Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Vital Viewing (You Gotta Get a Gimmick Edition)

 

1930-2021

Where to begin with Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim? How about with this interview he did with another Stephen, Stephen Colbert, back in 2011? Keep in mind this isn't Colbert's current CBS late night talk show, but his earlier one on Comedy Central where he played a mock right-wing pundit. I always found the interview segment particularly intriguing because of how deftly Colbert was able to slip in actual questions that required actual answers while keeping the overall aura of parody intact. It also required that the interviewee be a good sport about the whole thing, and Sondheim was just that: 

Stephen Colbert was in a Sondheim show? This I got to see. While I look for it, here's some highlights from Stephen Sondheim's life and career...

 

No, I'm not asking you to attend this show which was after all in March 2019, a little more than two years ago (in this age of Covid, it seems almost one hundred years ago, huh?) But it's the only picture I could find of Oscar Hammerstein II and a 16-year-old Stephen Sondheim. Hammerstein was a lyricist and librettist who had a good deal of success on Broadway in the 1920s when he teamed up with Jerome Kern to do Show Boat, a musical with an actual story and that dealt with some weighty subject matter like miscegenation and family abandonment (surprisingly, this show was produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, a man not known for social realism.) Hammerstein had a few more hits with Kern and others, but, after six flops in a row, his best days seemed past him by the start of the 1940s. Meanwhile, composer Richard Rodgers had become fed up with his longtime partner, the brilliant but alcoholic Lorenz Hart, and set about finding another lyricist. As you might have guessed, he found Hammerstein and the two set about revolutionizing the Broadway stage by specializing in the "book musical", i.e., a musical where the singing and dancing advances the plot rather than running roughshod over it. Their first big hit, Oklahoma, is a good example of this type of musical (if some cowboy sings he's having a beautiful mornin', you may be curious as to whether that's going to last into the afternoon.) As for Sondheim, born to a well-to-do family, he went to a private school where he became friends with James Hammerstein, Oscar's son. Young Stephen was already interested in musical theatre when James introduced him to his father, and now had an excellent mentor who could help him plot out his own career goals.



Hammerstein gave the teenager four playwriting assignments, the fourth of which, Saturday Night, was completed when Sondheim was 23. It damn near came to fruition, but the whole project fell apart when the producer died (it was finally produced in London in 1997, and has since had an off-Broadway run.) During this time Sondheim had become acquainted with the playwright Arthur Laurents (Home of the Brave.) At a party, Laurents told Sondheim about a project he, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and New York Philharmonic conductor and occasional Broadway composer Leonard Bernstein were working on that would transfer Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet from 16th century Verona to a rough neighborhood in Manhattan where white and Puerto Rican teenage gangs vied for control of the mean streets. Laurents invited Sondheim to write the lyrics. Desiring to be both a lyricist and a composer, Sondheim's first instinct was to turn Laurents down, but decided to talk it over with Oscar Hammerstein first. "Turn it down?! Are you kidding?!", Hammerstein responded. "This is Leonard-fucking-Bernstein!" Actually, Hammerstein didn't say that at all. I just felt the paragraph needed a little drama. He did tell the young Sondheim that given all the talent involved, this certainly would be a good learning experience, and so the Montagues and Capulets became...

...the Jets and the Sharks.

West Side Story premiered on Broadway in 1957, was a success, and became an even more successful movie in 1961. I've shown the following clip on this blog before, but it's my favorite number in the film, and gives you some idea how eventual Academy Award winner Rita Moreno (in a role originated on stage by Chita Rivera) was able to steal the whole movie right under a lip-syncing Natalie Wood's nose. Watch: 

Is pro- and anti-Americanism really a gender thing?




Despite West Side Story's success, Stephen Sondheim's next fifteen shows were notorious flops and he was reduced to working the ticket booth at a strip club near the airport...No, no, I'm just kidding. That's 1930s and '40s burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee in the above photo, and that brings me to Stephen Sondheim's next major work. In 1957 Lee, whose real name was Rose Louise Hovick, wrote her autobiography, and producer David Merrick thought it would make a good musical for Ethel Merman, not as the stripper herself but her mother, the incredibly domineering Mama Rose. Merrick got the West Side Story team of Laurents, Robbins, and Sondheim together, except this time the latter insisted he write the words and music. Merman, who seems to have been every bit as domineering in real life as the characters she regularly played, insisted the novice composer not write the music. Sondheim once again went to Hammerstein for advice. "Are you kidding?! This is Ethel-fucking-Merman!" Of course, Hammerstein didn't say that, but he did counsel Sondheim that if the show was successful, it wouldn't hurt his career any. And so, the composing chores went to the more-experienced Jule Styne. Gypsy: A Musical Fable opened on Broadway in 1959 and was indeed a success. The show was as much about Mama Rose as her wardrobe-malfunctioning daughter, but we here at Shadow of a Doubt know that sex sells, so you folks are going to get treated to an actual striptease! But which striptease? In the show Mama Rose pushes her up-to-then mostly-ignored daughter Louise into burlesque only after favorite daughter June (Havoc runs off to Hollywood to become a movie star. Louise at first is very comically nervous about disrobing on stage, but gains confidence as time goes on. I wanted the before-and-after. Sandra Church originated the role of Louise on Broadway, but on YouTube there's only a sound recording of that performance. Natalie Wood played Louise in the 1962 movie (this time in her own voice and she sounds fine) but I could only find the "after" performance. Finally, I came across this little gem which seems to have been produced only for YouTube, and stars an actress named Haley Zega. (Additional biographical detail I stumbled upon: as a six-year-old she disappeared for a couple of days in the Ozark National Forest, but fortunately was found unharmed.) Watch:

One notable difference between burlesque and latter-day strip clubs is that in the former the girls never...


 ...climbed up a pole and slid down. I wonder how that got started anyway. Did some enterprising strip club owner renovate an abandoned firehouse?


The Glory of Rome. Over the centuries it's been an inspiration for countless poems, novels, plays, movies, and multi-part PBS series. It's also inspired at least one musical-comedy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Oscar Hammerstein had died in 1960, so in 1961 or so there was so one to talk Sondheim out of insisting that he write both the words and the music, and whatever insistence he gave this time paid off. AFTHOTWTTF--even doing it with just initials tires me out--premiered on Broadway in 1962, and went on to win a Tony for best musical. Curiously, despite doing double-duty as lyricist and composer, Sondheim took home nothing. It must have been the book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart that won over Tony voters. Zero Mostel starred on stage, and, unlike Fiddler on the Roof a few years later, got to appear in the movie version as well:  

After all that, it damn well better be funny. (It was.)


The Stephen Sondheim era really begins with the above musical that came out in 1970. Originally it was meant as a series of one-act plays by writer George Furth (also an actor, he's best known as the loyal if hapless railroad safe guard in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) that producer Harold Prince took a look at and thought would work better as a musical. Robert has just turned 35 years old and is still single--unusual for a heterosexual male back then. Really just a fear of commitment, he takes a close look at his married friends to see if he can overcome that commitment. Unfortunately, their goofy unions do little to bolster his courage. We'll let Sondheim himself tell you what's at play here:

Broadway theater has been for many years supported by upper-middle-class people with upper-middle-class problems. These people really want to escape that world when they go to the theatre, and then here we are with Company talking about how we're going to bring it right back in their faces

Those upper-middle-class people Sondheim spoke of must not have minded getting their upper-middle-class problems right back in their faces, as Company's original Broadway run lasted for 705 performances. It's also been revived many times. If you watched the video at the top of this post, you'll recall Stephen Colbert was in one of those revivals. In fact, it was three nights at the New York Philharmonic in 2011 so as you can imagine this performance had quite a bit of musical accompaniment. It also had several celebrities that one doesn't normally associate with musical theatre. In addition to Colbert, there was Neil Partrick Harris (as Robert), Martha Plimpton, and Jon Cryer. All can be found in the following clip. You'll also get to see a genuine star of music theatre, and a Broadway legend at this point, Patti LuPone (unless you're an over-40 shut-in who never watches Great Performances in which case you may know her best as Corky's mom on Life Goes On.) Watch:

If you're surprised that Colbert can act (other than as his usual right-wing pundit character) and sing, don't be. He was a theatre major at Northwestern University.

 

Swedish filmmaker Igmar Bergman is not someone we normally associate with Broadway musicals. Yet his 1955 movie Smiles of a Summer Night served as the basic for Sondheim's 1973 Broadway hit A Little Night Music, which introduced what is arguably his best-known song as a lyricist and composer, "Send in the Clowns", sung here by original cast member Glynis Johns (still with us at age 98, though this particular clip is from decades ago):

I get a lot of letters over the years asking what the title means and what the song's about; I never thought it would be in any way esoteric. I wanted to use theatrical imagery in the song, because she's an actress, but it's not supposed to be a circus [...] [I]t's a theater reference meaning "if the show isn't going well, let's send in the clowns"; in other words, "let's do the jokes." I always want to know, when I'm writing a song, what the end is going to be, so "Send in the Clowns" didn't settle in until I got the notion, "Don't bother, they're here", which means that "We are the fools."

--Stephen Sondheim

No wonder he's sad. All these years he thought that song was about him.



You long-haired freak! Isn't about time you went to a barber?


 On second thought, never mind.


Sweeny Todd, a barber who kills people and then has a Mrs. Lovett serve them up to unsuspecting consumers as meat pies, first appeared on newsstands in 1840's London as a character in the anonymously written story "A String of Pearls" that was serialized in The People's Periodical and Family Library, a "penny dreadful", which were to Victorians what slasher films were to moviegoers in the 1980s. I myself haven't read this story, but I understand that it doesn't explain or expect readers to care about what motivates the murderous Todd any more than a Friday the 13th movie expects an audience member to care whether it gets hot under Jason Voorhees' hockey mask. Some 120 years after "A String of Pearls" appeared on the printed page, and after it was adopted for the stage many times with no other goal in mind than to scare the hell out of audiences, an Englishman named Christopher Boyd wrote a play in which he attempted to come up with a motive for Sweeny Todd and make him a somewhat sympathetic character. Sweeny has been jailed for a crime he didn't commit, and now wants to take it out on all humanity. Don't you feel sorry for him now? I don't know if Stephen Sondheim did, but he saw Boyd's play and thought it would make a nifty musical. He brought the idea to producer Harold Prince who saw in it a metaphor for the dehumanization brought on by the Industrial Revolution. As a late product of that Industrial Revolution who occasionally feels dehumanized (though I rarely do anything about it other than work on this blog), I find Prince's vision kind of compelling. However, I should warn the unsuspecting Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or Alezandria Ocasio-Cortez voter that a scene like the one here featuring Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, both from the original 1979 Broadway production--well, this ain't no Michael Moore movie:    

Murder, She Sang.


In 1985's Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim returned to the 19th century, but a seemingly more pleasant, pastoral 19th century. George is Georges Seurat, the French post-impressionist painter who pioneered a style referred to a pointillism. Above is his most famous painting in that style, 1884's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. While pointillism was obviously abstract in nature--I've never met anybody in real life composed entirely of dots--Seurat relied on human models just as much as any Dutch Master or Rennaissance painter. In this clip, another genuine star of musical theatre (and veteran of many a Sondheim show) Bernadette Peters lets us know what it's like to be one of Seurat's models. Mandy Patinkan plays a preoccupied Seurat. Watch:

Somebody is suffering for somebody's art.


Meet Wilhelm and Jacob, 19th century German intellectuals, best known today for collecting folk stories told by non-intellectual German peasants, and then (after embellishing them a bit) publishing these stories in a series of books. You may be familiar with some of these stories: "Little Red Riding Hood" "Cinderella" "Rapunzel" and "Jack in the Beanstalk" Perhaps your parents read you these stories as a child. Perhaps you read these stories to your children. Of course, we now call such stories. Contrary to popular belief, none of Wilhelm's and Jacob's stories ended with the phrase "and they lived happily ever after", but that was the general idea. Once they stories were over, they were over. It took until 1986, over 170 years after these stories were first published, for Stephen Sondheim and librettist James Lapine to come up with a sequel. 

Without giving away multiple endings, these characters tend to live crappily ever after--if they're allowed to live at all. And they find that supposedly good and noble deeds can have unintended consequences. Such as when you kill a giant, you may make a widow out of the giantess--one pissed-off widow. Maureen McGovern may have summed up this show's central message best when she sang, "There's got to be a morning after...." But Sondheim didn't write that song. So I'll give you one that he did write. And since an encore is kind of like a sequel, let's bring back Bernadette:

Uh...How about at least letting her live aesthetically ever after?

Bernadette's memory is a bit faulty here. She in fact did sing it in the show, but only a snippet as part of the finale with the whole cast singing along with her. The song as a whole was sung by actors playing Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack the Giant Killer, and a baker who gets to meet all these famous characters. I tried looking for a clip of that, but to be honest, quickly gave up the search once I stumbled upon Bernadette's version. Call it witchcraft.


Given the parodic Stephen Colbert interview at the top of this post, you'd be forgiven if you thought a musical about assassinations was part of the joke. But it's not. There really was such a musical, Assassins, which premiered off-Broadway in 1990, and made it to the Great White Way in 2004, stopping off at London's West End in-between. The whole motley crew of presidential killers are here: John Wilkes Booth (whom we all know killed Lincoln), Charles Guiteau (whom we all may not know killed Garfield), Leon Czolgosz (McKinley), and Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK). But it doesn't stop there. Seven or eight years ago on this blog I showed a video of an editorial that TV newsman Edwin Newman gave the day Kennedy was assassinated, in which he very calmly, almost wryly, stated that if someone was determined to take out a president, at some personal risk to themselves, they had a good chance of doing so. Well, I don't know if their determination level wasn't up to snuff or what, but the fact is the would-be presidential killers slightly outnumber the successful ones, and they're represented here as well: Giuseppe Zangara (FDR), Samuel Byck (who tried but failed to hijack a plane, hoping to crash it into the Nixon White House), Squeaky Fromme (Ford), Sara Jane Moore (Ford again, just seventeen days after Fromme's attempt), and John Hinckley Jr. (Reagan). The following clip is from a San Diego production of the show:

We're always told they're loners, but look how well they work as an ensemble




Other pursuits.


In recent years Stephen Sondheim has increasingly been referred to as God by Broadway aficionados, and that almost led me to title this post "God is Dead", but I was told a German philosopher already owns the rights to that phrase. Sondheim was just a man, after all, and one whose songs often dealt with his fellow mortals falls from grace, or their failed attempts to achieve grace, usually in a non-judgmental manner. It's his effect on the theatre that's been divine. There had been others, most notably his old mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, but it was Sondheim more than anyone else who proved that a musical play can be every bit as profound and insightful as any non-musical play, or any literary novel. An American Original, his works will continue to be regularly produced for some time to come (a revival of Assassins has opened on Broadway--it got a good review in the latest issue of The New Yorker--and Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story hits the movie theaters next week.) And I don't know that there's anyone currently around to take his place (Andrew Lloyd Webber? He would have done so by now.) Stephen Sondheim may not have been omniscient, but in the world of musical theatre, he remains omnipresent.

.

  









Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Turkey Dinner or Duck Soup?

 


 I doubt that the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade was as much an American pop culture institution in 1935 as it is today. Remember, there was no television, so that made it strictly a local event. If you wanted to see it live, you had to be living in, or at least visiting, the tri-state area (New Jersey/New York/Connecticut--though some would add the northeastern most part of Pennsylvania, in which case it becomes the quad-state area.) To encourage the natives or tourists to get out of their houses or hotel rooms on what is often a cold November day, full-page advertisements such as the one above were placed in local papers. Perusing this ad--I saw a larger version that I unfortunately can't reproduce here without taking out the sidebar--one difference from the more modern version stands out: the starting time. 2 o'clock? Are they talking PM? For as long as I can remember, going back to the days when Lorne Greene and Betty White were the parade's television emcees, it started sometime in the morning and was over by noon, and at that point the network was turned over to either the NFL or the Big Ten. Of course, no television, no football game, unless you lived near a stadium. Other than when it began or ended, the parade seems not to have changed all that much. There's floats and big balloons and marching bands and celebrities. Santa, of course, at the end, but in 1935 there were other renowned visitors that you won't see on TV this Thanksgiving, so let's see who they were back then.


In the ad's upper-right-hand corner, to the immediate right of the big exclamation point, there's a small photograph of someone named Tony Sarg. Mr. Sarg may have been well-known in his day, but he's long since fallen into obscurity (even I had to look him up, accepting all kinds of so-called "cookies" to do so.) A German immigrant, Sarg wore many hats during his colorful career, including that of animator, magazine cartoonist, illustrator, designer, and, especially, puppeteer, an art form he helped popularize in the United States, eventually becoming known as the Father of North America Puppetry. Perhaps he also should be known as the Father of North American Ballooners. Sarg was already involved with Macy's as the designer of the department store's robotic window displays when, in 1927, he was asked to come up with some ideas for the Thanksgiving parade, which got its start three years earlier. His idea was the now-familiar but back then quite novel giant balloon, which was essentially a huge helium-filled reverse-marionette, the puppeteers maneuvering the blimp from the ground up. Initially, these balloons were stock figures like toy soldiers or various animals, but as the annual parade gained in popularity, owners of copyrighted characters such as the animated cartoon star Felix the Cat took notice, and let Sarg inflate the characters for publicity's stake. More about one such character, now much more well-known than Felix, in a moment (and if you examined the above ad closely, I'm sure you've already guessed who it is.) Sarg died in 1942, and that I never heard of him is my loss. There's actually quite a bit about him online, so I don't regret accepting--HEY, WHY IS MY COMPUTER RINGING AND WHAT'S ALL THESE BOXES POPPING UP ON THE SCREEN?!



Uh, give me a second, will ya?...










OK, I finally got all that under control. Shall we continue?



You'll have to scroll up a bit to get back to it, but to the left of that avian dirigible in that Macy's ad you'll find the photo of our next celebrity, bandleader Paul Whiteman. Him I've heard of, though I can't say I've followed his career all that closely. He was once referred to as The King of Jazz, but that sobriquet has been grumpily disputed, derided, denounced, and disproven by several generations of outraged jazz aficionados. Like Bill Haley a quarter of a century later, Whiteman was a--no pun intended (by me, anyway)--white man who made black music palatable for white audiences by draining it of its blackness. To be fair to Mr. Whiteman, I went to YouTube to sample some of his musical offerings. What I heard sounded closer to a high school marching band than anything that came from Louis Armstrong or Cab Calloway. But then I like all music, even high school marching bands (sometimes more than whatever game is being played), so I can't say I wasn't entertained. We'll just leave the musical critiques at that. John Philip Sousa's  Paul Whiteman's heyday was the 1920s, but he was still a musical force to be reckoned with in the decade that followed. At least on Broadway, where he and his band provided orchestration to several musicals, including Rodgers and Hart's 1935 hit Jumbo. The story of a struggling circus, the show featured actual circus acts, and ended each night with Jimmy Durante lying down on a stage and having his face gently tapped by an elephant's foot! (If you're familiar with the once-famous Durante's once-famous nose, you may wonder if it looked like that before the elephant tapped him. I'll have to look it up, but only if I don't have to accept any more cookies.) As for Whiteman, he was at the parade to promote Jumbo. Jimmy Durante wasn't, and that may be all for the best. Who knows how that elephant would have reacted in front of all those unruly paradegoers?


Now, if you're willing to scroll back up to that ad and look to the right of the big inflatable waterfowl, you'll see a celebrity that I'm not only aware of but am actually a fan of, as well as a fan of the comedy team of which he was a member, Harpo Marx of the Marx Brothers. He and his sibs Groucho, Chico, and Zeppo had spent the first half of the 1930s at Depression-wracked Paramount Pictures, but just now had moved to the ritzier digs of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where money grew on papier-mâché trees. How long Harpo, Groucho, and Chico would be allowed to stay at those ritzier digs (for all its supposed excess cash flow, Metro balked at an extra dressing room for Zeppo) all depended on the sucess of their new movie. At Paramount, the outside world, the world of order and restraint, served merely as a backdrop to the boys' anarchic antics, but MGM exec Irving Thalberg thought there were more comic possibilities in having the brothers confront the world of order and restraint head-on. Film buffs may argue about whether the Paramount approach or the Thalberg approach produced the funnier pictures, but their first MGM outing, A Night at the Opera (only in a Marx Brothers movie could opera convincingly represent the world of order and restraint) became and would remain the boys biggest box office hit, and today is still their best-known film. But in November of 1935, that still remained to be seen, and that's why Harpo was there, to promote the flick. (Incidentally, Thanksgiving fell on the 28th that year, and Harpo's birthday was five days earlier, close enough for him to have candles in that pumpkin pie.)

Speaking of Harpo, here's Harpo speaking: 

 

 
 Nothing to do with Thanksgiving, other than my way of giving thanks to a comedy god.



Our final celebrity is the one that dominates that Macy's ad, Donald Duck, looking as he did in 1935. Though for marketing reasons Donald was never able to replace Mickey Mouse as the studio mascot, Walt Disney realized before the moviegoing public did that Mickey's cartoons were destined to reach a creative dead-end, and so subtly, and then not-so-subtly, shifted his company's focus to the duck. As he was so often during his remarkable career, Walt was proved right. Donald was a much funnier character than Mickey, had a much more comedically-adaptive personality than Mickey. Donald appeared in many more cartoon shorts than Mickey, and throughout the 1940s and beyond, was the Disney studio's highest-grossing star. If that wasn't enough, Donald was a major star of comic books as well, in the days before that art form became solely dedicated to superheroes. However, in 1935, all that was still in the future. Donald Duck made his animated debut only a year earlier, and had yet to appear in a cartoon as anything other than a supporting player. So, it was quite an honor for him to appear for the first time in a Macy's parade (Mickey had made his Macy's debut the previous year, as had one of the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf.)  If you look at the picture at the left, you'll see Donald had a long thin neck back in the day, and almost looks like he could be a baby ostrich instead of a duck.

  

 
 
The balloon followed suit. Unfortunately, it was rainy and windy that day, causing that long neck to sway. Donald sure doesn't look happy about it, does he? This was not only the first, but also the last Thanksgiving for that particular balloon.


27 years later, in 1962, a new Donald appeared at the parade. The long neck had long since disappeared from the cartoons and comic books, and so too from the balloon. Donald looks pleased. This version ran until 1971, and then was retired due to wear and tear, though it did make one more appearance in 1984 to celebrate the duck's 50th birthday. Since that time, while there's been much smaller Donalds seen on floats, there's been no balloon. According to Macy's own Thanksgiving parade web site, licensing issues may be what's holding things up. Which reminds me...


I give thanks for that every time I post on this blog. 

And I'm thankful for whoever drops by to look at this stuff. Enjoy the holiday, folks.






Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Under the Radar: Peter Cook

 


Well, here in the United States, Cook was mostly under the radar, but I hear tell in the British Isles he was pretty much a household name. His comedic career at times was intertwined with a man who did become a household name here in the United States:

All you Yanks out there, recognize the chap on the right? Foul Play? 10? Micky & Maude? ARTHUR?! That's right, it's Dudley Moore. If you'll recall, the Hollywood star originally hailed from England, and even had the accent to prove it. Cook and Moore had been members of a four-man satirical comedy stage revue titled Beyond the Fringe that premiered in 1960 and had successful runs in both the West End and on Broadway. The other two members were Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller. The four Englishmen acted in the skits that they themselves wrote. The revue's success led to an overall boom in British comedy, culminating in Monty Python's Flying Circus by decade's end. As for Cook and Moore, once the revue ran its course, they decided to continue on as a team. They had their own TV show on the BBC, put out a few comedy albums, appeared in more stage shows, and made a few movies, once of which I'll show a clip from in a bit. All of this did get them some attention on this side of the Atlantic. At least they got the attention of Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, who had them cohost one night during that show's first season. And when American talk show host Dick Cavett did a series of shows from London, he had the two comics on as guests:

This clip is almost 50 years old. Even though William and Kate and Harry and Meghan have yet to arrive, the Queen that Cavett, Cook, and Moore refer to is the one that still sits on the throne today! 

Now I'm going to go back almost 60 years, and show you a very famous (in England) sketch of Cook's and Moore's written by Cook. It made its premier in the aforementioned Beyond the Fringe revue, and the two men revived it from time to time afterwards, even doing it on Saturday Night Live. I found the SNL clip on YouTube, but this isn't it. Here's hoping you don't mind the black-and-white imagery, because I want to show you the sketch as close to its stage debut as I can get it:


Cook and Moore may never have done a Tarzan movie, but in 1967 they came out with this Faustian farce:


12How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! 13For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: 14I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. 15 Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit  

--Isaiah 14:12-15

Confused? Not sure what Isaiah is talking about? Cook (as the Devil) and Moore reenacts the above passage in this scene from Bedazzled

(Now, I'm sure some of you biblical scholar nitpickers out there are going to try and tell me that King James and his ghostwriters got it wrong, that it's a famous mistranslation from the Hebrew original, that Lucifer wasn't the Devil after all, but just some king in antiquity who was full of himself. Well, if you think I'm going to remove the above funny scene from this post for that reason--and, were he here, I'm sure John Milton would back me up on this--YOU deserve to be cut down to the ground!) 

OK, so far we've seen Cook with Moore, but how funny was he without him?

In 1981, Cook was lured to the U.S.--Dudley Moore's newfound success here had to have been on his mind--to appear in a situation comedy titled The Two of Us. Based on an earlier Britcom called Two's Company, the talented Mimi Kennedy plays Nan Gallagher, a local TV talk show host and single mother who needs someone to manage the household while she's at the studio. Despite some misgivings about working for Americans, haughty Englishman Robert Brentwood accepts the job (he probably figured, if it's good enough for Clifton Webb...) I remember finding the show very funny, and this 40-year-old clip (with subtitles, for anyone who happens to speak whatever language it is) doesn't disappoint. Along with Cook and Kennedy there's Dana Hill as Nan's 12-year-old daughter Gabby (in real life, Hill was 17, her growth unfortunately stunted by diabetes.) Watch:


                                             

As funny as the show was, and as funny as Cook was in it, The Two of Us only lasted two seasons. Cook hung around Hollywood for a while, doing small parts in movies (most notably, he was the clergyman in The Princess Bride), and then went back to England. Even on his home soil, Cook was unable to recapture his former success, and when he died in 1995 at age 57, the British press was hard on him for being unable to do so. That was then. It's now 26 years later. In the long run, careers aren't judged by how they end but by how well they did in, well, the long run. Peter Cook is increasingly seen as one of the greatest comic minds Britain has ever produced, and that island has produced a lot of great comic minds. Americans should take notice.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Follicle Phobia

  




A few days ago actor Dean Stockwell died at the age of 85. At this point he's probably best known for playing Al Calavicci, holographic sidekick to Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) in the late 1980s-early '90s time-travel TV series Quantum Leap. Another well-know role of his was Mafia chieftain Tony the Tiger in the 1988 film comedy Married to the Mob (I'm tempted to say he was g-r-r-reat in it, but I'll control myself.) He also was seen to good effect in the '80s movies Paris, Texas, To Live and Die in LA, and Blue Velvet. This was during his "comeback" period. Stockwell had originally been a child actor in the 1940s, seen to good effect back then in such popular and well-regarded films as Anchors Away, The Green Years, Gentleman's Agreement, and Song of the Thin Man. Since I'm a bit pressed on time--hey, it's the middle of the workweek as I write this--I want to focus on, and recommend, one particular film that he made back when he was just a kid, 1948's The Boy with Green Hair, directed by Joseph Losey.




Police pick up a bald-headed little boy, a runaway, and turn him over to a child psychiatrist played by Robert Ryan (then on the cusp of movie stardom.) This becomes the film's framing device as the boy, a war orphan named Peter Fry, tells his story in flashback. After being passed along a series of disinterested relatives, Peter ends up in a small town under the friendly guardianship of a retired actor named Gramp (Pat O'Brien.) There's finally some stability in young Peter's life, though the cares of the world is brought home to him when his school takes up the cause of war orphans, his classmates not realizing there's one in their midst. Peter's also troubled when he overhears adults talk about a new war that's on its way (as we know now, that war turned out to be cold.) One day after taking a bath, Peter is drying himself with a towel, looks up in the mirror, and to his surprise sees his hair is technicolor green! The town doctor has no explanation. The kids all make fun of him. That sounds bad, and it is, but at least they see a lighter side to the situation. Not so the adults, who are plainly freaked out about the whole thing. Peter makes the first of two attempts at running away from home. In a clearing in the woods he comes across some mystical war orphans that he had earlier seen on a poster. The orphans tell him his hair has turned green for a reason, to remind the world that war is especially bad for children. Rather than question the connection, Peter returns home, intent on being a child prophet. Well, anyone who knows the Bible, or has at least seen a Cecil B. DeMille movie, knows that prophets don't have the easiest time of it. The kids again make fun and bully him, while the townspeople bring intense pressure on Gramp to take the kid to a barber, which brings us back to the present day, as the bald-headed boy finishes his story. The child psychiatrist, quite understanding (and a tad amused) tells Peter that if you have something to say, you say it, no matter the consequences. Gramp turns up at the police station to take the boy home, but not before the psychiatrist advises him the youth's message is an important one, no matter what his hair color.


The Boy with Green Hair flopped at the box office, but by the 1960s had developed a cult following, which it still has today. It's not a perfect film. The antiwar message is a bit heavy-handed, and at times seems awkwardly shoehorned into the story being told. However, grown people treating an innocent little boy like the Frankenstein monster can still send shivers down the spine, as much as any movie that does have the Frankenstein monster in it. Though made in the late 1940s, The Boy with Green Hair eerily prophesizes the conformity that would come to characterize the 1950s, and the pushback against anything that threatened the status quo. And as we've seen recently in this Proud Boy era, the pushbacks and backlashes against anything that smacks of difference continues. Whether young Dean Stockwell was cognizant of the film's themes when he made it might seem unlikely, but as an adult he did drop out for a while to pursue the hippie lifestyle, and most that knew him after he dropped back in attests that he nevertheless remained very iconoclastic. So maybe the film did affect him. It's a stellar performance, especially coming from such a young actor.







Friday, November 5, 2021

Graphic Grandeur (Classified Expressionism Edition)

 


Comic book artist James Dean Jim Steranko was born on this day in 1938. The son of a stage magician, he did that himself for a while, but it's the feats of magic performed on the drawing board that's made him a legend in his field. At least it was his field, as his stint in comic books was mostly in the latter half of the 1960s. Since 1970 or so, he's run his own publishing company and done much work in Hollywood as a production designer, most notably working with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg on Raiders of the Lost Ark, helping them come up with the Indiana Jones "look" (though he didn't design Harrison Ford; that was God's doing.) The still-debonair Steranko hasn't completely abandoned the comics field, returning every now and then for a limited run on some book. And he can often be found at the many comic-cons, i.e., conventions, which is where we find him in this clip: 

 
Steranko mentioned Nick Fury, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-Enforcement Division--even Stan Lee in his 1975 book Son of Origins of Marvel Comics couldn't tell you what it was a division of), who is his intelligence agency's own best agent, and seems to assign most of the missions to himself! Fury wasn't always a secret agent. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963, he made his debut in Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos as an Army noncom fighting the Nazis during World War II. Two years later, inspired by the success of the James Bond movies and TV shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E, Lee and Kirby turned Fury, now a WWII vet with an eyepatch, into a spy, and assigned his cloak-and-dagger (and often laser beam) missions to the comic book Strange Tales, where he shared space with Doctor Strange. Kirby left the feature at the end of 1966, and that's when Steranko took over, eventually getting a book all to himself to play with. Kirby had already revolutionized comic book art by giving it a touch of the avant-garde. Steranko went further, and farther out. He took his inspiration not so much from Milt Caniff and Alex Raymond but the latest Jimi Hendrix album cover and Grateful Dead concert flyer. These were tie-died spies, op art operatives. It was counterculture counterintelligence, espionage for acidheads. As much Peter Max as Maxwell Smart. Intrigued? I can't tell you anything more until you've given me your password...What's that? You're already logged into your computer? Well, yeah, I guess to do that you would have had to use a pass--OK, just draw down the shades and turn on the lava lamp. Here are some intriguing and arresting examples of Jim Steranko's national security state psychedelia:






























 


When you're a spy, they'll send you anywhere. You don't even have to know Jeff Bezos.

I admit I always get carried away with myself with these comic book posts, but it all looks so purty on a computer screen, don't you think? Speaking of comic books, you'll notice on the above cover in the upper right hand corner, this bit of censorship:

Well, any good secret agent...

...knows how to break a code.