Archive for September, 2015

These Are the Female Silent Comedians

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Mabel Normand, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Slapstick, Women with tags , , , , , , on September 30, 2015 by travsd

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On Tuesdays and Thursdays in October, Turner Classic Movies will be presenting a series of programs called Trailblazing Women, hosted by none other than Ileana Douglas. 

This seemed an auspicious time for me to publish this little listicle I was planning anyway on the women of silent comedy. This is sort of a follow-up to my earlier post in which I ranked the silent comedians.  I thought up this post because dames necessarily got short shrift on the earlier list, which was focused on slapstick comedy stars. If we did such a list today, bang, zoom, no problem. Melissa McCarthy not only heads that list, but at the present moment she is my favorite contemporary slapstick star, male or female. I’m here to tell ya she has changed the entire playing field.

But a century ago, or 80 or 90 years ago? There were plenty of female comedy stars but it was rare for them to have violence done to them for all sorts of cultural reasons you already know. I’m not saying no lady ever took a pie in the face. It’s a question of ratio and proportion and what the primary associations are. The biggest female movie stars associated with comedies might best be called comic actresses (as opposed to slapstick clowns) and they may also have acted in many non-comic roles. That’s one type. Another type are the leading ladies to the major comedians. They definitely had an important role to play in the comedy, but their parts were generally more passive and reactive. They were beauties to be adored — not slobs to throw down the stairs. A third type would be the lady slapstick clown in an ensemble — important, but not a marquee name that would be above the title to sell a picture. And a fourth type would be a lady slapstick star for real….but not a major ticket-selling star (as were the artists who made that list I previously posted) But they deserve notice and celebration, so they get THIS list. There’s a lot of ’em. Probably more than you knew existed, and I didn’t even list them all.

I flirted with ranking them, but I can’t, really. So this is a just a list in no particular order (with some of the bigger ones toward the top). Click on her name and get info about the artist! (Oh yeah, I’m gonna make you work for it).

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Mabel Normand

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Constance Talmadge

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Gloria Swanson 

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Marion Davies

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Colleen Moore

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Edna Purviance

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Alice Howell

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Gale Henry

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Louise Fazenda

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Bebe Daniels

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Mildred Davis

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Jobyna Ralston

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Sybil Seeley

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Kathryn McGuire

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Marie Prevost

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Phyllis Haver

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Minta Durfee

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Flora Finch

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Alberta Vaughn

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Alice Lake

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Dorothy Devore

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Virginia Fox 

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Marion “Peanuts” Byron 

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Anita Garvin

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Dot Farley

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Madeline Hurlock

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Phyllis Allen 

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Dorothy Dwan

And many, many others, no doubt — but please don’t write to tell me “You forgot such and such!” or “Don’t forget X, Y and Z!”. Or (in spite of all my qualifiers and caveats) “So-and-so isn’t really a comedian.” You may have noticed by now I seldom publish or acknowledge such “contributions”. Feel free to start your own blog if you have an opinion you’d like to express!

For more on silent comedy please check out my 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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Movies You Need To Get!

Posted in Comedy, Movies, Movies (Contemporary), PLUGS, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on September 29, 2015 by travsd

Coincidentally, two different friends are releasing films for home consumption and I can’t recommend either of them highly enough!

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Heather Quinlan’s terrific documentary If These Knishes Could Talk: A Film About the New York Accent is available to stream now through Amazon. Read my rave review for the film in our earlier post here. And stream the film here.

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And then there’s Ben Model’s silent movie compilation Accidentally Preserved, Volume 3. We raved about Volume 1 here, and about Volume 2 here. The new one contains the following films:

Wanted, a Nurse – with Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew (1915) – 12 mins
When he falls for a pretty nurse aiding a sick man on the street, lovesick Sidney Drew feigns illness and is taken to the hospital in order to meet her, although his plan develops complications.

Service a lá Bunk – with Bobby Ray (1921) – 10 mins
Diminutive Bobby Ray has all sorts of troubles as a restaurant chef, which culminate in a mouse pot pie that sends him, the proprietor and customers into a wild chase.

A Citrate Special – with Martin Wolfkeil and Thurston Hall (192?) – 3 mins
This privately-made prank film made by an unknown studio and never intended for release involves an irritable film director, a revengeful prop man and a bottle of “croton oil” (a known super-laxative in the 1910s and ’20s).

The Whirlwind – with Joe Rock (1922) – 11 mins
Comedian Joe Rock blows into town during a wild windstorm and falls in love. The girl’s father promises him her hand, if Joe can stop the whirlwind.

No Vacancies – with Jay Belasco, Billy Armstrong and Jack Duffy (1923) – 20 mins
A couple faces a housing shortage and take jobs in a residency hotel as maid and handyman as a ruse to live there.

Love’s Young Scream – with Anne Cornwall and Jimmie Harrison (1928) – 14 mins
Anne and Jimmie are getting married, but her father bribes the clerk to give them a fake license. When he hears they’re heading to Mexico for a honeymoon, a wild chase ensues.

Hot Luck – with Malcolm “Big Boy” Sebastian (1928) – 16 mins
“Big Boy” comes to work with his father at the firehouse, but take-your-kid-to-work day doesn’t work out so well when the chief has a “No Children Allowed” policy.

Whose Baby? – with Arthur Lake (1929) – 11 mins
Arthur Lake (better known for his portrayal of Dagwood Bumstead in the 1940s) romances a young gal but their date goes sour when he inadvertently winds up minding someone’s baby.

Half a Hero – with Billy Barty (1929/30) – 8 mins
A woman is trapped in a barn by two evil farmhands, and is rescued by toddler Billy Barty and a few of his animal friends.

Order your copy here. 

Last Night’s Lower East Side Junket

Posted in Burlesk, Contemporary Variety, German, Indie Theatre, PLUGS, Singers, Singing Comediennes, Women with tags , , , , , , on September 29, 2015 by travsd

Despite yesterday’s oppressively nasty weather, the Mad Marchioness and I finally shook off our summertime torpor last night and poked our heads out into the world. It’s been months since we’ve done such a thing, and as often happens after such a hiatus, we stacked a bunch of activities into a single evening, helped along by convenient geography.

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First we went to the Slipper Room for a sneak peek at Jonny Porkpie’s new silent movie themed burlesque revue, The Stripteaser, featuring himself, Jo “Boobs” Weldon, Fancy Feast, Bastard Keith, Fem Appeal, Patrick Davis, and Polly Wood. It’s duly hilarious and we will be going back to see it again with all the bells and whistles tomorrow night. You should too! Info and tickets are here. 

Next we ate large piles of food at Phebe’s (without an “o”, never put an “o”), where we ran into performer Ione Lloyd, on her way to something at New York Theatre Workshop, I think she said.

Whereas, we were on our way to LaMama, for the launch event for their new downstairs theatre space. If I am counting correctly this is their fourth playing space, essentially a blackbox (in this case a brick box), brand spanking new and shiny on their basement level. Congrats to them! For an institution to still be vibrant and growing at this age! We saw artistic director Mia Yoo, producing director Beverly Petty, Cathy Shaw from the box office, and:

Nicky Paraiso of the Club at La Mama, and Linda Chapman, Associate Artistic Director at NYTW

Nicky Paraiso of the Club at La Mama, and Linda Chapman, Associate Artistic Director at NYTW

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Kids’ Art!

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Then finally, the climax of the evening, Mad Jenny and the Society Band’s debut at Pangea.   I had the terrifying realization last night that I have known, admired and worked with this performer for almost NINE years. Where that time went, I have no idea, but I felt like I saw it all in her performance last night, ideas she has been talking about and planning and trying out here and there over a long period — with this show as the glorious culmination.

With her beautiful singing voice, her clown training, her command of German, and her sharp sophisticated mind, this is a show only SHE could have put together (with her collaborators of course, but who but she could star in this act?).  It’s almost all Berlin cabaret material, by the likes of Brecht, Weill, Eisler and many others. Because her command is so encyclopedic and curated with such vision and focus the repertoire is much more esoteric than the usual “Weimar’s greatest hits” approach most performers tend to take when they attempt this kind of material. The one tune I knew was the “Barbara Song” from Threepenny, although in a different translation from the one I know best (the from the 1954 Broadway production.) Oh yes and she threw in a Eurythmics song which I vaguely recognized. I won’t tell you what she does with props in the show, because that would spoil lots of wonderful surprises, but among the many treats on the song list is a gay-pride anthem from 1921 called “The Lavender Song”, a 1928 abortion song, and a great feminist number from 1931 called “Chuck All the Men”. It’s not all political, but these stuck out — they’re almost a century old….and wow, they still need to be sung, a fact which is stunning, and damning.  But, really, the show was all highlights. When it was over, no one wanted to stop clapping or even let her go. She got two encores, and really the audience still wanted more after that. She’s already got more shows booked, but something tells me a proper long run will be in order once word gets around. People will want to see this and see this again. I would gladly go again already! To get more info on Mad Jenny and her upcoming shows go here. 

Phillips Carlin: On the Air

Posted in Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , on September 28, 2015 by travsd

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Phillips Carlin (1894-1971) was a radio broadcaster who got his start locally at New York’s WEAF, and then was the announcer for several national programs on NBC, as well as the 1926, 1927 and 1928 World Series.

In the waning days of vaudeville in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Carlin hosted several radio revues at the Palace called “On the Air”, designed to help bolster attendance. This was an NBC tie-in, of course. By then the old Keith circuit was part of R.K.O., which was affiliated with N.B.C.  The attendance gambit didn’t work, but ideas like this sound intriguing, and help us to imagine what a “future vaudeville” might have been like if vaudeville hadn’t died out. Carlin later became a major programming executive at NBC and the Mutual Broadcasting Company, and after that went on to produce commercials.

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, released by Bear Manor Media. 

Clark and Bergman

Posted in Music, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2015 by travsd

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The team of Gladys Clark and Henry (sometimes “Harry”) Bergman (1887-1962) were prominent in vaudeville throughout the teens and twenties. They often fronted tab shows produced for vaudeville by Jesse Lasky, including “The Trained Nurses” (1913) and “The Society Buds” (1914), and they introduced many Irving Berlin songs to the public from the vaudeville stage, such as “Remember” (1925) and “Always” (1926).  They also appeared together on Broadway in The Passing Show of 1917. And they are also in one talkie short made in 1930 called Do It Now , which one reviewer called “Dull, Obvious and decidedly unfunny”, though their vaudeville reviews were usually quite good.

I find references to Clark and Bergman appearing as a team as early as 1909, when Bergman was only 22 years old.  I’ve come across references to Clark (sometimes spelled “Clarke”) working in acts previous to her pairing with Bergman as early as 1906.  Bergman, originally from New York, had started out with Gus Edwards kiddie acts.

It is often erroneously assumed and reported that Bergman is the same Henry Bergman who appeared in several Charlie Chaplin movies, but a quick glance at the picture on the sheet music above and the many other pieces of published sheet music on which the couple’s likeness appeared will quickly disabuse you of that notion. Also, Chaplin’s Henry Bergman was quite gay, and this Henry Bergman had a wife named Gladys (and nothing is more heterosexual than that). Circa 1939, the pair moved to San Antonio Texas where Bergman managed the Broadway Theatre and this is where they lived out the balance of their lives.

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, released by Bear Manor Media. 

Glenn Hunter

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of actor Glenn Hunter (1894-1945).

Hunter’s career lasted nearly thirty years, embracing Broadway, vaudeville and films. He was only 19 when he first made it to Broadway; his notable successes there included the role of Merton in the original production of Merton of the Movies (1922-1923), and Roy, the male lead in the original NY production of Waterloo Bridge (1930). At the same time, he acted in playlets in big time vaudeville. He played the Palace in the 1920s. He starred in over a dozen films; all but one of his screen credits are during the silent era in the 1920s (one of them is the original screen adaptation of Merton of the Movies). His last play on Broadway was Journey’s End (1939). His last film was a small role in the 1941 comedy For Beauty’s Sake. He was married to lady bandleader Babe Egan. 

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, released by Bear Manor Media. 

The Movies the Beatles Never Made

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Music, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2015 by travsd

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Sunday morning at 11am, the Film Forum in New York will be showing the Beatles’ classic Hard Day’s Night as part of its Film Forum Jr. series.

As we did with our recent “last Beatles’ record post we thought we’d take the occasion to ruminate about another “might have been”: the Beatle movies that might have been made, maybe even ought to have been made, but never were.

If you’re like me, you’re crazy about the Beatles’ first two movies, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), both directed by Richard Lester. Their list of virtues is long, among them a certain freshness and a feeling of promise. The four young men are so winning in these movies, and they are so entertaining and original, that I imagine that everyone at the time assumed that they were at the beginning of a long and healthy film career, just as they were at the beginning of a long and healthy musical career. How could that not be the assumption?

Both of these films seemed expressions of the zeitgeist. Their public personae were already gelling from constant TV appearances (more varied in England than in the U.S. In their home country they would often take part in comedy skits on variety shows as opposed to just playing their latest hits). The Beatles were talented musicians and songwriters and very funny guys, but the genius of crafting their IMAGE belonged to their manager Brian Epstein. The public saw them as boyish and playful, with a slightly gritty and wicked working class edge. In England, they seemed to represent their economic class; in the rest of the world, including the U.S. they were icons representing England. Hence, their MBEs and later Paul’s knighthood. They were national products.

To me, A Hard Day’s Night, though ostensibly light and bubbly, carries echoes of the “Angry Young Man” school of the late ’50s and early ’60s, as well as the French and British New Waves. Undercurrents of rebellion: “Sorry we hurt your field, Mister!”, and the constant motiff of escape from authority figures and responsibility. Plus the gritty look of London in black and white. The four of them are not only acerbic but even epigrammatic in their deadpan Liverpool wit…and occasionally downright zany, especially John Lennon, who occasionally did crazy faces and voices reminiscent of the cast of the Goon Show, especially Peter Sellers. 

Some people are less crazy about Help! but I truly love it. It’s a gorgeous film to look at and it’s kind of genius to riff on James Bond films, and there are times when I actually feel like the soundtrack to this film is my favorite Beatles album. (An explication as to why will have to await a future occasion.)

We’ll get to the remaining Beatles films shortly and why they are not real Beatles movies in the same sense as the first two. But first, let’s talk about original plans for a couple of “third” films that were designed to be the 1966 follow up to the first couple:

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A Talent for Loving: Or The Great Cowboy Race

This was a talked-about comedy western script concerning a Mexican nymphomaniac and the cowboys who pursue her, based on the novel by Richard Condon, best known for The Manchurian Candidate. After some back and forth the Beatles vetoed it. Ironically it was Lennon in particular (followed by Harrison) who seemed to dislike and resent their movies to that point. They both scorned the “cheeky” dialogue, which they felt was false. And Lennon disliked the idea of doing things outside reality, as in Help! or the proposed western. He said it was like they were forced to be “clams in a movie about frogs.” (What that LEAVES precisely in the business of making movies, he didn’t say, although the fact that he stopped making movies entirely I guess provides the answer.)

Again, ironically, Lennon was a fan of The Monkees and the “Pre-Fab Four” did this sort of thing routinely. In fact they even did the western parody thing on more than one occasion:

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So did Sonny and Cher in their wild and weird 1968 movie Good Times. 

Condon’s script was eventually made into a film in 1969, starring Richard Widmark, Cesar Romero and Chaim Topoi. Hoo boy, is THAT a different film! Anyway, here’s what the Beatles’ version might have looked like.

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The Three Musketeers

Richard Lester originally conceived this project (which he eventually made with another great cast in 1973) to be his third film with the Beatles. The idea makes me salivate. They would have been great. It’s perfect for them. Sex, cheeky humor and not too much acting required….with Ringo as the natural D’artagnan. They really should have done it. That is, it would have been perfect for the 1964 era Beatles, when they were still running and jumping around. By the time this film came out almost a decade later of course they had not only broken up, but fancied themselves sages, poets, revolutionaries and farmers…anything but a cheerful quartet of mop-tops. Here’s how they might have looked (from a tv comedy sketch they did lampooning Shakespeare in 1964):

What DID happen in 1966, was the Beatles stopped touring, and having some time on their hands, two of the Beatles began to get their feet wet in movie projects on their own. (One of the many incremental steps to their break-up). Lennon appeared in Richard Lester’s 1966 film How I Won the War, and was really self-conscious and terrible. This is surely what must have convinced him not to pursue movie roles in the future, although he’d been great in the first two Beatle movies. And McCartney scored the soundtrack for a topical Hayley Mills comedy called The Family Way (or, rather, he hummed a couple of themes and George Martin scored the film). So they kept a hand in for a time.

Then, the following year, at the height of their fame there was this:

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Swinging London playwright Joe Orton wrote a TERRIFIC screenplay for the Beatles called Up Against It. I’ve read this and saw a production of a stage version at Emerson College, and frankly I think the Fab Four had their heads way up their arses (to use a favorite word of Orton’s) for not doing it. They never even got back to Orton. You can read more about it here. 

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Then, the worst thing possible happened, for those who cared about the continued existence of the Beatles, both in and out of movies. Their manager Brian Epstein died. Almost immediately their public identity as a single unit began to unravel. And quality control was out the window.

In fact their very first project after Epstein’s death was the fairly terrible Magical Mystery Tour debacle (1967), devised by Paul McCartney. A plotless, improvised experimental film, accompanied by an uneven soundtrack album (drug-addled, a definite step down from the high mark of Sgt. Pepper) it marked the beginning of the group’s decline. Really Magical Mystery Tour doesn’t count as a movie, at least in terms of what general audiences want to see. (Rabid Beatles fans like me of course will watch it repeatedly, but really….people don’t line up to buy tickets to this sort of thing.)

Then what? More dissolution. Harrison did the soundtrack to another experimental movie called Wonderwall (1968). The excellent animated film Yellow Submarine (1968) came out, but again that doesn’t really count, because apart from a couple of new songs and a brief greeting at the end of the film, the Beatles had nothing to do with it. They neither appear on screen themselves (for they are animated cartoons) nor do they even do their voice-overs; some other actors did that. This was true also of the animated Beatles TV series, which ran from 1965 through 1967. Great movie and charming show, but they’re not the “follow up” we have been discussing. For a follow up, you have to SHOW up.

Other cool projects were discussed however. Most notably this:

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The Lord of The Rings

Wizards very much IN circa 1967 and 1968. After the formation of the Beatles’ production company Apple Corps. there was some serious hardcore discussion of an adaptation of the fantasy classic The Lord of the Rings, possibly directed by Stanley Kubrick, featuring Lennon as Gollum, Harrison as Gandolf, McCartney as Frodo and Ringo as Sam. The latter, by the way, I think is GENIUS casting. Ringo’s best screen roles were often versions of Sancho Panza. I have also heard versions of this fabled picture in which the four Beatles played the four Hobbits: Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin, and the director was John Boorman.

In any case, J.R.R. Tolkien hated the Beatles’ music and so he put the kibosh on any such project. What might the soundtrack have been like? I’ve often thought the Rolling Stones’ 1967 album Their Satanic Majesty’s Request was filled with sounds and imagery evocative of this book, especially the songs “Citadel”, “In Another Land” and “Gomper”.

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A Clockwork Orange

And speaking of Stanley Kubrick…prior to his official sign-on as director of A Clockwork Orange, in 1968 producer Si Litvinoff had enlisted the involvement of the Beatles and Mick Jagger in the project. Jagger was to play Alex and the Beatles would do the soundtrack….although I can easily imagine the Beatles (especially younger Beatles) as the quartet in the story, although that would change their image quite a lot, wouldn’t it? When Kubrick came aboard he had other ideas and so the rock stars were shoved aside, much to the consternation of their fans.

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In 1969, Ringo was the movie star of the group, thanks to his solo appearances in Candy (1968) and The Magic Christian (1969). In fact, you could say that in 1969 his movie star status elevated him almost to the level of the other three members of the band (that, and the fact that he’d been singled out by critics for his performance in A Hard Day’s Night). After the group’s break-up he squandered this status by making lots of disposable weird films with fellow rock stars Harry Nilsson, Frank Zappa, and Keith Moon. By the 90s, a regular spot on Thomas the Tank Engine was his best screen credit.

Lennon, perhaps the biggest potential movie star of the lot, contented himself with several experimental films he made with Yoko Ono.

Richard Lester thought George Harrison was the best and most natural Beatle actor, that he “nailed every line”. And of course he was to make the biggest mark in the film industry of the four, though it was to be as a producer.

And I hope we can all agree the Paul McCartney was hands down the worst of the four when it came to do with any aspect of cinema. As an actor, he was self conscious, almost embarrassed in front of a camera, despite all the girls going for his dreamy eyes. And the films which he actually made or produced, Magical Mystery Tour, Let It Be (1970) and Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984) are all amateurish, self-indulgent garbage.

Why do we (I) want more from them, when it comes to films? For one reason, because there is so much precedent in show business for singers conquering films: Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and even Elvis Presley (and I haven’t even mentioned women — if I do that, I’ll be listing names all day). So we figure more Beatle movies ought to be a natural outcome. And those first two movies are so good, showed such promise….

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