Damned Yankees and Unreconstructed Rebels

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Last week my wife and I visited our daughter in Nashville, Tennessee. She and her fiancé had recently moved there, so we headed down from Ohio to “house-warm” their new home.

The new place needed some yardwork, so Mike and I made a trip to the nearest Home Depot to get a few things. While searching for corrugated pipe, we were approached by “Jimmy,” a store employee.

“Can I help y’all with anything?” Jimmy asked in a thick Southern drawl. He looked about 55 years old. He had big, sad eyes and a large belly that fully stretched his bright orange apron.

“Well, we’re looking for some piping to divert water from a downspout,” I said. “My daughter and her fiancé just bought a new house, and we need to fix a few things.”welcome nashville

“Where d’yall move from?” he asked.

“From Philadelphia,” Mike responded.

“Oh… a Yankee,” he said with just a trace of a smile.

(I felt something coming. Sure enough, it came).

“Know the difference between a Yankee and a damned Yankee?” Jimmy asked us.

“Uh… don’t know,” we answered.

“A Yankee comes down here then goes home. A damned Yankee stays!”

mapMike and I laughed. Mike then offered an olive branch by saying his original home, Maryland, was a “border state.”. I thought about telling Jimmy that I went to a school in Pennsylvania… near Gettysburg. Then I thought that might not be a good idea.

Jimmy then elaborated that he actually wasn’t prejudiced. He liked everybody, no matter where they hailed from. To prove it, he waylaid us for about 10 minutes while he talked about himself.

Jimmy turned out to be really nice, and very helpful. But his “damned Yankee” joke, and his insistence that he wasn’t prejudiced toward Northerners, reminded me that, yeah… attitudes are just a little different in good ole Dixie. Victorious in the war, we Yankees don’t make North-South distinctions as often as Southerners, even in jest.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard a fellow Yankee mutter the term “Damned Rebel.”

 ___________

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Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant

The American Civil War ended 150 years ago this month. The Battle of Appomattox Court House occurred on April 9, 1865, where Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Lee’s capitulation created a wave of Confederate surrenders throughout the South. The last land battle, the Battle of Palmito Ranch, occurred on May 12-13. The CSS Shenandoah held out until November, when it finally waved the white flag off Liverpool, England.

In victory, Grant was magnanimous. He forbade his troops from celebrating, and his terms of surrender were generous in the extreme.

In defeat, Lee was dignified and noble. He discussed with Grant the last time they’d met, twenty years earlier, during the Mexican-American War. Following Appomattox and for the rest of his life, Lee would not allow anything unkind to be said of Grant.

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee

There have been a lot of changes in the last 150 years: Reconstruction, industrialization, Jim Crow laws, two World Wars, civil and voting rights, a black president elected, instant mobilization and communication… Elvis.  But despite our long, strange trip, there remains a gnawing resentment in some quarters. It stems from the fact that a long, bloody war was fought, and a collection of rebellious states was vanquished. Many of the descendants of those who lost the war cling to a forlorn hope their ancestors will one day be vindicated.

But the resentment is more complex. Today it’s bound up in, not only the Rebel flag, but passionate feelings about racial and ethnic diversity, religion, culture, tax policy, states’ rights versus federal regulation, immigration, health care access, etc.  Sure, there are many Northerners who are just as passionate about these issues.  But I don’t think it’s as visceral as down South.

A few years ago I read a great book: “Confederates in the Attic” by Tony Horwitz. Horwitz – a Civil War buff, a liberal, a Jew, and a Yankee – made a solo journey through the South, meeting and talking with various neo-Confederates about the war (some of whom merely had a fetish about a bygone era, but others who were full-fledged racists and xenophobes). At the end of his journey, he came to this eye-opening conclusion:

For many Southerners I’d met, remembrance of the War had become a talisman against modernity, an emotional lever for their reactionary politics…While I felt almost no ideological kinship with these unreconstructed rebels, I’d come to recognize that in one sense they were right. The issues at stake in the Civil War – race in particular – remained raw and unresolved, as did the broad question the conflict posed: Would America remain one nation?”

In the 1860s it was a regional conflict.  confederatesToday the conflict is more ideological.  I don’t think America will allow itself to become ripped apart ever again. But things seem to get uglier all the time in Washington. And I see more “Don’t Tread On Me” flags lately than I care to.

That being said, I thought Jimmy, Mike and I showed the right spirit.  Like Ulysses S. Grant, Mike and I were magnanimous in laughing at Jimmy’s Yankee joke, and patiently listening to him ramble.

And I’m confident that Jimmy – similar to Robert E. Lee – will never allow anything ugly to be said about carpetbagging Yankees like us.

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Steve McQueen: The King of Cool (Part Two)

GREAT ESCAPE, THE

(Tuesday, March 24 is the late Steve McQueen’s 85th birthday. To honor this charismatic actor, here is the second of my two-part commemoration of the man and his films)

There’s a scene in the movie THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) where American POW Virgil Hilts, known as “The Cooler King” due to his repeated banishments to the isolation box, squats on the dirt in his cramped cell, smiles, and begins to bounce a baseball against the opposite wall. There’s no dialog. But the character’s actions imply “You bastards may be able to kill me. But you can’t eat me.”

This scene is one of many examples of why Steve McQueen earned the title “The King of Cool.”

THE GREAT ESCAPE served notice that a new matinee idol had arrived in Hollywood. As film critic Leonard Maltin observed, “The large international cast is superb, but the standout is McQueen; it’s easy to see why this cemented his status as a superstar.”

After this movie, McQueen was offered one juicy role after another. He was paired with some of the most ravishing starlets in Hollywood: Natalie Wood, Lee Remick, Ann-Margret, Suzanne Pleshette, Faye Dunaway, Jacqueline Bisset. He commanded top dollar for his films. In 1968, his peak year, he starred in two blockbuster films that perfectly exploited his antihero credentials: THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR and BULLITT.

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Getting passionate with Faye Dunaway in “The Thomas Crown Affair”

In THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, McQueen portrays a wealthy playboy and sportsman who dabbles in high-stakes crime on the side. He’s an ultra-intelligent, smooth operator who enjoys playing chess, riding his dune buggy, reading the Wall Street Journal, and – just for kicks – robbing banks. After masterminding one multi-million-dollar bank heist, an insurance investigator (Faye Dunaway) is hired to trip him up. She comes close to nabbing him in an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse, but of course, she eventually succumbs to his charm. The split-screen scene where McQueen and Dunaway compete in a sexually charged game of chess, then kiss rapturously while the camera whirls around them, is one of the great moments in cinema history, and it assisted Michel Legrand in winning an Oscar for the song “The Windmills of Your Mind.”

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Classic photo of McQueen and shoulder holster, from his quintessential film, “Bullitt”

McQueen’s next movie, BULLITT, which was produced by McQueen’s own Solar Productions company, has an even more iconic sequence. The storyline is nothing exceptional: a police lieutenant appropriately named Frank Bullitt (McQueen) is hired to protect a government witness, who is eventually killed, and Bullitt has to contend with both the Mafia and a vengeful politician (Robert Vaughn). But the film is special for its on-location camerawork, the piece-de-resistance being a high-speed car chase across the hills of San Francisco. This 10-minute chase is considered one of the most exciting ever filmed, with veteran racer McQueen doing the close-up driving scenes himself, including a classic spinout in a turbo-charged, 1968 Ford Mustang GT (the high-speed scenes were done by several well-known stunt drivers, one of whom had doubled for McQueen during the motorcycle jump over barbed wire in THE GREAT ESCAPE). During filming, the two cars reached speeds of an astonishing 110 mph. The BULLITT car chase scene became the model for dozens of other similar chases peppered throughout commercials, comedies, and action films. But other than maybe THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) starring Gene Hackman, none have come close to McQueen and BULLITT.

After BULLITT, McQueen had enough power and a big enough bank account to race cars and bikes whenever he felt like it. He not only made sure his films had at least one car scene (at least, those set in the automobile age), he also made documentaries about racing, most notably ON ANY SUNDAY (1971), a motorcycle documentary partially produced by and featuring McQueen, and which critic Roger Ebert said “does for motorcycle racing what THE ENDLESS SUMMER did for surfing.”

But McQueen’s film output slowed down considerably after 1969. On the night of August 9, two close friends, actress Sharon Tate and hairdresser Jay Sebring, became victims of the Manson Family murder spree. McQueen had been invited to Tate’s house that same night, but had turned it down because he had a date. He was also supposedly on Manson’s hit list after his production company rejected a Manson screenplay. McQueen’s first wife, Neile, claims that Steve was so spooked he started carrying a concealed handgun everywhere.

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Dressed for speed in LE MANS

In 1971, McQueen realized a dream and produced a movie about the renowned 24-hour road race in Le Mans, France. Racing fans love LE MANS for its authenticity – and McQueen never looked “cooler” – but the film plot was fairly opaque, and it was essentially a vanity project for McQueen (he’d turned down the lead role in the earlier racing film, GRAND PRIX (1966), the role eventually going to fellow race enthusiast and friend James Garner).

During the 1970s, McQueen only made five feature films. Two of them, the lighthearted rodeo homage JUNIOR BONNER (1972) and the crime thriller THE GETAWAY (1972), were done with infamous director Sam Peckinpah, who had an affinity for antiheroes and how they cope in a brutal world. In THE GETAWAY, McQueen portrays an ex-con who robs a bank and goes on the lam with his girlfriend (played by Ali McGraw). High on style but low in substance, THE GETAWAY was a much-needed hit for both McQueen and Peckinpah. But it also broke up McQueen’s marriage to Neile, as he and McGraw became lovers during the film, and eventually married (then divorced in 1978).

In 1974 McQueen was reunited with Paul Newman, one of the few actors who could compete with him at the box office. They headlined the Irwin Allen disaster epic THE TOWERING INFERNO, with McQueen playing a fire chief, and Newman portraying an architect. Both actors wanted lead billing… but which one would get it? The producers solved the dilemma by putting McQueen’s name first, on the left, but Newman’s name slightly higher, on the right! Additionally, both actors received the same pay and had the same number of lines. Poor William Holden, also in the film, had evidently become too old to compete with the other two!

McQueen’s last film of the ‘70s was another vanity project: AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, based on a Henrik Ibsen play, and in which McQueen played a principled doctor who has a feud with his materialistic neighbors. The McQueen everyone knew and loved was practically hidden behind a beard and spectacles, and the film had an extremely limited theatrical release.

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Taking a break on the set of TOM HORN, his second-to-last film

McQueen returned to familiar territory for his last two films, TOM HORN (1980) and THE HUNTER (1980). The former is a period piece based on true-life cowboy bounty hunter Horn, who was controversially hanged for murder in 1903. In THE HUNTER, McQueen played a contemporary bounty hunter, and was reunited with THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN co-star Eli Wallach. Although both movies were up McQueen’s alley (recalling bounty hunter Josh Randall in “Wanted: Dead or Alive”), both were unfortunately critical and commercial disappointments.

It was during the filming of TOM HORN that McQueen started to have trouble breathing. He was eventually diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, an aggressive type of lung cancer (though McQueen was a heavy smoker, Neile cited the cause as asbestos exposure, possibly received from Steve soaking his racing facemask in the chemical, which was an oft-used fire retardant… it was long before the dangers of asbestos were known). McQueen fought valiantly against his cancer. He even resorted to controversial treatments that involved coffee enemas and injections of live cells from cows and sheep. But on November 7, 1980, after surgery in Juarez, Mexico to remove a massive tumor, he died of cardiac arrest. He was only 50 years old.

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Layin’ back with James Coburn in pickup truck. Note the Castrol motor oil and Lucky Lager beer bottles

Since McQueen’s death 35 years ago, he’s been the subject of many biographies. He’s been name-dropped in songs by the Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, Jimmy Webb, Sheryl Crow, UFO, and many others. The English band Prefab Sprout named an entire album after him. According to Wikipedia, possessions by the late actor sell in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. He had a collection of 130 motorcycles that sold in the millions within four years of his death. Lines of expensive clothing and watches have been inspired by him. Most tellingly, his estate is in the top 10 of highest earning deceased celebrities. Long after his death, the King of Cool remains a hot property.

And how many actors have been inducted into both the Motorcycle Hall of Fame and the Hall of Great Western Performers?

For a brief moment in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a rugged, blue-eyed ex-reform school punk named Steve McQueen burned like red lava flowing from an active volcano. Even in ensemble films, McQueen was so magnetic a presence you couldn’t tear your eyes away from him. If you were born too late to catch him the first time around, his films are still easily available. Below is a short list of what I consider his best flicks (I’ve already discussed three of them).  So grab some popcorn, turn down the lights, and enjoy a Great Escape with the King of Cool.

1. THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)

2. NEVADA SMITH (1966). Based on a character in Harold Robbins’ novel “The Carpetbaggers,” this is a compelling Western about revenge. McQueen plays a half-Indian teenager (you heard right) whose parents are brutally murdered by three outlaws. One by one he tracks them down. McQueen gets to display his athleticism in some great action scenes, including a tense knife fight with his former Actors Studio buddy, Martin Landau. The final scene with Karl Malden is killer.nevada smith

3. THE SAND PEBBLES (1966). McQueen was nominated for four Golden Globe awards during his career, but this was his only Academy Award nomination. sand pebblesHe plays a rebellious, Brooklyn-bred machinist’s mate stationed on a Yangtze River gunboat in 1926. He’s not only convincing in his role, but the film has a great supporting cast, including Candice Bergen, Richard Attenborough, and Richard Crenna.

4. THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1968)

5. BULLITT (1968)

6. THE REIVERS (1969). One of the best all-round movies McQueen made, THE REIVERS is based on a lesser known novel by William Faulkner. It’s a totally winning slice of rural Americana, with McQueen stepping out of his comfort zone and playing Boon Hoggenbeck, a conniving roustabout who cons a young boy into “borrowing” his grandfather’s 1905 Winton Flyer automobile for a trip down the backroads of Mississippi. mcqueen_reiversThe film comes a little close to Disney territory, but there’s enough sobriety to keep it honest, and McQueen never looked happier. And this time he gets to goof in the mud with an antique set of wheels!

7. PAPILLON (1973). McQueen shares the spotlight with another Hollywood legend, Dustin Hoffman, in this tale (based on a true story) about two Frenchmen who are exiled for life to Devil’s Island prison off of French Guiana in the 1930s. No need to worry about Hoffman, though: McQueen is the whole movie. This film is full-fledged action-adventure, and it’s both long and intense. It deals with the indomitability of the human spirit (think of it as THE GREAT ESCAPE on acid). Like so many McQueen films, this one features several classic scenes: a skillfully photographed slow-motion sequence of McQueen stumbling into a jungle river while trying to escape; and the final shot, when he catapults himself off a massive cliff into the ocean. Characteristically, McQueen insisted on doing this dangerous stunt himself. The King of Cool got his way.

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Steve McQueen: The King of Cool (Part One)

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One of the fun things about hosting a blog is you get to share with others your fave hobbies and heroes. Most of my childhood heroes were either musical or athletic. But some were delivered via MGM or 20th Century Fox.

In my last post I took a swipe at the Academy Awards ceremony. But as crude and ostentatious as Tinseltown can get, it’s not all bad news. In its defense, the film industry does provide (fairly) affordable diversion for a large demographic. And moving pictures do have a way of making our lives just a little less drab.

Ray Davies of The Kinks sang that “Celluloid heroes never really die.” If that’s true of anyone, it’s true of actor Steve McQueen. McQueen’s heyday was the 1960s-70s, when he was the biggest draw in Hollywood. He left us way too young, but he’ll always be alive in celluloid. He was my favorite actor, bar none. “Cool” is real important when you’re young. And McQueen virtually defined the concept of cool.Bullitt jacket

But to be cool, McQueen didn’t need sunglasses, fast cars, or a stable of foxy women (though he had all that and more). It was more the way he moved and spoke both on and offscreen. He had a ruggedness and lithe athleticism that appealed to men as much as women. He rarely overacted, kept his dialog sparse, and emphasized a graceful physicality (plus, not every actor is lucky to be born with steel blue eyes and a winsome smile).

McQueen created a mold for numerous “action heroes” who sprang up in his wake – I won’t name them, you can probably guess. But these screen children of McQueen always looked stilted, plastic, mass-assembled. They just didn’t have McQueen’s naturalness and poise. Maybe because the line between McQueen’s art and life was often blurred. He was the anti-Hollywood anti-hero.

McQueen is a celluloid hero who was so riveting a presence, he’ll never fade from screen glory. March 24 will be his 85th birthday. Here’s my two-part tribute to the King of Cool.

 _____________

The first movie of McQueen’s that I ever saw was the WW2 POW escape film THE GREAT ESCAPE. In 1963 it had been a major box-office success, and it was soon scheduled to debut on television. This was in a time when there were only three TV stations: ABC, CBS, and NBC. One of the older kids on my block (either Mike Keefer or John Hire, I can’t remember which) had probably seen a television preview or a “TV Guide” advertisement. Well, the buildup to the televised airing of this film was almost as big as the annual showing of THE WIZARD OF OZ. Here’s how our curbside talk probably went:

“Man, you just gotta see this movie!”mcqueen_motorcycle

“Why?”

“It’s really cool! This escaped POW jumps a barbed wire fence with a motorcycle!”

(Obviously, the motorcycle stunt was the sole incentive for watching the movie).

Well, THE GREAT ESCAPE came on at 9 pm, and I did see a little of it before bedtime (it was the latest I’d ever stayed up – at least until the debut of the popular detective show “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.“). The much-anticipated motorcycle scene came toward the end, so I probably missed this tilting of the earth’s axis. But THE GREAT ESCAPE was my introduction to Steve McQueen, and over the years I would see almost all of his flicks.

When I die I don’t wanna go to heaven

I just wanna drive my beautiful machine

Up north on some Sonoma country road

With Jimmy Dean and Steve McQueen”

– Jimmy Webb, from “Too Young to Die”

McQueen was born March 24, 1930 in Indianapolis, Indiana as Terence Steven McQueen. His father, a stunt pilot in a traveling circus, abandoned the family when Steve was young. His mother was supposedly an alcoholic and prostitute. McQueen briefly lived on his great-uncle’s farm in Missouri, before moving to Los Angeles with his mother and an abusive stepfather when McQueen was 12.

In California, McQueen joined a gang and had frequent clashes with both his stepfather and the cops. He was eventually sent to California Junior Boys Republic in Chino, California. This reform school helped tame McQueen’s lawless ways a little (after he became famous, he made frequent visits to the school, and made secretive and substantial charitable contributions).

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Chilling out on the set of “The Great Escape” (1963) with Charles Bronson and James Coburn

At age 16, McQueen joined his mother in Greenwich Village, New York. He eventually signed with the Merchant Marine, and later the U.S. Marine Corps, where he served in the honor guard. In the Marines, McQueen learned discipline, and he was honorably discharged in 1950. He later drew on his military experience in several movies.

The G.I. Bill helped McQueen finance acting classes at Sanford Meisner’s renowned Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, in New York City. Then he auditioned for Lee Strasberg’s famous Actor’s Studio. Out of some 2,000 actors, McQueen was one of only five who was accepted (Martin Landau was another). He acted in small theater productions, supplementing his income with winnings from weekend motorcycle racing on Long Island. In 1955 he starred in the Broadway production of “Hatful of Rain,” a story that dealt with heroin addiction (the play was later made into a movie, without McQueen). McQueen’s dramatic turn in “Hatful” spurred a move to Hollywood to try his hand at film.

Between 1955 and his breakthrough role in THE GREAT ESCAPE, McQueen popped up in many TV roles and movies, sometimes uncredited. Most are unmemorable, but some of the highlights include the following:

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Ready to fight, in his first film

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956): a loose biography of boxer Rocky Graziano, this is McQueen’s earliest film role. He draws on his rebellious past for a bit part as a switchblade wielding pool hall punk. This movie is notable for being Paul Newman’s second film, and it’s very good (Sylvester Stallone had to have seen this at least a dozen times before he wrote ROCKY). McQueen and Newman would later become the top grossing male stars in Hollywood and, despite being friends offscreen, battle for top billing.

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Stalking slime with Aneta Corsaut in “The Blob”

The Blob (1958): a typical cheesy, 1950s monster movie, this was McQueen’s first lead role in a movie. Even though a wizened 28, he played a teenager who helps save his town from an alien slime that has a hunger for humans. The cult film is notable for the title song, an early and decidedly goofy composition by Burt Bacharach. Also notable for McQueen’s love interest, Aneta Corsaut, who later appeared as Helen Crump in “The Andy Griffith Show” (why the heck would she dump the King of Cool for a small-town sheriff??!!).

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Perfecting the cool quotient in “Wanted: Dead or Alive”

Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-61): McQueen became a TV fixture in this series, playing a bounty hunter named “Josh Randall.” It was an ok show, running for 94 episodes, but it was overshadowed by another CBS Western, “Rawhide,” which starred another future film superstar (and professional rival): Clint Eastwood.

The Magnificent Seven (1960): this Western was based on Akira Kurosawa’s well-regarded Japanese-language film SEVEN SAMURAI (1954). Most critics agree that THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN falls short of Kurosawa’s film, but it did have a memorable musical score by Elmer Bernstein, it spawned three sequels, and it featured a posse of present and future stars: McQueen, Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn (Bronson and Coburn later rejoined McQueen in THE GREAT ESCAPE). Steve would become the biggest star of all. Although Brynner had the lead role, McQueen quietly stole the picture. His smooth portrayal of a drifter/gambler/gunfighter, banding with others of his ilk to protect a small Mexican village from marauders, solidified his antihero credentials.

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Magnificent, in “The Magnificent Seven”

Here was a character who (like bounty hunter Josh Randall) lived on the fringes, alienated from conventional society. With THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, McQueen began to construct a movie persona of a flawed protagonist… an antihero, or a hero who lacks traditional moral attributes. While the antihero character had been around since classical Greek drama, until James Dean and Marlon Brando popularized him in the 1950s, he was largely absent from production-code Hollywood.

McQueen would vault himself to the highest rafters in Hollywood portraying antiheroes. And, like fellow speed freak and Indiana native Dean, he never lost an appetite for danger.

(Continued…)

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Hollywood and the Oscar Dilemma

The Oscars

Last Sunday occurred the 87th Academy Awards, or “The Oscars.” According to television’s Nielsen ratings, it was the 5th lowest rated Oscars telecast since ratings began in 1974. Some people blame the lackluster collection of nominees. Others blame Neil Patrick Harris, whose new career is hosting awards shows. Maybe it was the flat comedy sketches, or the abundance of musical numbers.

The awards ceremony was controversial even before it happened. Film critics and others seemed almost feverish in digging into their pockets for their race and gender cards. I’m not sure why. Seems to me Hollywood is typically ahead of the rest of the country in matters of diversity. And the awards aren’t supposed to be about political correctness, anyway, but rather film quality.

But that topic is for a whole ‘nother article, so I’ll fold my cards.

 The (Academy Award) ceremonies are a meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons” – George C. Scott, who declined his Best Actor award for “Patton” in 1971

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Actor George C. Scott

There are numerous award ceremonies devoted to the art of cinema: industry awards, audience awards, critics’ choices, and festival presentations. They stretch worldwide, popping up in countries as Hollywood liberal as Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iran. They range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Being an unabashed critic, one of my favorite cinema awards presentations is the Golden Raspberry Awards, popularly known as the “Razzies.” These awards are presented the day before the Oscars, and they honor the worst films of the year, as voted by 650 journalists, industry bigwigs, and film nuts. This year’s big Razzie winners were the film “Saving Christmas,” and actors Kirk Cameron (“Saving Christmas”) and Cameron Diaz, a double winner (!) for “The Other Woman” and “Sex Tape.” Congratulations, Cameron! And to you, too, Cameron!

The Razzie Award, honoring the worst in Hollywood

The Razzie Award, honoring the worst in Hollywood

And in researching this essay, I learned there’s even an awards ceremony for adult movies: the X-Rated Critics Organization (XRCO) hands out an annual “Heart-On Award.” But, of course, I don’t know much about XRCO or their award.

But let’s stick with the granddaddy of them all: the Oscars. Why have they lost so much appeal? I’ll offer three reasons:

1. They’ve become too political. Today, it’s about who you can schmooze in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Studios, producers, directors, and actors start campaigning for nomination even before their films are wrapped. So one not only has to do good work, one also has to market just how good you were. In 2004 the ceremonies were bumped from late March and early April to February. Why? In part, to shorten the film ad campaign and lobbying season! Movie buffs are becoming increasingly hip to the gratuitous politics of Hollywood, and it disgusts them almost as much as Washington D.C.

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Actress Bette Davis

2. The glamour has waned. There’s still a lot of glitz (the silly red carpet thing is getting as big as the awards themselves). But it’s all prefabricated, and there’s no more “Wow.” I think much of this has to do with the proliferation of leisure technology. Netflix, YouTube, DVDs, I-Pads, smartphones, etc. have given the average film buff easy, unlimited access, anywhere and anytime. This has removed a lot of the mystique and intrigue from our film heroes. We used to have movie “stars.” Actors like Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, Katherine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Vanessa Redgrave… they were not only masters of their craft, they were also gods and goddesses. It was because we didn’t see them everywhere. If we wanted to bask in their glow, we attended a theater to watch them on the “silver screen.” Nowadays, ticket prices preclude going to the theater, and the actors are no longer exalted stars. They’re little blotches of marketed pixels that pop up at the click of a computer mouse or the TV remote. It’s no coincidence that this year’s Best Supporting Actor, J.K. Simmons, is best known for an insurance commercial (although he did give a beautiful acceptance speech).

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The Red Carpet Ceremony

3. The quality has deteriorated. I know, you’re probably thinking “There he goes again, living in the past.” Actually, I don’t live there, I’m just able to cast a wider net due to my age, and the range of films I’ve been lucky and able to see. And I really believe that the major motion pictures coming out of Hollywood today (not so much shorts, documentaries, and independent films) rely more and more on quick and easy clichés. It’s all about marketing. Producers know what gimmicks will work to either sell tickets, impress critics, or both. Revealing dialogue has been usurped by the one-liner. Biting satire has been appropriated by the sustained scream. As the late, great film critic Roger Ebert said, “Hollywood is racing headlong toward the kiddie market. Disney recently announced it will make no more traditional films at all, focusing entirely on animation, franchises, and superheroes. I have the sense that younger Hollywood is losing the instinctive feeling for story and quality…”

Sadly, I don’t think much will change as far as my list above. The campaigning to get nominated will continue, leisure technology and stay-at-home entertainment will only increase, and big-budget films will get more gaudy, predictable, and stupid.

I have no regard for that kind of ceremony. I just don’t think they know what they’re doing. When you see who wins those things—or who doesn’t win them—you can see how meaningless this Oscar thing is” – Woody Allen, who won Best Director for “Annie Hall” in 1977

allenBut even if style finally does triumph over substance, it would be nice to have an Oscar ceremony where I don’t have to continually punch the mute button or switch the channel (sorry Oscar, but Neil Patrick Harris making irreverent comments while posing in his tighty whities just isn’t funny).

A couple years ago I wrote about Oscars’ 10 Most Unforgettable Moments. Perhaps we could use a few more of these unforgettable moments, which at least added some color to the pomposity and ridiculousness. Maybe Brad Pitt lecturing us about the military-industrial complex. Or Helen Mirren doing one-armed pushups. Or Jack Nicholson removing his sunglasses.

At the very least, if you really want this spectacle to be a comedy routine, find a host who’s actually witty. Where’s Billy Crystal? Is Bob Hope still available??

(Note: next time I’ll be honoring a true movie “star,” in honor of (what would be) his 85th birthday… the King of Cool, Steve McQueen… (the actor, not the director).

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Humphrey Bogart. “Your memory stays/It lingers ever/Fade away never”

Book Talk: Harper Lee and John Densmore

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This is an unlikely pairing of authors, I’ll admit. A Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and a ‘60s rock drummer?? But each has a couple interesting books in the news, so I’d like to talk about them.

First, Harper Lee. She is, of course, the celebrated author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I’d rank this book in the Top 10 of American novels (and the film, starring Gregory Peck, is just as good). It’s a semi-autobiographical tale of how three children lose their innocence during the Jim Crow era in an isolated Alabama town (think moonshine, racial violence, rural poverty and weirdness… classic Southern Gothic stuff). “Mockingbird” was darkly compelling, alternately grotesque and transcendent, and it took America by firestorm when it was published in 1960.mockingbird book

But Lee was never comfortable as a celebrity, and she disappeared from public view long ago – not unlike her ghostly character Arthur “Boo” Radley. She never wrote another book.

However, this week the 88-year-old was pulled into the spotlight when news of a second book by her appeared. It’s called “Go Set a Watchman,” and Lee actually penned it before “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It deals with the main character, Scout. But instead of being a young tomboy, Scout’s a mature woman who revisits her hometown to visit her father, Atticus Finch (the Christ-like hero of “Mockingbird”). Lee intended this book to be her debut, but her editor wisely convinced her to instead focus on a story dealing with flashbacks to Scout’s youth. The result was “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The announcement of the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” has been met with skepticism and criticism. Was Lee pressured to authorize the release? Did the recent death of Lee’s elder sister Alice, who was her firewall against public scrutiny, influence the publication? Will the book, a fledgling attempt by an amateur writer whose editor shelved it, tarnish Lee’s legacy?

Times have changed since 1960. At one time, books – good, bad, or indifferent – were honored upon their release with insightful opinion by knowledgeable literary reviewers. But as one New York Times writer noted, “Internet culture, where a one-star Goodreads review by a 14-year-old can be as persuasive to some as a book critic’s 1,200-word newspaper essay, has leveled the field.”

Harper Lee is from the “old school.” In 2006, she famously emerged from seclusion and wrote a letter to Oprah Winfrey about her fascination with books when she was a child.

Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.

I’m with you, Ms. Lee.

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“To Kill a Mockingbird” came out in 1960. Five years later, two UCLA film students joined two Maharishi adherents and formed a band called The Doors. They released one of the most phenomenal rock music albums in history. This musical debut was just as darkly compelling and powerful as Harper Lee’s literary debut.

I’m a big fan of The Doors. I bought their eponymous first record after my freshman year in college (summer of 1978). It was just before a huge Doors revival, which was ignited by publication of singer Jim Morrison’s sordid biography “No One Here Gets Out Alive,” the spoken poetry album “An American Prayer,” and the movie “Apocalypse Now,” which featured the band’s music.

TheDoorsalbumcover

I liked everything about the band. Morrison’s looks and voice intrigued me (and to be honest, his mysterious early death). And as an impressionable and introspective English student, his Blake and Nietzsche-inspired song lyrics also appealed to me. But I especially liked the music. Clever, tight arrangements. Moody vocals. Ray Manzarek’s Tin Pan Alley keyboards. John Densmore’s creative jazz percussion. And guitarist Robbie Krieger had penned perhaps my all-time favorite song, “Light My Fire,” a stoned psychedelic classic that sent shivers through my tiny frame when I first heard it on the radio in 1967.

Today, I occasionally jump on the nostalgia train and pull out one of my old Doors records. Only recently I learned that drummer John Densmore had self-published a book in 2013: “The Doors: Unhinged.” Most of the stuff I’d already read about Morrison and the band I considered sensationalized junk. But I did sort of like Densmore’s earlier book, “Riders on the Storm,” a confessional memoir about his rocky relationship with the mercurial Morrison. So I decided to look into “Unhinged.”

The subtitle of the book is “Jim Morrison’s Legacy Goes on Trial.” And as I soon learned, this legacy literally went on trial, because Densmore actually took his two surviving bandmates to court. These shenanigans are nothing new. unhingedMembers of rock bands have been squabbling in court ever since The Beatles crumbled. But usually it’s a fight over royalty payments. What makes Densmore’s legal battle unique is that he was fighting not to make money. Yes, you heard right.

In 2002, Manzarek and Krieger teamed to form The Doors of the 21st Century, a band devoted to resurrecting old Doors songs. Problem was, all of the advertisements displayed “of the 21st Century” in microscopic print! Also, Morrison’s name was frequently invoked to advertise the band – without his permission, of course.

Densmore contacted Krieger to complain that his and Manzarek’s actions stank of exploitation. But Manzarek and Krieger persisted. Densmore managed to enlist the help of Morrison’s family (including Morrison’s elderly father, George Stephen Morrison, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy), and they filed a lawsuit. This book discusses the long trial, which at one point resorted to the seedy and timeworn tactic of character assassination.

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The short-lived Doors of the 21st Century. L-R: Manzarek, Ian Astbury, Krieger, Stewart Copeland (ex-Police)

But there’s a larger theme to Densmore’s book. Densmore asks “How much money is enough?” for people who are already wealthy. He discusses what he calls the “greed gene,” which propels some individuals and corporations to amass and hoard ungodly amounts of money, while others struggle to eke out a living.

Of course, Densmore’s not a scientist or economist, and he uses the term “greed gene” only in a rhetorical sense. And this book won’t win a Pulitzer Prize. But it’s refreshing because, despite being a wealthy rock musician, Densmore comes across as an “everyman,” and an unlikely crusader. You don’t often hear rock stars turning down easy money to stand on principle. But the man backs up what he says.

Case in point: as the trial progressed, Manzarek and Krieger countersued Densmore for refusing to co-sign a contract with Cadillac, who wanted to use the Doors song “Break on Through” for a TV commercial. Densmore was the only one of the three to balk (“What’s next,” he asks, “’Break on Through’ to a new deodorant??”). He didn’t want to cheapen the band’s legacy, nor the integrity of one of their strongest songs. In the process, he showed how much integrity and strength he has: the Cadillac deal would’ve grossed the band $15 million!

Recent photo of Doors drummer John Densmore

Recent photo of Doors drummer John Densmore

But what does the “legacy” of Jim Morrison have to do with all this? According to Densmore, when Morrison was alive the band was approached by Buick, who wanted to use “Light My Fire” in one of their commercials. The other three were all eager to sign. But the Lizard King nixed the idea. He also insisted the band share equally in the song copyrights, and added a clause to their contract that each of the members had veto power. In true Sixties, hippie counterculture fashion, he wanted the band to be a self-contained democracy. No dictators, no power plays, no selling out to corporate America. The music would take precedence over the money. Sort of a rare thing these days, don’t you think?

One could argue that all this was just pie-in-the-sky idealism. After all, another part of Morrison’s legacy was anarchy and self-destruction. But the fact that Densmore still lives by the band’s original credo is, to me, admirable. Yes, the hippies made mistakes. Many were hangers-on, young hedonists merely latching onto fashion. But Densmore believes the Sixties also planted a lot of seeds, some little and some big, and many of them are now in full bloom… or, if not, they just need a little fertilizing to help them grow. He urges all of us to get out our “watering cans.”

Like Harper Lee, John Densmore is also “old school.” Which is fine by me.

By the way, he won the court case.

 

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Keystone XL Pipeline: Dirty Gold for Uncle Sam?

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Last week, in the middle of a weeklong tour of Asia, Pope Francis touched down in Manila, Philippines. The Catholic leader is known for deviating from papal precedence and making progressive – albeit cautious – comments about the church’s position and role regarding poverty, homosexuality, women in the church, and well-publicized lapses of human decency and morality by Catholic priests and bishops.

While in the Philippines – still recovering from a 2013 typhoon that killed 6,300 people – Pope Francis offered some lofty yet unequivocal views on climate change and the environment:

As stewards of God’s creation, we are called to make the earth a beautiful garden for the human family. When we destroy our forests, ravage our soil, and pollute our seas, we betray that noble calling… I don’t know if (climate change) is all (man’s fault) but the majority is. For the most part, it is man who continuously slaps nature in the face.

Whoa! Slapping nature in the face??  Talk about being brutally honest!

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Pope Francis, looking green

In my country (the United States of Amnesia), the biggest environmental issue on the table at the moment is the Keystone XL Pipeline. On one side of the debate are environmentalists and President Obama, who are opposed to construction of this pipeline (although the president continually seems to be “evolving” – or “devolving,” depending on your perspective).

On the other side, shovels poised in their plump little hands, are oil-thirsty conservatives and a Republican-controlled Congress, who support the pipeline’s construction.

Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?

Pipeline being laid in North Dakota

Pipeline being laid in North Dakota

Well, here are a few facts about the pipeline – an abbreviated “Pipeline for Dummies” (like me):

  • Keystone XL is only one of four phases of oil pipeline in the Keystone Pipeline System. The other three, extending from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and comprising 40 percent of the system, have already been constructed and are in operation
  • The sole owner of the Keystone Pipeline System is TransCanada Corporation, based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada
  • Keystone XL will extend from Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska, extending 1,179 miles across the U.S. Its main controversy centers on its environmental impact, which includes the potential for oil spillage and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions (which promotes higher global temperatures, i.e. climate change)
  • The type of oil used in the pipeline is derived from oil sands, or tar sands, or bituminous sands, a mixture of sand, clay, water, and petroleum. Instead of conventional drilling, this glop is strip-mined, then fossil fuels are expended to suck out the crude. A 2011 study by Stanford University identified oil-sand crude as being as much as 22 percent more carbon-intensive than conventional oil
  • Construction of Keystone XL is predicted to last from 1-2 years
  • TransCanada CEO Russ Girling claims Keystone XL will create 42,000 “ongoing, enduring jobs.” But the U.S. State Department counters that only about 50 pipeline maintenance jobs will remain after the 1-2-year  construction
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TransCanada CEO Ross Girling, in front of “greenish” looking company banner

Will oil from the pipeline lower gas prices? The State Department says it will have no effect. Without tar sands oil, prices have already fallen to around $75 per barrel.

Where will this tar sands oil be marketed? A 2011 study by the Pembina Institute, a clean energy think tank in Canada, predicts that much of it will be consumed outside of the territorial United States.

Will this “dirty gold” increase global warming? The State Department says oil pumped through the pipeline will not have “any significant effect” on greenhouse gas emissions, noting that the tar sands will be developed even without the pipeline.  But critics of this assessment argue that the pipeline would boost oil production by 830,000 barrels per day; the extraction process will boost carbon emissions; transportation of the oil by train, truck, and barge, will boost greenhouse gas emissions; and production and burning of dirty petroleum coke, a co-product of tar sands oil, results in 14 percent more greenhouse gas emissions.

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 Here’s longitudes’ view of the subject:

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Protest against pipeline in Washington, D.C., February 17, 2013

A Canadian company wants to build a pipeline for its oil through the heart of the U.S., then have U.S. refineries process the crude for China and other foreign markets. Despite what the U.S. State Department and TransCanada claim, this oil will have a significant effect on global warming. The pipeline construction will create some American jobs, but these will be temporary.  A pipeline spill could threaten U.S. ecosystems, not to mention Native American cultural and historical sites (though it’s debatable whether many Americans even care about our country’s indigenous peoples). The strip-mine method of oil extraction destroys Alberta forestlands.  Toxic runoff, caused by steaming of the sands to separate the oil, is another environmental threat.

Tar sands oil is to energy what a McDonalds triple quarter-pounder with cheese is to human health: it’s mouth-watering to some, but ultimately it’s carbon-loaded crap that will subvert development of clean, alternative energy sources. And it will have little or no effect on American jobs or gas prices.

Verdict: the cons far outweigh the pros.

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Getting back to Pope Francis… I don’t agree with him on everything, but in this case I have to applaud him for having the guts to stand up for the “beautiful garden” known as planet Earth.

Now, if we could only get a few more clear-thinking tree huggers like the pontiff elected to the ugly cesspool known as the U.S. Congress (current Gallup Poll approval rating: 16 percent).

Strip mining to get tar sands oil

Strip mining to get tar sands oil

“Journey”: A Wolf Too Famous to Kill

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His official name is OR-7. No, he’s not a robot from the latest installment of “Star Wars.” But he is a star.

OR-7 is the first gray wolf to be sighted in California since 1924 (when the last wolf in that state was shot). He crossed the border from southern Oregon on December 28, 2011, having traveled over 1,000 miles from a small pack in northeastern Oregon.

Since then he’s returned to the Cascades of southwestern Oregon and mated with a black female, who has given birth to at least three pups (this family is now referred to as the “Rogue Pack”). And just a few days ago, another wandering wolf was photographed by a trail camera west of Keno, Oregon (GPS tracking showed that OR-7 was far away at the time).

Not long after OR-7 was sighted, a conservation group, Oregon Wild, held an art contest challenging children to come up with a more interesting name for the wolf (OR-7 was used by biologists because he was the seventh wolf radio-collared in the state of Oregon). The winning name was “Journey.” Fans of Journey track his wandering activity, and a documentary was recently made of him.  His fan club hopes that this celebrity will engender awareness of wolf conservation, and they refer to him as “the wolf too famous to kill.”

Two of Journey's pups peeking from den

Two of Journey’s pups peeking from den

I can’t think of a reason why anyone would want to kill a gray wolf. Aside from the fact that Canis lupus is an intelligent and majestic creature, a cousin to “man’s best friend,” and a symbol of North American wilderness, wolves are just not the bloodthirsty creatures that populate so many fables, storybooks, and films. Yes, they’re carnivorous. But they pose little risk to humans. They do pose a threat to livestock, but only when wild prey has been depleted.

The history of wolves in America is not unlike the history of Native Americans. Originally, the mammal occupied most of continental America north of the Florida keys, including all of the eastern U.S. As human settlement and agriculture expanded between the 18th and 20th centuries, wolves followed their own “Trail of Tears” and gradually dispersed northward and westward. As hunters brought the American bison to near-extinction, wolves lost a major food source and also disappeared from the prairies. By 1960, guns and poison had eradicated the gray wolf from all of the U.S. except Alaska and parts of northern Minnesota.

Then they began a slow comeback. Bounties for wolf carcasses ended in 1947. In 1973, the Endangered Species Act gave them protection in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Then in 1995, amidst a flurry of publicity, 66 wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.

Remote capture photo of one of Journey's pups

Remote capture photo of one of Journey’s pups

Some of these wolves eventually migrated to northeastern Oregon, and three separate packs were soon confirmed there: Walla Walla, Wenaha, and Imnaha (Journey’s original pack).  There are now nine packs in Oregon with an estimated 60-something wolves.  Wildlife biologists tend to key in on whether a pack has breeding pairs, which determine the pack’s long-term viability.

Oregon Wild believes that much of Journey’s success in relocating and mating is attributed to his utilization of Oregon’s wild and roadless areas, where both roads and development are prohibited. This was a direct result of the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, initiated during the Clinton administration.

Map of Journey's journey

Map of Journey’s journey

Despite the recent good news about Journey and other wolves in the U.S., their comeback attempts are fraught with difficulty. In 2003, due to political pressure from hunters and the livestock industry, wolves were reclassified from Endangered to Threatened (a weaker designation).  In 2005, the Bush administration diluted the original Roadless Rule and capitulated to livestock lobbyists, allowing states to determine their own roadless areas (Bush’s actions were eventually overturned by the courts). And Alaska has its own way to decimate wolves: in that state, wolves can be legally shot from helicopters during hunting season.

Unfortunately, despite public pressure and polling that indicates vast support for wolf reintroduction, there are still vocal minorities who would rather treat wolves, as the National Resources Defense Council phrases it, “like vermin rather than an endangered species.”

If wolves like Journey, his mate and pups, the lone wolf near Keno, and other reintroduced wolves are to survive and proliferate, it’s important that Americans speak out in their defense.  As thrilling as the story of a celebrity wolf is, we should be reframing “a wolf too famous to kill” as “the mammal too magnificent to murder.”  As Oregon Wild notes, “the extermination of wolves is one of our greatest environmental tragedies. But their return represents an opportunity at redemption.”

The second wolf sighted, near Keno, Oregon

The second wolf sighted, near Keno, Oregon

Here are a few links where you can learn more about OR-7 and make your voice heard (the first link will take you to an article featuring a SoundCloud button where you can actually hear the howl of Journey’s father, OR-4).

http://www.oregonwild.org/wildlife/wolves/the-journey-of-or7

http://www.or7themovie.com/#!watch-movie/czpx

http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/dnagami/good_news_for_wolves_californi.html

“A Christmas Carol” on Film

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“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”

Of all the tales and morality plays associated with Christmas throughout the years, few are as enduring as Charles Dickens’s immortal “A Christmas Carol,” published on this day in 1843. We love this simple, uplifting story because it offers hope for everyone. No matter how empty or greedy we have lived our lives, there’s always the opportunity for transformation. It’s a story rife with the Christian concepts of kindness, charity, forgiveness, redemption.

Last year at this time I offered a short list of some of the best Christmas movies and television specials [Christmas in Celluloid (A Short List)]. I included a way-too-brief homage to various film versions of “A Christmas Carol” (often entitled “Scrooge”). For this blog post, I’d like to expand and offer reviews of some of the more notable versions. And at the end, I’ll confess my favorite.

Scrooge (1935), starring Sir Seymour Hicks. Born in 1871, Hicks practically owned the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in the early years of the 20th century. He portrayed Scrooge thousands of times on the British stage, was in a silent film version in 1913, and reprised it for this talkie in 1935.

A young Seymour Hicks

A young Seymour Hicks

This film is very smoky and atmospheric. The ghost sequence is downplayed, and there’s a long buildup to emphasize Scrooge’s miserliness. Noteworthy: in addition to his association with the Scrooge part, Hicks produced and wrote his own films, and is famous for hiring a young Alfred Hitchcock to make his directing debut in 1923.

A Christmas Carol (1938) starring Reginald Owen. OwenThe first popular talkie version, and it ranks with the best, although this U.S. film took liberties with the Dickens story (e.g. Scrooge’s fiancé is entirely removed). Scrooge was originally to be played by the great Lionel Barrymore, who did it annually on radio, but he was replaced by the lesser-known Owen. Character actor Gene Lockhart portrays Bob Cratchit, and one of the Cratchit children is his daughter June, who later starred in Lassie, Lost in Space, Petticoat Junction, and hosted many “Miss U.S.A.” and “Miss Universe” beauty pageants. Noteworthy: the ghost of Jacob Marley was played by Leo G. Carroll, famous to American TV viewers for his title role in Topper, and as Mr. Waverly in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

A Christmas Carol (1951) starring Alistair Sim. alistairA number of film critics consider this the all-time best adaptation. For one thing, it’s British rather than American. Also, Sim is a more convincing Scrooge than Owen was. It was very popular in England when released, but didn’t really take off in the U.S. until about 1970. Since then it has been regularly shown on television. Noteworthy: Patrick Macnee, who has a bit part as a young Jacob Marley, later became famous as courtly John Steed in The Avengers English TV show.

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962). This was the first-ever animated holiday special. For a lot of baby boomers (like me), it was also their first exposure to the Dickens story. MagooPrevious to this animated musical, “Mr. Magoo” was a popular cartoon series about a man blissfully unaware he’s legally blind, and who faces recurring disasters but always comes out on top. By today’s standards, the Magoo series was very un-PC, but this animated Christmas musical was well-received, and even today is many people’s favorite version of “A Christmas Carol.” The music by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, composed on the heels of their score for Funny Girl, was top-caliber. Noteworthy: the voiceover for Mr. Magoo was done by Jim Backus, who later became stranded, as Mr. Howell, on Gilligan’s Isle (he’d earlier played James Dean’s father in the classic movie Rebel Without a Cause).

SerlingA Carol for Another Christmas (1964) starring Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers. Definitely one of the strangest versions, this American TV movie was written by Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone fame during the height of the Cold War. It was loaded with socio-political messages and good intentions, but it came off heavy-handed and depressing. It was broadcast only once, on December 28, 1964, then shelved until Turner Classic Movies (TCM) dusted it off in 2012. Noteworthy: Hayden and Sellers had starred in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove earlier in the year. Other actors included Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront) and an awkward Steve Lawrence (of “Steve and Eydie” fame).

Scrooge (1970) starring Albert Finney. FinneyAnother musical, although this one’s non-animated. This is arguably the most colorful and glittery version of the Christmas classic, with gorgeous cinematography, graphics, special effects, and original songs. It’s great in every way, impeccably produced and directed (by Ronald Neame), with music in classic English music hall tradition (the song “Thank You Very Much” was nominated for an Academy Award). My only criticism is Albert Finney’s acting. Finney’s a great actor, one of the greatest of his generation, but I feel he overacts the part of Scrooge. Nonetheless, this 1970 film is not to be missed. Noteworthy: Sir Alec Guinness, who played Marley’s ghost, had starred in David Lean’s film adaptations of Dickens’s “Great Expectations” and “Oliver Twist” in the 1940s.

ScottA Christmas Carol (1984) starring George C. Scott. Speaking of greatest actors of their generation, here we have Academy Award winner Scott (The Hustler and Patton) taking a turn as everyone’s favorite miser, in a TV adaptation, and earning an Emmy Award in the process. Scott’s acting is, unlike earlier attempts, refreshingly low-key. He’s the “thinking man’s Scrooge,” apt to sneak in a twisted smile here or there for effect. The film is remarkably well-done for a television production. Filmed on location in England, with primarily English actors, it was released theatrically in Great Britain but debuted on CBS in America. Noteworthy: director Clive Donner had been an editor on the 1951 film version.

Other versions, which I haven’t seen so can’t comment on: Scrooged (1988) starring Bill Murray, which is a trendy, U.S. modernization of the tale and received mixed reviews; The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), a live-action musical featuring Michael Caine as Scrooge; and A Christmas Carol (1999) starring Patrick Stewart, who was nominated for a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for his performance.

My personal favorite: a tie between the Albert Finney and George C. Scott versions. In my opinion, Scott’s acting trumps anyone else who portrayed Scrooge, but the Albert Finney version is just so visually and aurally sumptuous.

Now tell me your favorite version of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”!

(Note: thanks to Wikipedia for most images and some info)

Charles Dickens at the age of 47, by William Powell Frith. London, England, 1859

 

Wunnerful, Wunnerful! The Appeal of Lawrence Welk

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My obsession started innocently enough. It was a quiet Saturday night at home. Lynn and I had nothing planned. No social engagement, no movie, no weekend junket out of town. It was “stay-at-home” night, a frosty January evening with a burning log in the fireplace, a wine cooler for her, and a couple Yuenglings for me (ok, maybe three Yuenglings).

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The maestro himself: Lawrence Welk

At 7:10 PM EST we turned on one of our favorite TV stations: PBS. There, on the screen, were three men tap dancing in perfect synchronicity. They wore matching suits – er, costumes: shiny black shoes, tight purple slacks with bells at the bottom, lavender satin shirts with puffy lapels the size of small pillows, and shirtsleeve cuffs almost as large. The best dancer – I later discovered his name was Arthur – was black. The most eye-catching dancer was a tall white guy with stiffly erect posture, perfectly sculpted hair, and a huge, frozen grin straight out of a toothpaste commercial.

I’m not sure if it was me or Lynn who laughed first. I’m sure I laughed the loudest (remember, I was nursing several beers). We ended up watching the entire show, smiling and wisecracking the entire time. Occasionally Lynn would Google one of the cast members to learn about his or her scandalous private life.

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Anyone over the age of 45 or 50 knows about “The Lawrence Welk Show.” This American television program ran from 1951 to 1982. Its host was a big band conductor who had a distinctive accent. The accent was sort of German-sounding, but it had gotten hijacked somewhere by Russia and North Dakota (!). Welk was famous for his catchphrase “Wunnerful, wunnerful!” and his song introduction of “Ah one, and ah two, and ah…” The music on the show ranged from polka tunes to novelty songs to big band standards. Colorfully costumed skits with low-budget props were liberally sprinkled into the program.

Dancer Bobby Burgess

Dancer Bobby Burgess

Sometime during the show’s long run, the music acquired the descriptor “champagne music.” Welk even selected one of his singers as the “Champagne Lady,” one Norma Zimmer, who had a pure, high-range soprano voice. Other notable regulars, which Welk called his “Musical Family,” included tap dancer Arthur (Duncan), who was the first African-American regular on a variety TV show; accordionist Myron Floren; legendary Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain; the four Lennon Sisters, who were as sweet and homey as apple pie; frenetic honky-tonk pianist Jo Ann Castle; and former Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess – the guy with the frozen grin.

The Lennon Sisters: Kathy, Janet, Peggy, Diane

The Lennon Sisters: Kathy, Janet, Peggy, Diane

Welk deliberately aimed his show toward a specific (and loyal) audience: white, Midwestern conservative, Christian, and definitely older. So it’s not surprising some of the principal show sponsors included Geritol (a dietary supplement marketed to elderly people), Sominex (a sleep aid), and Polident (a denture cleanser).

But Welk himself could be a harsh taskmaster. He fired his original “Champagne Lady” because he thought she showed too much leg. Pete Fountain quit after he was chastised by Welk for trying to jazz up a Christmas number. Fountain was later quoted as saying “Champagne doesn’t mix with bourbon.”fountain

I guess at this point I should elaborate on the “appeal” of Welk for me. Why do I like the show, which is now in syndication on PBS? Well, there’s the nostalgia aspect. This show was part of my childhood DNA. If my folks weren’t playing bridge or at a dinner party on Saturday night, Welk was usually on – at least for a few minutes. My dad loved good big band jazz (e.g. Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Count Basie). And even though he referred to Welk’s style of music as “schmaltz” – and my mom still calls it “fruity” – it was probably the closest they could get to their halcyon youth in the 1930s and ’40s… at least on television.

The other reason I like Welk is that, no matter how staid or cheesy the entertainment might be, it has a high “feel good” factor. For an hour, “The Lawrence Welk Show” is a great way to forget the stresses in life. I recently discovered that, of all people, the writer and infamous hermit J.D. Salinger (“Catcher in the Rye”) used to dance along with the Welk program. Maybe he found some joy here to leaven some of the darkness in his life.

You see, Welk’s music and skits are always upbeat. They may be corny, but they’re never sardonic or snide, like so much post-“Saturday Night Live” entertainment today. The performers are always smiling and really seem to be having fun. And the champagne bubbles are always floating. Right along with my beer suds.

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Fleetwood Mac: The Forgotten Years

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On a recent Sunday while sipping my morning coffee, I turned the TV to the long-running television program, “CBS Sunday Morning,” hosted by Charles Osgood. This enjoyable show always has at least one segment devoted to popular culture. Past shows have included interviews with Keith Richards and Gregg Allman. This particular show included a puff piece on the pop-rock band Fleetwood Mac. The rationale was drummer Mick Fleetwood’s recent (and 2nd) autobiography, which coincides with the band’s 61st (or maybe 62nd) reunion tour.

Full disclosure here: Fleetwood Mac isn’t one of my favorite bands. Their songs are tuneful, albeit in an effete sort of way. But “the Mac’s” unthreatening, southern California brand of rock was perfect ear sweetener for the somnolent mid-‘70s to early ‘80s, and there’s still nostalgia for that stuff amongst baby boomers. So I wasn’t too surprised to see them profiled on TV alongside segments devoted to the wedding of George Clooney and “The Timeless Allure of Swing Dancing.”

What really stuck in my craw, though, was the narrator using a sweeping statement, during a buildup to the gilded Buckingham-Nicks years, that “other band members came and went.” There was no mention of founder Peter Green. No mention of Danny KirwanJeremy Spencer, and Bob Welch… forget it. Seven different band members, eight years, and nine albums brushed aside.

So, once again, I feel the need to set the record straight. Nothing against Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham. But there was a band called Fleetwood Mac that existed long before those two joined in 1974 to help catapult them to superstardom. They were English. They had a curious and colorful biography, and they were very talented.

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Fleetwood Mac sprouted in 1967 from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, an English blues band that featured virtuoso guitarist Eric Clapton. Clapton was, and is, one of the most formidable blues guitarists in history. When Clapton quit the Bluesbreakers to form the legendary Cream, his place was taken by a guy named Peter Green. Not only did Green have a great first name, he also had the challenge of replacing a guitar god. Most rock critics would agree that he more than met the challenge. John Mayall felt so, too, and after only one album with Green, he encouraged Green to “go thither into the world” and form his own band.

Green did just that. Before long he selected bass player John McVie (also from the Bluesbreakers) and a drummer named Mick Fleetwood, whom he knew from two earlier bands. For added punch, he added Elmore James-influenced slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer. Being a humble guy, leader Green named the band after his rhythm section… neither of whom were songwriters!

THEN PLAY ON, the last album that featured Peter Green

THEN PLAY ON, the last album that featured Peter Green

This early version of Fleetwood Mac released three studio albums: FLEETWOOD MAC, MR. WONDERFUL, and the double album THEN PLAY ON. At this juncture their music emphasized blues-based rock, and they had a reputation for being a dynamic live act. Green was a powerful guitarist and had a distinctive guttural voice that perfectly complemented his blistering guitar licks. He was also a skilled songwriter, going from the sublime (“Man of the World” and “Albatross)” to the earthy [“The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Prong Crown)”] and “Oh Well”) to the mysterious (“Black Magic Woman,” which was covered by West Coast band Santana and became their signature song). Jeremy Spencer was also notable. He often closed the band’s shows by doing old rock ‘n’ roll numbers and mimicking people like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. The band was a regular attraction at 60s-era ballrooms like the Shrine Auditorium, Avalon Ballroom, Fillmore West, Fillmore East, and Boston Tea Party.

Then the first tragedy occurred. Like so many creative artists from that era, Green began experimenting with LSD. And like Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd) and Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys) before him, he became a casualty of the drug. He began wearing long robes on stage and drifting off into endless guitar solos. Although the undisputed leader of Fleetwood Mac, Peter Green had to leave the band he had founded. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and entered a mental hospital. In the late 1970s, there was a rumor he was working as a gravedigger.

Some people seem to pull an ace out of their sleeve just when it’s needed. Fleetwood Mac’s ace was a guitarist named Danny Kirwan, whom Green had enlisted before the THEN PLAY ON album. Although Kirwan wasn’t the singer or instrumentalist that Green was, he was (at least to these ears) the best songwriter the band ever had. Kirwan guided the band through the next four records: KILN HOUSE, FUTURE GAMES, BARE TREES, and PENGUIN.

KILN HOUSE, with artwork by Christine McVie

KILN HOUSE, with artwork by Christine McVie

Kirwan was responsible for some of the group’s most melodic songs, gorgeous gems like “Dragonfly,” “Jewel-Eyed Judy,” “Woman of a Thousand Years,” “Bare Trees,” “Sunny Side of Heaven,” “Dust,” and others. For support, Kirwan leaned on John McVie’s wife, Christine Perfect McVie, who’d sung for the blues band Chicken Shack and joined the Mac during the KILN HOUSE sessions (and who created the striking artwork for that album sleeve). One of her songs, “Spare Me a Little of Your Love” from the BARE TREES sessions, became a staple of the band’s repertoire.

Kirwan, however, was always a little unstable. He was a heavy drinker and frequently succumbed to radical mood swings. He was fired in 1973 after one particularly violent outburst. Spencer, too, had quit in 1971 during a tour. While in Los Angeles, he’d gone out to buy a magazine, then disappeared for several days. The group later discovered he’d met a stranger on the street corner, who’d convinced him to renounce his former life and convert to a religious cult known as the Children of God.

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Fleetwood Mac circa 1972. From left to right, John McVie, Danny Kirwan, Christine McVie, Bob Welch, Mick Fleetwood

Fleetwood Mac’s eighth studio album was MYSTERY TO ME. It was a bit of a letdown after the creative Green and Kirwan years, but it had at least one good song in “Hypnotized,” which became a favorite on American FM radio. This tune was written and sung by Bob Welch, an unknown Californian who’d joined the Mac just after KILN HOUSE. Welch wasn’t on a songwriting par with Kirwan, but he helped in three ways: he provided vocal and writing support; he eased them into the American market with radio-friendly material like “Sentimental Lady” (which Welch later re-recorded as a solo artist, becoming a Top 10 hit); and – most significantly – he convinced them to move their offices from London to Los Angeles.

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BARE TREES, one of Fleetwood Mac’s best records

Welch was the last significant member to join Fleetwood Mac, until Nicks and Buckingham in ’74. He quit the band after the ninth album, HEROES ARE HARD TO FIND, when he became tired of touring, as well as fighting a legal battle over ownership of the band’s name (in another strange twist in the band’s history, Mick Fleetwood and band manager Clifford Davies, to fulfill a contract obligation, sent out a fake Fleetwood Mac on tour in 1974; Fleetwood later claimed he knew nothing about the ruse. This fake band later changed their name to Stretch and had a No. 16 hit with “Why Did You Do It?” which was aimed at Fleetwood).

In late ’74, Fleetwood made the acquaintance of American Lindsay Buckingham, who’d recorded an album with his then-girlfriend, Stephanie “Stevie” Nicks. He asked Buckingham to join the band to replace Welch. Buckingham agreed, but only if he could bring along Nicks. Fleetwood nodded “Yes,” and Fleetwood Mac’s long mystery train finally rolled toward that nebulous place where English blues musicians, Wall Street mercantilists, and inaugurated U.S. presidents get together to harmonize.

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Today, founding member Peter Green keeps a low profile. But as late as 2010, he was doing short tours with his own band. In its list of Top 100 Guitarists of All Time, Rolling Stone magazine placed him at No. 38. Mojo Magazine ranked him No. 3.

Jeremy Spencer is still associated with the Children of God (now called Family International). He’s lived all over the world, has jammed privately with both Fleetwood and John McVie, and in 2009 appeared at the Chicago Blues Festival.

Bob Welch took his own life in 2012. His widow said he was in intense pain after recently undergoing unsuccessful spinal surgery. She thinks his pain medication may have also contributed to his suicide. In 1998, Welch was not included with other band members for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RnRHoF). He’d earlier filed a lawsuit against the band for underpayment of royalties, and he believed that Fleetwood and the McVie’s convinced the hall to blackball him.

Not much is known about Danny Kirwan. According to Wikipedia, his mental health declined after leaving Fleetwood Mac in 1973 (he was supposedly homeless for a while in the ‘80s and ‘90s). Unlike Welch, Kirwan was inducted into the RnRHoF with other members.  But he didn’t show up at the ceremony. John McVie was quoted as saying that a Fleetwood Mac reunion with Green and Spencer is a possibility, “but I don’t think there’s much chance of Danny doing it. Bless his heart.”

 

first album