15 September, 2017

Immediate Seating! No Waiting!

One of the bits in Fred Allen’s It’s In The Bag has him and his wife in a movie theatre trying to find their seats --  the whole movie’s about them trying to find seats, really --  and there they are in the movie theatre and The Usher keeps moving them further along, promising, “Immediate seating!  No waiting!"  Further and further they go, further and further being assured, “Next aisle to the right!  Immediate seating!"  Well, if you know Fred Allen’s luck, you can see where this is going.  As I say, the whole movie’s about their trying to find some seats, and this funnily frustrating bit kept ringing in my ear as my wife Diana and I were on our own similar adventure …

Diana and I love adventures, big and small.  We’re off to Paris for our Wedding?  Great adventure!  We’re off to lunch somewhere we’ve never been?  Another great adventure!  It’s one of those “us” things.  Well, one of our earliest advntures --  back when Diana and I’d just started dating --  was touring The Tower Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles.  Yes, the old, closed theatre that was opened for a morning by The Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation for its Members (of which Diana was one).  Look that group up;  suport them if you can;  very generous work.  Through them Diana and I have been lucky to tour most of The Downtown Theatres --  including The Los Angeles where we’d eventually be engaged --  and even The Wiltern and Grauman’s Chinese (both, obviously, still very much open and in-use).

In August of last year, Escott O. Norton --  a premiere member of The Historic Theatre Foundation --  let some friends in on a very special opportunity:  we could go out to The Rialto Theatre in Pasadena and go through its Backstage where hundreds of old theatre seats were being stored.  They’d be --  it still pains me --  tossed the following week but, that weekend, we could go down and take whatever we wanted for $20 a piece (proceeds going to the curation of The Rialto, a passion project of Mr. Norton’s).  Well, Diana and I jumped on it;  at least the opportunity.  If we saw something we liked, $20 was a steal.  And if we didn’t --  if they were too old, too dirty, too anything --  at least we’d tried.  And why not?  What an adventure!  So that Saturday morning, we were at The Rialto waiting for the doors to open.

If it looks familiar, it’s been used in a bunch of Movies and TV Shows, most recently --  inside and out --  where Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone see Rebel Without A Cause in La La Land.  First off, I should mention that The Rialto --  while not nearly as restored as The Chinese or Egyptian or U.A. (now The Ace) --  is a charming place (it has since been reopened as a Church).  After a quick tour by Mr. Norton himself, he took us Backstage where there were stacks … and stacks … and stacks … of tan theatre seats.  And some blue ones?  No, they were all blue, those tan ones were just dusty.  And I should note they weren’t even seats yet, but stacked in pieces:  a “bottom,” a “back” and four times as many “arms.”  What were we dealing with, looking at, looking for?  Mr. Norton had been nice enough to put one together so we could see.

As I was standing there looking at the stacks of theatre seat pieces, it was the first time Fred Allen began ringing in my ear.  How long had these pieces been sitting here?  Collecting what all over them;  what was living in them?  Mr. Norton said, “Been sitting in here nearly seventy years, ever since they were pulled out of Downtown.”  That rang in Diana’s and my ear too.  “Excuse me … Downtown?”  “Oh sure,” Mr. Norton continued:  “These weren’t used here in The Rialto, but pulled out of a Theatre Downtown and then stored here, right where you’re looking at ‘em.  Haven’t been touched since.” 

Downtown L.A. Theatre Seats.

I tried sounding casual but it likely came out as Henry Aldrich:  "Which theatre?"  Mr. Norton didn't know, didn't think anyone did anymore, just that the seats were likely switched out in the economic boom after World War II.  Still trying for the casual but I'm sure it was Henry Aldrich again:  "You don't say!" as Diana and I started digging a little deeper into the dust.

What’s that piece there, is that a good bottom?  And that, is that a good back?  Here are couple good arms.  Hey look, the arms are numbered!  We should try to find arms in order!

By this time there were more people there, talking to Mr. Norton and starting to look for their own seats.  How many were Diana and I looking for?  Hadn't really thought about that yet.  We decided on four, so that meant four bottoms, four backs and (quick thinking) six arms, in case we wanted to pair the seats in twos instead of four-in-a-row.

Finally we found some good full sets --  not too dusty, the metal not too bent, the cushions not too stained --  with decent arms, their numbers in a row.  And, again, at $20 a piece --  sorry, that’s $20 a complete chair --  indeed a steal!  So we happily paid Mr. Norton and pulled the car around to the back of the theatre (where they filmed the “murder” in Robert Altman’s The Player) and loaded everything into our little Jeep;  a lot bulkier than you’d think.  But we’d made it --  that weekend’s adventure a success! --  and started home.

At this point I’d like you to picture two things:  one, The Rialto being in Pasadena while we lived just off Miracle Mile.  So not around-the-corner.  And, two, we lived in a Studio Apartment;  so not much extra space for the bulky pieces of four 1940s Theatre Seats.  But home we got and I lugged the pieces upstairs (our vintage building, of course, having no elevator). 

It’s Saturday afternoon now, and I start cleaning them as best I can while Diana looks up proper Upholstery Cleaners.  She finds one and books him for the following weekend.  I get the chairs clean enough that we decide to put one together and see how it looks.

Hmmmmm, why does the back look different than the bottom?  Doesn’t it seem … wider?

Here, friends, is the second time Fred Allen rang in my ear:  “Immediate seating!”  Because the back was wider.  By a lot.  Not as in it didn’t look like it fit but it was a different seat.  How could that be?  I mean, they clearly look like they match;  but I suppose theatres could have different seats:  Main Floor versus Balcony?  Diana does a little research and it turns out --  duh, we think, because we should have known this from all those Downtown Tours --  seats curved in old theatres.  Because most of them started --  and continued, even when Movies began showing at them --  as Live Theatres.  Imagine them thusly --

See the way they curve?  Well, what does that mean for our seats?  The arms seemed universal but the physical bodies --  bottoms and backs --  would indeed be wider in the middle and become gradually thinner as they got to the sides.  Uh oh.  What sizes did we come home with?  Turns out three different ones.

(“Immediate seating!" The Usher’s smiling at Fred Allen, “No waiting!”)

Diana calls Mr. Norton but by this time it’s Saturday evening and he’s closed The Rialto for the day.  “For the day?”  “Sure,” he says, “I’ll be back tomorrow morning if you’d like to come down again!” 

Sunday morning now and I lug the pieces back downstairs from our Studio Apartment, back into our litte Jeep, and Diana and I are back in Pasadena waiting for the Rialto doors to open.  It turns out there are only three different sizes, two inches apart from each other, and we already had two matching sets.  And we had two bottoms we liked for the third and fourth chairs, so we were now just looking for two new backs.  Again through the dust we dug but --  it’s Sunday, the second day;  people have heard about this now --  there a lot more nostalgic scavengers Backstage.  But we found the backs we needed and --  we’d brought back the two we couldn’t use --  Mr. Norton was kind enough to waive our paying an additional $20 each, excited we were excited to make it all happen.  (And Diana, being the Saint that she is, even warned newcomers about the different sizes so they wouldn’t face our same fate.)  Two new backs in our little Jeep and we’re off again to our little Studio Apartment where I lug them up the little 1920s stairs to clean as best I can.

And they all fit.

All in all fine, of course, and a week later The Upholstery Clearner came and did wonders on the blue --  at least the cushions were indeed blue now --  and Diana and I were fairly pleased with ourselves.

Now --  digressing only slightly --  one of the other bits about digging through that Rialto Backstage is Diana was, at the time, three months pregnant with (our now eight-month-old son) Nicky.  So there’s all the usual first-time-pregnant excitements and concerns compounded by, “Let’s try not to think about what we’re breathing Backstage.”  Thankfully all turned out well.  But --  in prep for the blessed event (this is August, remember, and Nicky’s due in February) --  this is the time we decide to move, because our little Studio isn’t big enough for a Newborn.  So there we were now dealing with theatre seats:  in pieces, cleaning them, moving them too.

(“Next aisle to the right!  Immediate seating!”) 

Well, there we are in the new apartment --  the seat pieces (at least clean now) sitting in a corner --  and the holidays come and go and Nicky is born and life couldn’t be better and suddenly it’s Spring and we think to ourselves, “Sure, let’s finish those theatre seats!  ‘Cause how cute would it be to see Nicky sitting in them?!”

To give you an idea of how the seats “sit,” the bottom cushion is hinged so it raises and lowers on brackets that slip into the arms, the back bolting to the arms.  To be fair, it’s simple and works well.  Except --  and this wasn’t a surprise --  the bottom of each arm --  the thing that sits on the ground --  is metal.  Not great on hardwood floors.  So we knew we’d have to pad them.  Not the most difficult thing in the world, although, even padded, while the seats would then “sit” (stand on their own), you couldn’t sit in them.  Why?  Because if you so much as stretched, you’d tip back.  Why?  Because originally the seats --  those metal arms --  bolted directly into the concrete theatre floor. 

Hmmmmm.  Diana and I wanted our seats to be functional, if we could, so we were willing to do a little something to them if necessary (they didn’t need to remain truly vintage;  we could make them ours).  So here’s where our friend Steve Bissonette enters our story.

I’ve known Steve for fifteen years.  Artistic in his technical handywork, I knew this would be a great job for him.  And he was excited to dive in.

First up was his own “cleaning.”  Not only did he sand and repaint the metal arms --  matching the blue “highlighted” by a matte gold --  but he took the wooden armrests off, sanded and stained those (while retaining the original number plates).  It may not sound like much except to say it’s a great mix of his being both creative and technical;  and make it look easy.  I hope the before-and-after pictures do his work justice.

Because --  as important and impressive as cleaning-up the arms was --  they weren’t the real work.  No, that came when he dove into how to make the seats functional.  How could we sit in them and watch a movie?  Well, that came with his devising the new “feet.”

He knew he’d have to add a little length at the bottom so that, when you leaned back, something was bracing that.  But how to make them functional and still look right (‘cause we still wanted them to at least look vintage)?  Ah, again, the creative and the technical.

More metal.

Which Steve mastered beautifully. 

Art Deco-looking --  each foot is nine different pieces welded together --  which the arms bolt into (and are, of course, padded on the bottom for the hardwood floors);  then painted to match the matted-gold “highlights” of the arms themselves.  Functional without being bulky;  looking the part while doing the job.  In fact, look at the overall work.


Much like Fred Allen in It’s In The Bag --  not really a spoiler if you haven’t seen that film --  Diana and I had our adventure and found the chairs we were looking for.  (Though if you haven’t seen it and are any fan of Jack Benny --  not really a spoiler either, the movie’s full of ‘em --  it has my favorite of his cameos.  Anyway …)  A year after that Saturday Diana and I drove to The Rialto in Pasadena, she pregnant with Nicky, before we moved apartments (and before we got an SUV into which we could have easily fit everything), there they are:  our Vintage 1940s Downtown L.A. Theatre Seats.  That now sit in our Living Room and Nursery.

This is one of Diana’s and my adventures --  now Diana’s and Nicky’s and mine --  I especially love because of how tangible it is.  Diana and I have both always wanted real theatre seats.  (What kid growing up loving Movies hasn’t?)  But where would we get some?  What theatre is left from which we could?  Would we have to buy them;  if so, for how much;  $500, $1000 each?  And, ugh, they’d already be refurbished, and who knows where they were from, what their story was.  Nah, that’s not for us.  So to be able to have these;  to have been able to walk into an actual theatre and find them, build them --  thanks again, Steve! --  know they came from a theatre in Downtown L.A.  To now see them sitting in our home, and see Nicky play on them;  to enjoy them together.  Yeah, that’s more “us.”    

And well worth the wait.

17 May, 2017


          Joss Whedon made a Short Film.

            Those words should be cause for grand cheering (and they are) but they’re also cause for me to write a little something more on The Quiet Place.  You remember the last time we were here, two years ago.  That wasn’t because of a Short Film but because he’d made the $250 Million -- grossed $1.5 Billion -- Avengers:  Age Of Ultron and some people had issue with the way he treated its ladies.  I only digress to that because it caused him to leave Twitter for a while.  Then, in September [2016], he returned to Social Media to release a round of Short Films about Voting (yes, against Trump, but mostly just, “Get out there and do it.”)  These were cheered grandly and life seemed to move on (as well as it has given November).  Then, just recently, some people felt he stepped into it again with a Tweet about Paul Ryan (this is the least Alt Right one I could find) and another on Mother's Day (ditto).  Much like the issue with Age Of Ultron, the fervor was bonfired by people that don’t know Whedon too well -- if at all -- and, well, mountains from molehills.  Of Paul Ryan and his Mother, Whedon himself said, “I tweeted something that inadvertently offended everyone except the people I was trying to offend. I'm sorry. I'll be quiet for a bit.”  (And I only link to all this so you have full disclosure.  I can’t rightfully support or condemn without acknowledging.)  In any event, grand cheering or not, life moved on again.

            To just this morning when Joss Whedon released his new Short Film, this time in support of Planned Parenthood.  It’s beautiful and poignant and heartbreaking and hopeful -- and, PS, has no Dialogue -- and is the kind of thing we expect from him while still being surprised impressed by his masterful simplicity.  I support Planned Parenthood.  I say that to -- again -- disclose fully.  Because “for or against” isn’t what this piece is about;  that is, it's not why I wanted to write today.  No, this piece is about a ridiculous -- read "deserves ridicule” -- part of what I expect to get bonfired from his Short's release:  the inevitable, “Who gives a shit what a Celebrity Millionaire thinks?!"

           Because the answer is a lot of people.  More significantly, there are a lot of shits to give.

             I saw this Short early this morning and as I was driving into work I thought -- this is true now, this is what I was thinking about;  not how important Planned Parenthood is (undeniably so) or how much I liked the Short (admittedly, and a trivial point) but -- “Thank God there are people out there doing this.”  Doing what?  Saying something.  Thank God there are people that matter saying something.

             Hold on.  Joss Whedon matters?  Maybe not to you, but he sure does to a lot of people.  And there are a lot of Celebrities out there using their stardom for a little greater good.  (And, sure, we can say Stephen Colbert and other Late Nighters comedically spar but that's their job.  Some of it's honest and some of it's ratings and -- I mean this -- good for them, I thank them too.)  But I'm looking at you, Ms. Meryl Streep at The Oscars.  And you, Ms. Leah Remini taking on Scientology.  And you, Mr. Leonardo DiCaprio defending our, you know, planet.  (Christ, we can even throw one at Scott Baio.  Now you really might not care, but the man stood up and shouted.)  Look, [fill in any name] may not matter to you, but they are voices and they have a stage -- to thousands, millions, countries -- and they are heard.  So while you may not give a shit, there are many people out there whose opinion may very well be swayed by a thank-you speech, a TV Show, a Short Film.  More importantly (I hope) their awareness is raised and they can research more and decide for themselves.  But -- sorry, folks this is the very nature of Pop Culture -- sometimes that very awareness -- much less opinion -- starts with a Celebrity saying something is or isn't cool.  And, me, I appreciate when Star-Studded So-And-So shows up just for the cause.

            Why is Joss Whedon showing up now?  This, from a Huffington Post article:  The House of Representative recently voted to pass a Healthcare Bill that would defund Planned Parenthood, which is a critical provider of women’s healthcare. As Whedon shows in his video, Planned Parenthood provides in the form of general care, cancer screenings, contraception and education.  Most of the clinic’s controversy stems from abortion procedures which only account for 3 percent of its services.  According to CNN, the majority of services are in regards to birth control (about 34 percent) and treatment for STDs (about 42 percent).”  Whedon said, “If politicians succeed in shutting down Planned Parenthood, millions of people lose access to basic health services.  How can these be at risk?”  (This in a statement to Entertainment Weekly.)  Whedon’s Short Film -- titled Unlocked ­-- is what a world without Planned Parenthood would look like.  The piece rewinds to the exact moment that sparked these situations:  when Planned Parenthood closed.  In a reverse reality, where the clinic is open, the women are able to change their future with a cancer screening, birth control and a peer educator program on safe sex.  A girl goes to college, a mother lives to celebrate a birthday with her family, and a teenage girl is able to prevent her friend’s STD with a class on safe sex.  Unlocked asks, “What world do you want?”  Whedon again:  “I’ve supported Planned Parenthood in the past, but until I worked with them closely on this, I didn’t understand how many services they -- and for some, they alone -- provide.”

              So why do I care what Joss Whedon has to say?  Because, once again, he came out of The Quiet Place.  After Ultron and his Save The Day Campaign and the recent Twitter hits -- and, yes, still with a career and wife and children to consider -- he showed up.  Full disclosure again, I am a fan and have worked with him.  But none of that matters as much as the dude doesn’t need to say anything but still does.  He doesn’t need to make Short Films about Voting (on his own time, on his own dime) but he did.  He doesn’t need to make a Short Film about Planned Parenthood (ditto) but he did.  More significantly than “he can,” he knows he’s going to get flack for it and does it anyway.  You and I post something on Facebook?  We start a chit chat among our friends.  Joss Whedon posts something and -- they like it -- his (“nearing a deal”) upcoming Batgirl gets a boost at the box office.  They don’t like it?  Warner Bros gets death threats (and, worse than that, Batgirl doesn’t do well at the box office).  He knows this, is fully steeped in the consequences (not to mention berated by his PR People for doing it) yet, still, there he is.  And not quietly at all.  For me, I'm grateful there are still Celebrities using their stages -- and time and money -- to say such things;  to do something about their causes.  Doesn’t matter if you agree.  Joss Whedon says it because he needs to.  And -- as I was driving into work this morning I thought -- that’s something to cheer.

28 April, 2017

The Manchurian Candidate

          It’s interesting that, as I write this entry, The Frank Sinatra Bungalow is back in the news.  This is the little building that was his unofficial dressing room -- more a hideaway -- when he worked at Samuel Goldwyn in the fifties and sixties.  That studio is The Lot now;  if you live in Los Angeles, the studio across the street from The Formosa (yes, the bar in L.A. Confidential).  It’s been The Lot since the nineties.  Before that it was The Warner Annex, before that Samuel Goldwyn, before that United Artists, before that Pickford-Fairbanks (who bought it from Jesse Hampton in 1919).  Some of the movies shot there over the years?  Robin Hood (1922), Stagecoach (1939), Up In Arms (1944) which you can read about in my Danny Kaye Top 5, The Best Years Of Our Lives, Witness For The Prosecution (1957) which you can read about in my Tyrone PowerTop 5, Some Like It Hot, West Side Story, Apocalypse Now, Se7en (sparking a run of Fincher films) and, yes, L.A. Confidential.  In TV it hosted Sinatra and Bob Hope and Lucille Ball (in her final series Life With Lucy) and True Blood and, in 2014, became home to Oprah’s OWN.  It's still a major studio space that few people know even exists.
           Without digressing too much from why we’re here today, The Frank Sinatra Bungalow was once part of the lot (whatever its iteration) until -- as happens to all lots -- its land was cut-up yet again and The Bungalow became part of The DWP next door.  And so its future is in question.  The space where Sinatra hid-away while shooting The Frank Sinatra Show (1957-1960), while recording The Concert Sinatra (1962) and while starring in two of his four-picture-deal with United Artists;  one of which is ours today.  Indeed, that little bungalow is very likely where he learned his now famous memory, “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” 

            The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
            w George Axelrod 
                from the novel by Richard Condon
            d John Frankenheimer

            The 1959 Novel was a best-seller.  It was praised in The Times as “a wild, vigorous, curiously readable melange” and in The New Yorker as “a wild and exhilarating satire” and Time named it “one of the Ten Best Bad Novels” which, The New Yorker wrote in 2003, “from a publisher’s point of view, is far from the worst thing that might be said about a book.”  The novel allowed Condon to spend most of the rest of his life abroad, writing in similar themes:  Winter Kills about a Presidential Assassination (in which -- the movie version -- John Huston acted) and Prizzi’s Honor about a contract killer for The Mob (which -- the movie version -- John Huston directed).  Condon’s adapation of Prizzi’s Honor garnered him an Academy Award Nomination (lost to Kurt Luedtke for Out Of Africa while another Huston -- Angelica -- won for Best Supporting Actress).  That same 2003 New Yorker article (by Louis Menand) goes on to say --

Condon was a cynic of the upbeat type, not unlike Tom Wolfe:  his belief that everything is basically shit did not get in the way of his pleasure in making fun of it.  He learned that attitude in the finest school for it on earth, Hollywood.  Before he was a novelist, Condon was a movie publicist.  He began, in 1936, at Walt Disney Productions, where he promoted Fantasia and Dumbo, among other animated masterpieces, and moved on to a succession of studios, finishing up at United Artists, which he left in 1957.  He didn’t know what he wanted to do next;  he just wanted out.  “The only thing I knew how to do was spell,” he later explained, so he did the logical thing and became a writer.  Condon claimed that his work in Hollywood had given him three ulcers.  He also claimed that he had seen, during his years there, ten thousand movies, an experience that he believed gave him (his words) “an unconscious grounding in storytelling.”

            Books to movies change, of course, but one of the more interesting -- subtitle that salacious -- changes is with Raymond’s mother, Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury in our version today).  The head of the Manchurian Brainwashing Project grants Raymond a happy side effect of using him:  Raymond becomes a lethario, very much in contrast to his meek persona beforehand where he hadn't even kissed the love of his life, Jocelyn Jordan (the darling Leslie Parrish today).  Is that the salacious bit?  Hardly.  Remember the little moment near the end of the film where Mrs. Iselin kisses her son right on the mouth;  lingering there?  It’s a little bit “If only we” and a little bit “Goodbye” and, yeah, a little bit uncomfortable.  Well, this is nothing compared to the novel where -- while the two are traveling abroad, she uses Raymond to kill various political figures and (it’s not specified but likely) Jocelyn Jordan's first husband -- things really begin to heat up between the two.  Mrs. Iselin was sexually abused by her father but fell in love with him and idolized him after his early death.  So in the novel (at about the same time plot-wise as the movie’s kiss), Raymond is hypnotized by The Queen of Diamonds, he reminds her of her father, and she sleeps with her son.

            This is shocking under any circumstances, and certainly was in 1959, but let’s also remember the weirdly hypnotic (no pun intended) pull The Naughty had on readers at that time (and any time, of course, but consider Popular American Literature in a given five years):  Condon couldn’t have helped but relish in another book that became the first blockbuster in American publishing, Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place (1956);  and only a year before that there’s Vladimir Nabakov's Lolita (1955) which, fairly or not, will go down in history (no pun intended) as ... well, what it is and isn’t.  But that’s for another blog.

           While we’re talking about the differences in the book (and, no, I’m not going to get into the infamous Plagiarism clouding it), this is a good to start talking about our leading lady.  Janet Leigh plays Rosie, Major Marco’s (Mr. Sinatra’s) love interest.  In the book, Rosie’s fiancé is one of the Associates handling the Shaw case for Army Intelligence.  Marco is of course aware of this and it causes some tension between their budding romance.  Fine and fair.  But it’s not half as interesting as when, in today’s movie version, she seems so willing to blow off said fiancé for this distraught Army Major she’s just met on the train:  who’s clearly troubled but if that didn’t bother her neither did hearing he’s in jail ‘cause she rushes right over to bail him out and, in the cab ride home, tells him she’s in love with him.  This is precisely the kind of thing that ought to bother an audience and yet, in this picture, fits so well that -- I think -- helps it.  In fact, it’s one of the things I particularly love about Leigh’s Rosie and how she plays her.
               Let’s look at that very train scene.  First, a few thoughts.  It’s her first scene in the film, at forty minutes in;  the first of only five scenes she has in the whole thing -- the last two she doesn’t even speak in -- their totaling twelve minutes (of a two-hour six-minute picture).  And the other four scenes are somewhat reassurances:  in the police station / cab says their meeting on the train meant more than two ships passing in the night;  in the apartment solidifies they now have a relationship (instead of a fling);  she's the one with whom Marco shares poor Jocelyn's and Senator Jordan's fate;  setting up --  her being there as an anchor -- the end telling us at least Marco still has a shot 'cause he has her.  All fine and fair again.  Point being the train is the scene.  And I believe this is the reason -- these six minutes (half the time she’s in the whole thing) -- someone as high-caliber as Miss Leigh was brought on for the role:  to give this moment the weight it needs to carry the character -- and thereafter Marco’s & Rosie’s relationship -- the rest of the picture.

            A train traveling from Washington D.C. to New York.  Marco, clearly distraught, is in the uncrowded Club Car, sitting next to Rosie as the landscape whizzes by the grand window behind her.  They almost get a meet-cute as he drops his cigarette into his drink then asks her if it’s okay to smoke.  She says yes, he tries again, but the distraught is too much for him and he barrels out into the vestibule between cars.  She follows, lighting a cigarette for him, and it’s in that tight space, the landscape now whizzing by the small window there, in which our scene plays.  There’s some light conversation, still a little uncomfortable for him but he’s relaxing, and I love the moment he decides to introduce himself -- maybe finally warming -- as A Porter walks through which moves her closer to him (just a nice piece of Staging).  And it’s here in what might finally be a warmer moment she turns a bit, and we get the odd dialogue of her address and phone number.  It could be an independent woman flirting but, given our subject matter of the last forty minutes, we can’t help but presume it’s something more.  He’s still distraught enough we can’t quite read his reaction and he tells her he’s going to New York to meet a friend (after he’s just told his Commanding Officer how much he can’t stand Shaw) and then -- abruptly -- we dissolve out and that’s it.  Those are the six minutes, Miss Leigh’s only real scene in the picture, and yet it may be one of her best.

                   Is it all Relevant?  Is it all Subtext?  Are there scenes left on The Cutting Room Floor that flesh this out, or is it all just a Red Herring (as her subsequent scenes seem to ignore this one completely)?  As deliciously melodramatic as the story is -- certainly the book was -- likely yes to all.  And let's take a look at these words from Roger Ebert:

Midway in his investigation, Sinatra meets and falls in love with a woman played by Janet Leigh, and their relationship provides the movie with what looks to me like a subtle, tantalizing suggestion of an additional level of intrigue.  What’s going on here?  My notion is that Sinatra’s character is a Manchurian killer, too;  one allowed to remember details of Harvey’s brainwashing because that would make him seem more credible.  And Leigh?  She is Sinatra’s controller.

                    I’ll let you be the judge as we move on to Judge, Jury & Executioner in Dame Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin. 

I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting her but all signs point to Dame Lansbury being as kind and wonderful and “Jessica Fletcher” as we think and hope and believe.  But if you firstsaw her in this?  Yeah.  Wow.  (I mentioned in Rawhide Mrs. Iselin is one of theEvil Characters.  So wonderfully evil, it’s hard to imagine Lansbury was offered the role of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest but turned it down because she didn't think she could handle it.)  Well, this role almost wasn’t hers either as Mr. Sinatra wanted -- ready for this? -- Lucille Ball for the role;  who, as much as I love Lansbury, would have really wow’d playing against part.  And Lansbury, only 37 here, is only three years older than Lawrence Harvey;  make-up and hair and posture doing wonders for both their “age.”  We already touched on theirrelationship but I did want to touch on one more, albeit in an odd way;  that of Eleanor and her husband John (the perfectly cast James Gregory).  Because -- referencing Joss Whedon again who said, “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.” -- I do get a kick at the great deal of wit throughout this picture -- admittedly enjoyed more your second, even third viewing -- particularly Eleanor’s trying to get John to “remember” an exact number of Communists in The Defense Department … and he starts putting Heinz Ketchup on his food. Peter Rainer of The Los Angeles Herald Examiner wrote in 1988, in part:

The film was way ahead of its time, a black comedy that mixed melodrama and slapstick … it was about McCarthyism and Momism … I can't imagine what audiences would have made of it in 1962.

Or, as well as it holds up, even today.

This is a tightrope of a picture to be sure, walking the line of playing Melodrama “Straight” while some potentially very loose threads -- Politics, Hypnotism, Incest, all part of a Romantic Thriller -- are intricately webbed.  How closely grounded can we keep the Realism while (quite obviously) pushing that Melodrama?  This is a walk that's easier to make in a Novel but I feel is accomplished quite well On Screen.  And -- I believe – The Picture holds up as well as it does – fifty-five years later -- because of the talent both in front of and behind the camera.

We touched briefly on Mr. Sinatra (and then only tangentially) and Dame Lansbury and our own Miss Leigh -- and I won’t due Laurence Harvey (whose understated power here is indeed something to appreciate) any justice in this write-up – but we must at least mention our Adapter, George Axelrod, and Director, John Frankenheimer.

Mr. Axelrod was a Novelist, Playwright and Screenwriter perhaps best known for (both the Play & Movie) The Seven Year Itch.  I say perhaps because, as a Screenwriter, he had something of a grand-slam when his Seven Year Itch (co-adapted by none other than Billy Wilder), Bus Stop (also with Ms. Monroe), Breakfast At Tiffany’s (based on the Truman Capote Novel) and our film today played right in a row (’55-’62).  And it’s perhaps not surprising that our film today is such a successful tightrope-walk of a Novel Adaptation since he’d just come off Tiffany’s;  that classic having another specific Tone by another specific Author.  (PS do yourself a favor and read both Capote’s Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood;  really different but both real treats.)

At the helm is, of course, John Frankenheimer who, if he needs an introduction, let me do so by saying it was during the making of our film today that he became a close friend of Robert Kennedy;  and, six years later, it was Frankenheimer who drove Kennedy from LAX to The Ambassador Hotel on the night The Senator was assassinated.  (And, if I may, let me also add that my Father-In-Law was working at The Ambassador that fateful night.  Indeed, far too small a world.)  Need more on Mr. Frankenheimer?  Take a look at Birdman Of Alcatraz and Seven Days In May (1964) and Grand Prix and Black Sunday (1977);  the latter, interestingly, being Thomas Harris’ only non-Hannibal Lecter Novel.  Frankenheimer's best work -- including as late as Ronin (1998) and HBO’s Path To War (which I had the honor to meet him on, just months before his passing) -- continued to include the weaving of Action & Suspense into Social Commentary.

To wrap it all up, here's Roger Ebert on the Movie once more:

Seen today, The Manchurian Candidate feels astonishingly contemporary; its astringent political satire still bites, and its story has uncanny contemporary echoes … [It] is inventive and frisky, takes enormous chances with the audience, and plays not like a "classic" but as a work as alive and smart as when it was first released. "It may be," Pauline Kael wrote at the time, "the most sophisticated satire ever made in Hollywood." Yes, because it satirizes no particular target -- left, right, foreign, domestic -- but the very notion that politics can be taken at face value.

And Louis Menand on the Novel once more (and oh how I love this):

Some people like their bananas ripe to the point of blackness.  [This] is a very ripe banana and, for those who have the taste for it, delectable.

14 February, 2017

Musical Notes

There’s a moment in 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy that defines its genre.  It’s at the end, after George M. Cohan’s meeting with President Roosevelt but before he’s outside in the street parading with the troops … to his own song.  And remember what’s brought him here:  it’s Opening Night of his New Show, back on the stage after years away, and he was summoned to The White House to meet The President.  Cohan’s nervous because in his New Show he plays The President but when he gets to The White House and sits with the man he ends up telling his life story.  Turns out it couldn’t be better because Roosevelt’s brought him there to award him The Congressional Medal Of Honor (Cohan was the first Entertainer to receive the award).  He thanks The President with what’s already become the picture’s heart-tug -- “My father thanks you …” -- and then he’s on his way out.  And that would be a great ending, a beautiful ending.  Even if we cut outside and he stepped in line with those troops on parade (with the great exchange with the soldier:  “Seems to me I do!”) we’d have an appropriately rousing cap to the heart-tug. 

But that’s not the moment. 

It’s him coming down the stairs. 

He’s just come out of meeting Roosevelt on opening night of his new show and he’s told his life story and he’s been given the award.  And that’s when it happens.  While he’s coming down the stairs, he does a little dance.  It’s simple and elegant (not to mention while he’s coming down the stairs) and it ends as it began, without missing a step.  George M. Cohan just came out of being summoned to The President of The United States, and he tap dances his way out the door.

That’s a moment.

I hadn’t thought I’d be writing about this until my wife Diana got me La La Land on vinyl for Valentine’s Day.  I’d been humming along to the Soundtrack -- on Spotify -- pretty regularly since we saw the film in December so she knew I’d love it:  the vinyl (it’s blue!).  But it was also icing on a cake I hadn’t quite realized was baking;  that I’d have to write about it, you see.  Because Damian Chazelle’s love letter to Jazz and Hollywood and Dreamers and Love -- wrapped up as an original modern Musical -- is impossible to ignore, fan or not.  And I was reminded of another article on the picture (as it’s on Stage And Cinema which hosted Jason Rohrer’s and my series on Billy Wilder) that … well, I also had to write about (and more on that in a bit).  So here we are, dear readers:  

The Musical.

And, mostly, The Movie Musical.  That is, not Broadway per se:  the indisputable powerhouse of 1964 (Hello Dolly! and Fiddler On The Roof at the same time) or the current Hamilton!  Nor Television per se:  the indisputable powerhouse of 2009’s Glee (which sold 13 million albums and won three Golden Globes and four Emmys, including Best Series).  Of course, no matter what we’re talking about, I can’t do so without talking about how we got here.  So, the current belle of the ball?  Yeah, La La Land was birthed in 1927.

By The Jazz Singer.

No, that movie wasn’t the first full-length Talkie (that was 1928’s Lights Of New York), nor was it the first full-length Musical (that was 1929’s The Broadway Musical;  which, by the by, won the second-ever Best Picture Oscar).  But The Jazz Singer?  No, you can’t help but start there.  Why?

Because it was Al Jolson. 

To say we applaud The Musical for the advent of Sound in Movies is a little bit of a stretch except to say Al Jolson -- the singer named The World’s Greatest Entertainer -- was such a big star that Warner Bros was willing to bank The Sound Gamble on him.  That The Jazz Singer was such a success was three-fold:  the Sound worked, it was Al Jolson, and he was singing.  It was such a success that Warner Bros immediately followed it with another Jolson:  The Singing Fool.  It was only partially a talkie as well but that didn’t matter;  most of that talking was singing.  It too was such a success that -- Jolson or not -- Audiences wanted -- and therefore Studios made -- more Musicals.  Why?  You’ve all heard how Actors were terrified of being heard (yes, Singin’ In The Rain spoofs it wonderfully) so the easy answer is singers could, you know, sing.  Studios could fill a lot of that new sound space with song;  easier to play, easier to sell … and, yes, easier to sync.

The thirties saw the studios outdoing one another;  and however The Great Depression bound audiences, they found time and money for Musicals.  Trick was, however fast the studios churned, audiences were insatiable;  for more and bigger and better.  Enter Busby Berkeley, a Broadway Choreographer plucked by Warner Bros to reinvent the wheel.  And reinvent he did ... with pure spectacle.  Look at his sequences in 42nd Street and Footlight Parade before fully Directing -- launching Judy Garland & Mickey Rooney -- with Babes In Arms and Babes On Broadway (both of which hold up well) and he did an unused Scarecrow number in The Wizard Of Oz (which you can now see on that Blu Ray).  New to Mr. Berkeley?  He didn’t just do Musicals.  Check out his great departure, the John Garfield Noir They Made Me A Criminal. 

Musicals hit their peak in the forties when -- similar to our being wearied by The Great Depression -- audiences fought their way to theatres to escape World War II.  The forties were a new golden age for Musicals in that -- instead of “the cut-away spectacle” (viz Mr. Berkeley) -- The Movies patterned after Broadway where Story and Character used Song & Dance as an integral part of the narrative.  Now, if Berkeley must be mentioned, so must this gentleman:

Arthur Freed.

He’d been on the MGM lot for a number of years as a songwriter and had done the scores for The Broadway Melody, Hollywood Revue and Going Hollywood among others.  Within ten years he’d head The Freed Unit, given practically free reign to produce Movies.  Musicals.  Sure, he too had a hand in The Wizard Of Oz and Babes In Arms and Babes On Broadway and Girl Crazy.  But let’s jump to his big ones (and when I’ve just listed those four titles I hope these mean something) --

Meet Me In St. Louis
Ziegfeld Follies
                   Easter Parade
On The Town
Annie Get Your Gun
Royal Wedding

Well, now let’s jump to his big ones (and when I’ve just listed those six titles I hope these mean something) --

An American In Paris
Singin’ In The Rain
The Band Wagon
It’s Always Fair Weather

It’s impossible not to appreciate his contribution to the genre.
By the sixties, Television cut into all Theatrical popularity but significantly Musicals;  mostly because of the expense it took to produce a Musical at the level audiences were accustomed.  Aside from Elvis Presley -- who by his cinematic premiere in ‘56’s Love Me Tender had reached a popularity close to Al Jolson -- the studios were reluctant to invest in Originals and the trend of Broadway adapting Movies began to reverse as Hollywood once again looked to The Street for source material.  This resulted in more than a mere recycling and in a number of instances good movies:  White Christmas and Garland’s A Star Is Born (both in ’54) through My Fair Lady and West Side Story and, of course, The Sound Of Music (in ’65).  (Oliver! in ’68 was the last Musical for thirty-four years to win Best Picture, but I don’t think it holds up too well.  Still, ’68 was the year Barbara Streisand won her first Academy Award for reprising Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, and I dare someone to say “Don’t Rain On My Parade” isn’t a great number.)  

We cite ‘72’s Cabaret as great -- and Bob Fosse rightly won for his work there -- but the seventies reversed the turn Warner Bros made in the thirties.  Spurned by Vietnam, audiences looked to darker stories such as The Godfather (which beat Cabaret for Best Picture) and Bonnie And Clyde and The Graduate and Easy Rider and it wasn’t until ‘77’s Star Wars -- not a Musical, of course -- that there was a light in that tunnel.  The eighties didn’t fair much better for Singin’ & Dancin’ until Jeffrey Katzenberg was given the reins at Disney and wonderfully turned that tide with some true greats;  and Animated.  Look at his run in seven years:

 The Little Mermaid (1989)
 Beauty And The Beast
 The Nightmare Before Christmas
 The Lion King
 The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1996)

Interestingly, this is about the time Broadway rebounds with her best run since the mid-sixties: 

A Chorus Line (1975)
Les Misérables
The Phantom Of The Opera
Chicago (whose film won Best Picture in 2002)
The Lion King
Mamma Mia!
Wicked (2003)

How big were those hits?  Five are still running.

There would be movie versions of some -- Chicago, Phantom, Les Miz and Mamma Mia! come to mind -- but, to be fair, they aren’t very good.  And then you have the bizarre hat trick of The Producers which started as a Movie (and won Mel Brooks an Oscar his first time out) then became a Hit (and Tony-winning) Show which then became a Movie of that Show (which, fairly, you may have forgotten).

The one Movie Musical in recent years that truly stood out was 2001’s Baz Luhrmann smash Moulin Rouge!  A kind-of original in that it was an Original Screenplay with two Original Songs, its genius -- and success -- lay in peppering Hit Pop Songs as Musical Numbers;  including one of the best medleys ever filmed as Christian and Satine climb the elephant.  A lot of people called it a crutch, a gimmick -- Elton John and Madonna in Bohemian Paris -- but it’s exactly what a Musical should be;  what The Jazz Singer did almost 75 years before.  It gave the audience something brand new … that they could hum along to.

                   So.  This year’s smash:  La La Land.

                   Love it or hate it -- love or hate the genre -- it's an unarguable commercial and critical success.  Now, one of the things I mentioned at the beginning of this was that other article.  Why?  Because of how grossly inaccurate it was and my feeling I needed to address.  Of course, I don’t believe in firing shots across any bow without justification so, as quickly as I can:

               Mr. Corti wrote, “The zig-zagging camerawork is reminiscent of Robert Elswit’s in Boogie Nights.”  Robert Elswit was the (very talented) Cinematographer on Boogie Nights but Director Paul Thomas Anderson asked for the shot while Steadicam Operator Andy Shuttleworth made it happen.  Sticking with the technical for a moment, Corti wrote, “‘Another Day In The Sun,’ a single-take wonder of 100 performers that impresses thanks to Linus Sandgren’s swift cinematography and Mandy Moore’s choreography.”  Here again the Cinematography and Choreography are extraordinary but to suggest the shot was a genuine oner isn't just spotlighting a naïve eye but takes away from Sandgren and Moore designing how much to do where and when as well as Chazelle conducting and Editor Tom Cross orchestrating.  Praise the end result, even incorrectly, at least praise the whole team.

Corti wrote, “[Sebastian] fastidiously memorizes facts about Charlie Parker and learns songs off an old vinyl LP by ear [but] can’t remember the night when his girlfriend’s passion project production opens.”  Sebastian didn’t forget, he was busy at work – he chose not to give up what he had to do at work – and rushed to her afterward.  This wasn’t bad memory but intentionally part of his character’s -- their relationship's -- flaw.   

Corti wrote, “What’s amusing about old movie musicals is how the lead performers are triple threats (equally great at acting, singing, and dancing) but they struggle to make it either as an entertainer or a love interest. Here is a film where the leads don’t sing great [sic] or even dance basic choreography adequately, but their characters’ prospects look more and more attainable as the film plays on.  This is a tremendous obstacle because it undercuts the story about how tough it is to make it in Hollywood.”  Now, I wouldn’t have nitpicked his mentioning Mr. Elswit and Boogie Nights had that early faux pas not spawned an accumulation.  But by this point I’d realized Corti knew little of Story and Technique and even less of Movie Musicals;  that he likely only screened a few to prep his article.  So let’s just use examples from the films it seems he’s seen.  In Singin’ In The Rain, Debbie Reynolds couldn’t dance, could barely sing (Gene Kelly got her around the floor and Betty Noyes dubbed her vocals).  Catherine Deneuve in either of Jacques Demy’s famous, wonderful Musicals?  Moves as necessary and is dubbed as well.  (Though I’m sure Mr. Corti knows almost everyone was dubbed back then.  And I’m not attacking the ladies as we could as-easily discuss Oscar Levant or Georges Guétary or Van Johnson but let’s keep moving.)  La La Land is a movie where the leads sing and dance themselves, better than adequately, and whose plot prospects of course look more attainable as we go.  That -- very much a part of how tough it is to make it in Hollywood (and very much Chazelle’s point) -- is the demon in the dream.

Corti ends with, “Chazelle’s ambivalently nostalgic and arbitrarily cynical La La Land has an exciting start, but it falls hard quickly and doesn’t recover.”  Ambivalently nostalgic?  Chazelle’s homaging multiple classics is hardly indecisive.  And arbitrary cynicism?  Chazelle’s outset was to make a classic musical set in real life “where things don’t always work out.”  Continuing to quote Chazelle, “[both Whiplash and this film are] about the struggle of being an artist and reconciling your dreams with the need to be human.  La La Land is just much less angry about it.”  But you can find all this with easy Google searches.  Or, you know, watch the movie.  Because Chazelle gives us the wonderful end fantasy of “how things should be,” underlining his inherent optimism.  Indeed, we should all fall as hard and quickly.    

At press, La La Land has grossed $300 million worldwide (on a $30 million cost).  It was nominated for seven Golden Globes and won all seven.  It was nominated for eleven BAFTAs and won five (including Best Film).  Emma Stone brought home The SAG, Chazelle The DGA and Producers Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz & Marc Platt The PGA.  It has fourteen Oscar Nominations -- tying All About Eve and Titanic -- and is, on the 26th of this month, expected to win Best Picture.  If it doesn’t, we’ll see the biggest upset since The Super Bowl.  Which is the biggest upset since The Presidential Race.  Which is …

Money and Awards have never defined Art, so let’s move passed those to the simple fact that La La Land is a good movie.  It is a good story.  It is told well, both in front of and behind the camera.  It is intelligent, well crafted, thought-provoking and emotionally stirring.  It is a respectful and passionate homage to its genre’s past, and at the same time a strong step forward in keeping the genre relevant, and therefore alive. 

You’re going to hear and/or read a lot of references, none of them wrong:  Chazelle loves and champions Jazz -- viz Whiplash as well -- and God bless him;  The Young Girls Of Rochefort for the Jazzy numbers (particularly comparing opening with “Another Day Of Sun” with “Maxence’s Song”);  An American In Paris for having a lead be talented in his art yet yearning for something more;  Singin’ In The Rain for centering on Hollywood (and parody-homaging with as much love);  both of the Babes and Star Is Born (any of them) and Funny Girl and, really, any of the wonderful tales of a young lady dreaming of stardom birthing Mia and her “Audition;”  The Band Wagon for the end fantasy;  and The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg for the pathos in the end itself.  And that barely scratches the surface but it doesn’t matter because most of all La La Land is an original Musical that’s immediately hummable. 

Yes, hummable.  And if that isn’t a good definition of a successful Musical, it’s a perfectly fine start. 

My wife Diana and I went to Amélie at The Ahmanson here in L.A. last month because we’re both big fans of that picture.  Suckers for Musicals as well, it was an easy win-win;  or should have been.  Amélie The Musical wasn’t bad -- we enjoyed ourselves while sitting there -- but there wasn’t anything we took away from it.  I equated the evening to cotton candy.  Tasty and fun but right after?  (Keyser Söze gesture)  Gone. 

Well, there’s nothing gone from La La Land.  We the audience are submerged in its world and are thrilled to soak it in, clinging to it from dripping off us even as we skip out of the theatre.  Yes, skip.  Humming.  I’m telling you, that’s the thing.  As I write this, I’m humming along to my new (blue!) vinyl.  And I can go on and on about how well the picture’s crafted, at those homages to bits of genre past, at how we’re rooting through the reality of it all, and how two newcomers to Singin’ & Dancin’ pull off their tasks as naturally as they do (at how their being natural -- not professional -- helps the picture) but, really, it’s all about how that picture makes you feel.

 There is a moment, just prior to the now famous “A Lovely Night” number (it’s the movie’s one sheet), where Mia changes her shoes.  Because she anticipates dancing.  It’s a simple thing and doesn’t mean much -- isn’t supposed to -- except, for me, it sang two things. 

One, Chazelle specifically wrote the moment, even shot it, and however many months later when screening cuts decided to keep it.  It meant that much to him.  And it’s (at least to my mind) the only time we’ve seen it.  Boy and Girl meet-cute and have their first number, light and flirty, and it leaves them wanting more?  Seen that a bunch.  But have we ever seen one of them change shoes in the movie because they’re about to dance?  (My mind keeps tugging on a moment with Cyd Charise in The Band Wagon but I don’t think it’s the same.  And then I think of her in It's Always Fair Weather leaping six feet off the boxing ring in those six-inch heels so ...)  I do think Mia’s moment -- right there on the screen -- is a very telling thing about the kind of picture La La Land is:  a tip-of-the-hat to the backstage, the behind-the-scenes;  showcasing Hollywood by her Dreamers.

And, two, it goes back to how we opened here today:  George M. Cohan dancing down the White House stairs in Yankee Doodle Dandy.  In La La Land, Mia, our ingénue who may be frustrated by her life yet still has hope enough to dream, meets a guy who’s cute and more than that loves art and more than that is talented himself and makes her laugh and think and feel and maybe this one’s worth her time.  So she changes her shoes to dance with him.  It’s not the same level of moment as Dandy’s --

                 -- except they’re both the kind of moment we want from them.

I wish I could give proper credit but I came across a quote that went, “Musicals are how life should be.”  And that’s even better than “hummable.”  I just came out of meeting The President who gave me The Congressional Medal Of Honor?  You bet I’m going to tap dance down the stairs.  I’m young and a little bit lonely but even more hopeful and here’s someone I’m gonna dance with, that I really wanna dance with?  Hold on, I just gotta get my right shoes.

I think everyone expects La La Land to win Best Picture at The Oscars this year and that will make me happy.  (Nostalgia always makes me happy, as when both Midnight In Paris and The Artist received due recognition.)  But I’m already thrilled -- especially in times like these -- that a really good movie -- a Musical that’s as much original as nostalgic -- is doing so well.  That it's adored.  

And, yes, hummed. 

Because I think we all like to be reminded how life should be.