the extraordinary life and work of painter John Banvard, with collaborators Matt Schatz and Jack Herrick (the latter of the Red Clay Ramblers) . The full title of the show, which is still in development. is Georama: The Totally True Tale of America’s First Great Artist and Adventurer Told on Three Miles of Canvas! 

Banvard was one of those extraordinary 19th century figures who ought to be better remembered, but whose unique accomplishments were essentially eclipsed by new technology. In sum, he painted a three mile long painting depicting a journey down the Mississippi River. Painted on canvas, it was mounted on an apparatus that allowed it to roll, like moving scenic paintings on stage. Then he toured and exhibited it, providing a sort of travelogue. For a time, he was rich and successful. This was before the time of motion pictures, and even still photography was still new and clumsy. But he was also a Quixotic figure with no head for business, a man with much in common with 20th century dreamers like Nikola Tesla, Philo Farnsworth, and Preston Tucker — men who were RIGHT, in a world where sometimes being right isn’t good enough.

It’s good fodder for a story and we heard some tuneful tunes, but we gather the real lynch-pin of an eventual production will be a re-creation of the Georama itself, and the creators’ clever way of tying story elements to the passing scene. Like Banvard himself, Hyler, Schatz and Herrick have miles to go before they sleep, but they are on the way to something spectacular.

Ranty Rant, Part Three

Posted in Broadway, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags , , , on April 28, 2015 by travsd

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To follow up some on the rant that began here and continued here…because we just can’t let go.

First I realize I need to apologize to the nice lady who invited me to see the show in the first place. I know she felt sucker-punched and I’m sure I got her in trouble with her boss. She is just an innocent by-stander in this drive-by. She was a friend, and now we’ll be dead-eyeing each other at events, and that sucks.  I guess she didn’t realize that that’s what I do , and hence this introduction to me. I’m a critic; I have very little interest in hanging out at parties.

She got it wrong when she accused me of jealousy though. I just had a couple of successful (sold out in fact) shows at some pretty prestigious venues, so it’s not quite that. And I’m smart enough to know that things go much better when you make nice-nice. And yet I GRATUITOUSLY, flagrantly did not do that.

Why would I do that? Why would someone do that? Recklessly damage relationships. For fun? For the heck of it? Ya think so?

Look at this post from yesterday. It’s because I CARE about these people. I care about protecting and promoting their art, their lives and their legacies. I don’t want to see them disrespected or treated lightly or shat upon. And — WOW — if you invoke the Holy Name of ZIEGFELD on 42nd Street — for God’s sake! — what you’re doing had better goddamn well be WORTHY of that name. And if you are presenting someone who is supposed to be EDDIE CANTOR in a BROADWAY HOUSE, hadn’t that person BETTER be the BEST Eddie Cantor impersonator in the country? Hadn’t he at least BETTER be doing an Eddie Cantor impression? And shouldn’t the music be period appropriate? These are, like, fundamental. This is before tying your shoes and brushing your teeth in the morning kind of stuff. Yet the caliber of the almost uniformly positive reviews the show is getting are like this one from Theatremania, which says off-handedly, “Fink eschews Cantor’s eye-rolling routine in favor of….” Something else. That’s okay?! That’s NOT okay! What sort of “reviewer” are you? You don’t get to just blow it off! The actor doesn’t get to blow off his role! That’s not a choice! It’s either what it’s supposed to be or it’s not.

So this thing is slipshod, amateurish, unresearched, uninformed, and unworthy of the Deuce. This venue happens to be a showplace in the heart of Times Square, the cocoon and the pinnacle of the Best in American Theatre. So take this amateur dinner theatre thing to Epcot Center or Las Vegas or someplace where people don’t know the difference! Oh, I forgot. You’re next door to Applebees, so it looks like you’re already there.

Charlie Chaplin IS “Caught in a Cabaret”

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Mabel Normand, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on April 27, 2015 by travsd
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Chaplin with Chester Conklin. Hank Mann’s in the eye patch. The rest of ’em are somebody too

Today is the anniversary of the release of the great Keystone ensemble comedy Caught in a Cabaret (1914), directed by Mabel Normand, written by and co-starring herself and Charlie Chaplin. The film has two locations, a low-down cabaret and a posh society party: because of this anyone who was anyone in the Keystone company is in the film too, and it’s fun to pick them all out.

The film is also seminal for being the first of many “stolen identity” plots Charlie would star in. Based on the earlier Biograph comedy The Baron (1911), it casts Charlie as a waiter who rescues society girl Mabel from a robbery attempt. She invites him to her house. When he shows up (on a break from his work as a waiter in a cafe) he claims to be the “Ambassador to Greece” (a slight joke; he works in a greasy spoon). Charlie the comedian pulls out the stops at the party, introducing a lot of funny business that would become part of his standard repertoire: dabbing booze behind the ears as though it were perfume; pretending to pour some in his ear and then spitting it out his mouth. And predictably he gets drink.

Like Cinderella, he must go back to work and the real world, where his boss (Edgar Kennedy) brow beats him for lateness. Then even this is too good. Mabel and her friends come to the cabaret on a slumming party and thus he is “caught”, as it says in the title. Both sides are up in arms about the situation, Kennedy literally so as he chases everyone out by shooting a gun off, which is a bit excessive if you ask me! But Mabel gives Charlie a good beating too.

While Mabel directed this picture, it seems to me that Charlie had to have been driving the scenario, or at the very least “owning” it. He returned to this predicament so many times: A Jitney Elopement, The Count, The Idle Class, City Lights, and I’m probably missing a few more. See-sawing between two lives. Chaplin, who’d been among the poorest of the earth, was now suddenly already living a dream life. (“Really? I get paid a lot of money? For this? My dream? Surely I’m an imposter. ) He must have been pinching himself daily.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out 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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