Saturday, October 23, 2021

Under the Radar: Peter Scolari


I'll let you guess which one is Peter

In 1980, a situation comedy by the name of Bosom Buddies made its debut. Yes, the title was a double-entendre, but for what purpose? The series premise would be considered dated today. Two young men can't find an affordable place to live in Manhattan--that's not what's dated--so they put on wigs and dresses and make-up--that's not dated either; in fact, it's more in the news than ever--and move into a women-only hotel. That's what's dated. Women-only hotels are few and far between these days, and even 41 years ago were on the decline. But the sociological reasons for that decline is not what interests us today. The bosom buddies of the show's title were played by Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari. The show, which I recall was pretty funny, went off the air after only two seasons. Hanks went on to become a major movie star, which he remains today, whereas Scolari simply had to settle for being a well-respected comedy actor who worked steadily, was added to the cast of another sitcom that was one of the major hits of the 1980s, then decades later won an Emmy for a recurring role on the much-lauded (and sometimes much-criticized for sexual content) HBO comedy-drama, Girls, and even occasionally worked on Broadway. Not a bad thing to settle for, in my opinion. Peter Scolari died just yesterday. He was 66.

Odd that it didn't have an original theme song, and instead used a Billy Joel cover. Was it cheaper to do it that way? I don't know.

From 1983 to 1990, Scolari played Michael Harris on Newhart, Dick Loudin's yuppyish producer at a local TV station in Vermont, who also carried on a romance with, and eventually married, stuck-up heiress Stephanie Vanderkellen, played by Julia Duffy. This clip doesn't really sum up their comically vacuous relationship, and it's hard to see at times. But it was the only clip that I could find on YouTube under 15 minutes. And anyway, it's still funny. Very, very funny.  

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Vital Viewing (Oral Choreography Edition)

Movie star Rita Hayworth was born on this day in 1918 (she died in 1987.) The daughter of two professional dancers, she herself became a professional dancer at the age of four, appearing on Broadway with mom and dad in The Greenwich Village Follies. The family moved to Hollywood, and before she was out of her teens, Rita had signed a contract with a movie studio that eventually became 20th Century Fox. However, it was the contract that she signed a few years later with Columbia Pictures that made Rita a star. Her considerable dancing skills, acting prowess, and stunningly beautiful features made her one of the top box office draws in movie musicals throughout the 1940s. In this clip from 1942's You Were Never Lovelier, she more than holds her own along side one of the biggest movie musical stars of all time: 

 There you have it. Rita Hayworth in her full glory singing and dancing up a storm. In this--Oh, wait, it seems I got the weather report all wrong. Rita is still dancing up a storm, but it's...

...Big Band vocalist Nan Wynn who's doing the singing, as she had done in at least two other Hayworth musicals.

It may have been Rita's dancing (and her looks) that originally got Hollywood's attention, but her acting just got better as time went on. Soon she was in as many nonmusicals as she was in musicals, including this film noir classic:

 Today, this nonmusical is musical star Hayworth's most well-known movie. If that's not ironic enough for you, this nonmusical movie about murder and betrayal and unbridled passion has in it film noir star Hayworth's most well-known musical number. Watch and listen:

You can blame the San Francisco earthquake and the Klondike shooting on Mame, but credit...

...Anita Ellis with the vocals that matched Rita's lip movements.

I wanted to study singing, but Harry Cohn kept saying, ‘Who needs it?’ and the studio wouldn’t pay for it. They had me so intimidated that I couldn’t have done it anyway. They always said, ‘Oh, no, we can’t let you do it. There’s no time for that, it has to be done right now!’ I was under contract, and that was it

--Rita Hayworth

So, does any of this matter? Was some big con job being foisted on the moviegoing public? Fictional movies are con jobs to begin with. Acting is a con job. Scripted dialogue is a con job. Anything not filmed on location, anything indoors, anything in a different historical period, anything on another planet, is a con job. Maybe con job is too harsh a word. How about make-believe? No more so than musicals which often have characters singing songs that they're supposedly making up at the spur of the moment when they could just be talking instead. As far as lip syncing goes, just about any musical made after 1935 is lip synced. Remember "Over the Rainbow" in The Wizard of Oz? No, I'm not suggesting that's not actually Judy Garland's voice you're hearing. It most certainly is, but it's not what's coming out of her mouth at the very moment she's standing on a set designed to look like a Kansas barnyard. She recorded the song a few days earlier in a recording studio so it would sound like it was recorded in a recording studio and not a Kansas barnyard or even a set made up to look like a Kansas barnyard. When it came time for the actual filming, Garland lip synced herself, which was how they did it in movies then and how they do it in music videos now. You'd have to go back to the early days of sound film to find songs sung as the camera was still rolling. The first sound picture, in fact. In The Jazz Singer, when Al Jolsen sings "Mammy" he's doing so live on film (as contradictory as that may sound.) And frankly, Al sounds better in his later movies than he does there (he comes across as less racist, too.) Once Hollywood decided that what you're seeing and what you're hearing can best be done at two different locations at two different times, it wasn't long before it occurred to somebody that what you're seeing and what you're hearing can occasionally be done by two different people as well. Rita Hayworth was a terrific dancer with a terrific screen presence whose singing wasn't quite terrific enough. Nan Wynn and Anita Ellis were terrific singers but not dancers at all and though both appeared in movies from time to time, neither had what it took to become stars. There are only so many Judy Garlands in this world. The rest is make-believe. Or, if you prefer, con jobs.

Still, you might be curious as to just what Rita Hayworth's voice did sound like. Well, she does talk in her movies. Nobody has ever suggested that was dubbed. But what about her singing? For that we'll have to turn on the TV--early 1970s TV:

Television may be even more make-believe than the movies!





Monday, October 11, 2021

Quips and Quotations (Vegetation Variations Edition)


I had a rose named after me and I was very flattered. But I was not pleased to read the description in the catalogue: "No good in a bed, but fine against a wall". 

--Eleanor Roosevelt, from a speech given at the White Shrine Club, Fresno, California, early 1960s, quoted in The Event Makers I’ve Known (2012) by Elvin C. Bell, p. 161.


Monday, October 4, 2021

Vital Viewing (Keeping a Straight Face Edition)


Film comedian Buster Keaton was born on this day in 1895 (he died in 1966.) I almost wrote "silent film comedian" as if that's all he ever was, but Keaton did a good deal of acting in talkies once they arrived, and, later, television. However, it's the 13 years he spent miming in front of a camera that he's best known for. Not just here in the US, but all over the world. Here's an interview Keaton did for Swedish TV in 1960:

I like the way Buster felt he just could go tap that mike after he saw the other fellow do it. He came in loud and clear so it must have worked.

Keaton says in the above clip that he first met Charlie Chaplin in 1912. At that time neither were movie stars or even in movies at all. They were stage actors, Keaton in vaudeville and Chaplin touring the United States with British music hall impresario Fred Karno's comedy troupe (of which Stan Laurel was also a member.) They both went into movies at first just to make a few extra bucks and ended up finding their calling. But was one call louder than the other? To what degree were they rivals? They're now seen by many as having been in this neck-to-neck competition to see who was the funniest mute on celluloid, but that's not how it actually played out during their silent film heyday, a silent film heyday in which Chaplin already had a few years head start on Keaton. If you were to compare it to 1960s rock, Chaplin would be the Beatles, transforming an art form that hadn't even been around all that long, and transforming it to such a commercially successful degree that the act existed in a strata all its own, impossibly above and beyond the reach of the nearest competition. So does that make Buster Keaton the Rolling Stones? Not necessarily. A third player, Harold Lloyd, performed slightly better at the box office. Keaton may have been more The Who or the Doors. But that's when these guys were all still alive. Since their deaths (Lloyd in 1971, Chaplin in '77), there's been reassessments, and even more reassessments. Film scholars now rank Lloyd number three (no shame in that; they all still think he's a very funny guy) and argue whether, artistically if not commercially, Chaplin or Keaton should be number one. The more years, the more decades, that go by, the more these scholars give Keaton the edge. What's causing Chaplin to slip some (and only some) in the rankings? Back when he still mostly was making two-reelers, i.e., short films, critics began referring to Chaplin as an "artist", which he most certainly was, but arguably he was not all that conscious of this  artistry. His formal education having ended at age 13, as a music hall entertainer he would have been expected to do just that, entertain, be funny for funny's sake, and nothing of a more lofty nature. Once he became aware that he was being referred to as an artist, Chaplin in fact did take a more lofty approach, increasingly injecting seriousness into the comic hijinks. That seriousness, however, often took the form of sentimentality ("a laugh, and perhaps a tear" the viewer is told to expect at the beginning of The Kid.) He didn't go overboard and get all icky the way Jerry Lewis or Red Skelton often did, but 80, 90, 100 years later, that sentimentality doesn't seem as artistically significant as it once did. As for Buster Keaton (whose formal education was at best intermittent), while his films got generally good reviews, nobody in the 1920s saw anything particularly profound about them, and he was therefore free to be funny for funny's sake. Except that 55 years after his death, film scholars aren't so sure he was being funny for funny's sake, as they look deeper into his work and find that his films are brimming with social observations and psychological insights. As Steve Martin once said, comedy is not pretty.

However the film scholars and film historians and film buffs rank Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, what did these two very talented comedians think of each other?  

They seem to have been friends, often visiting each other's sets. Keaton was also in Chaplin's employ during two different periods of his life. In the 1920s, when he made a few films for United Artists, which at that time was 1/4 owned by Chaplin. More significantly, in 1952, when his career had reached its nadir and Chaplin decided to help him out by giving him a part in Limelight, the only time the two appeared together on screen. I was thinking of showing you a clip of them, which comes toward the end of the film, but the emphasis is on Chaplin (for sound artistic reasons; his character makes a showbiz comeback that ends in tragedy) and this post is about Keaton. So I got something else for you instead.  

Bad boys bad boys
Watcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do
when they come for you
 Bad boys bad boys
Watcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do
when they come for you

 Here's a 99-year-old two-reeler that's just Buster and a bunch of extras in blue (well, it's in black-and-white, but you'll see what I mean):

 Man, that anarchist throws a bomb into a police parade and it's played for laughs?! I don't think you could get away with that in a Hollywood movie today. Those silent film comedians of a century ago sure weren't afraid to push the envelope.  

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Awesome Audio (Delta Demons and Divinities Edition)


 Early rock 'n' roller and country music star Jerry Lee Lewis was born on this day in 1935 (he died in...Oh, wow, he's still alive.) He's had many hit records in both genres, but it's his life outside the recording studio and away from the stage that interests me today. In the past 70 years, Lewis has married seven times, including his third marriage at age 22 to his 13-year-old cousin Myra Brown, whom he quickly remarried as the divorce from his second wife had not been finalized (though that second marriage itself also seems to have been bigamous as it took place before the divorce from his first wife had been finalized.) Lewis made a lot of money in his career, including $274,000 that he should have but didn't report to the IRS, which the agency then tried to recoup by seizing several automobiles, five motorcycles, a tractor, home entertainment equipment, jewelry, and several firearms from his ranch in Nesbit, Mississippi in 1979. Five years later, the IRS seized more property, and four years after that Lewis filed for bankruptcy, petitioning that he was $3 million in debt, $2 million of which he owed in back taxes. It wasn't just the IRS that came after him. In 1976, a drunken Lewis drove his new Lincoln Continental right into the front gates of Graceland mansion, then emerged from the wreck brandishing a pistol. Elvis Presley, watching all this on closed-circuit television, called the police. Lewis was charged with carrying a pistol and public drunkenness, his mug shot wired to newspapers around the world. Getting back to some of those multiple marriages, wife number three claimed mental and physical abuse, wife number four drowned in a swimming pool before the divorce was finalized, and wife number five was found dead in Lewis' home, from what the coroner later ruled a suicide, though journalist Richard Ben Cramer, writing in Rolling Stone, claimed it was much more violent than that, and that the always volatile Lewis was somehow involved. Now, when it comes to famous people, especially if they're show biz types, things can get exaggerated, but even if only half of what I just told you can be proven beyond doubt, then Jerry Lee Lewis, for all his talent, seems to have been a rather disreputable character. I'm certainly not going to defend him, except to point out that, whatever misdeeds he may have committed, Lewis does have his...

 ...spiritual side.

The above album came out in 1970, but Lewis' religiosity doesn't begin there. He was raised in the Assemblies of God church, a Pentecostal domination, but, perhaps unbeknownst to his devout parents, that wasn't his only influence growing up. His hometown of Faraday, Louisiana had a black juke joint called Haney's Big House that young Jerry Lee and his two cousins Jimmy and Mickey used to peek through the windows of and watch patrons dance to a style of early jazz (or swing) called boogie-woogie. If that wasn't enough, another, slightly older cousin named Carl had discovered that exact same music while visiting New York City with his father, brought it back home to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and taught the young Jerry Lee how to play it on the piano when he came to visit. These two influences, the religious and the worldly, came to a head-on collision when Lewis at age 16 was sent by his mother to the Southwestern Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas, in the hope that he would become exclusively a gospel musician. But one night at a church assembly, Lewis played a wild, boogie-woogie version of "My God is Real" and was expelled from the school the next day. So he decided to try his hand (and given the way he played the piano, sometimes his foot) at secular music, eventually ending up at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. However, none of this means he had left the Lord behind, as can be heard in this theologically heated exchange between Lewis and legendary Sun Records founder Sam Phillips. Listen:

So just what brought on this religious debate? Phillips was trying to convince Lewis to record this song:

Lewis thought the phrase "Balls of Fire" had something to do with Hell, and figured the whole song must be blasphemous. Eventually he was persuaded that the expression had many different... 

...connotations. "Great Balls of Fire" turned out to be Lewis' biggest hit, and remains his signature song to this very day.

  "The Bible doesn't even speak of religion. No word of religion is even in the Bible. Sanctification! Are you sanctified? Have you been saved? See, I was a good preacher, I know my Bible? I find myself falling short of the glory of God."

Jerry Lee Lewis may have committed many sins in his day, but the sin of hypocrisy wasn't among them. Oh, sure, he put out gospel records while behaving in the worst possible way outside the studio, but that's only hypocrisy if he held himself up as leading the exemplary life that those songs extoll. And he didn't. In many an interview over the years he flat out expressed doubts about the mostly secular career and mostly secular life he has chosen for himself, suggesting that when the Day of Judgement arrives, those choices would be regarded as chief among his sins. And while he may have hid things from the local sheriff and the local magistrate (or just paid them off), he would never be able to hide from God. Now, I'm not a Pentecostal. It's not my belief system we're talking here. I believe what Jerry Lee believes is nonsense. Yet I have a certain admiration for the sincerity and the fervency of those beliefs as he expressed them to Sam Phillips in that recording (while at the same time believing he should go the slammer if the worst of his alleged sins is ever proven in a court of law.) I also admire his survival skills. In 1986, Lewis was among the first ten performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Three of those inductees--Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, and Buddy Holly--were no longer alive by then. Other than Lewis, the six living inductees were Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, The Everly Brothers (counted as one), James Brown, and Ray Charles. In the 35 years since that inaugural induction, six (technically seven) of those rockers have died, Don Everly just this past August 21. That leaves only Lewis. Who'da thunk he'd be the sole survivor? Jerry Lee Lewis may have run with the Devil, but he also seems to have had an angel on his shoulder.  

I'm not sure what was on his shoulder, but this extended family member is still around, too.


Thursday, September 23, 2021

Cassandra's Crossing


Who says you can't rise from the dead?

Friday, September 17, 2021

Quips and Quotations (Smiling Soprano Edition)


 People are always fascinated by the so-called golden age of musicals, but it wasn't all that great. Everything was glazed. Those movies didn't reflect reality. I was at MGM for 11 years and nobody ever let me play anything but teenagers. I was 25 years old with kids of my own and it was getting ridiculous. Publicity was froth. Everything you said was monitored. With me, they didn't have to worry. I never had anything to say, anyway. It was hard work, I had no friends, no social interaction with people my age and the isolation was tough. But I had to support my family, so I did what I was told and had no other choice.

--Jane Powell

Despite being pushed into a Hollywood career and pressures from the entertainment world, the stress of work never showed in Powell's performances which were always upbeat and energetic

--Nick Thomas, Bristol Herald Courier

(From 1954's Seven Abductees Brides for Seven Brothers. The movie wouldn't fly today, but whatever its sexual politics, Jane Powell is very good in it. And remember, she was under contract--Kirk)