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)

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Under the Radar: Michael Constantine



From 1969 to 2002, actor Michael Constantine was best know for his four-year stint playing Seymour Kaufmann, the mildly sardonic but basically well-meaning principal of racially diverse Walt Whitman High School on the waning-days-of-the-counterculture TV series...

...Room 222. Characterized at the time as a situation comedy, if it was premiering today it instead would be referred to as a "dramady." For instance, Lloyd Haynes as compassionate history teacher Pete Dixon and Denise Nicholas as compassionate guidance counselor Liz McIntyre were almost NEVER funny. They were dramatic characters dealing with dramatic things like drug abuse and teenage pregnancy (keep in mind that in its original network run, the show was preceded by The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family, so all this serious subject matter may have seemed like a breath of fresh air to viewers at home.) As for the comedy aspects of Room 222, that was left to the show's breakout star Karen Valentine, who played the perky student teacher Alice Johnson, regular classroom characters such as Larry, played by a young Eric Laneuville, and Constantine himself. Of course, as principal he often and none-too-enthusiastically had to get involved with all the serious stuff as well, but was allowed enough one-liners anyway to win an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series: 

Constantine mentions a few names in his acceptance speech. The producer he couldn't remember at first, Gene Reynolds, went on to produce or coproduce MASH and Lou Grant. Jim Brooks, who created Room 222, is usually listed in credits as James L. Brooks, and went on to co-create The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, the aforementioned Lou Grant, and Taxi before turning his attention to feature films, writing and directing such critically-acclaimed, and commercially-successful-to-boot flicks as Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good as It Gets. If all that wasn't enough, his company also produces The Simpsons (I covet his life.)

Here's a scene from Room 222's first season (before it ditched the laugh track.) Note that Allan Burns--the other Mary Tyler Moore Show creator--is listed as that episode's writer:

So that kid's going to get transferred out of Walt Whitman High School? To where, exactly? Hart Crane Academy?

I said before that until 2002, Michael Constantine was best known for Room 222. All that changed when the above sleeper hit theaters. Though the movie's primary focus is on a young Chicago woman (Nia Vardolas, also the writer of the screenplay) who meets, falls in love, and marries the guy who played the deejay on Northern Exposure (John Corbett), the real fun in this film comes from the bride's wildly unassimilated Greek family, headed by patriarch Constantine:

How about the Greek root of toupee, Mr. Portokolas?

 From the same film, Constantine (his pate here in its more natural state of grace) shares a scene with SCTV alumni Andrea Martin:

Now we know where Donald Trump gets his medical advice.

For our final scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Gus Portokolas proposes a toast. Standing by his side is wife Maria, played by Lainie Kazan (who, like Martin, is deserving of her own "Under the Radar" post.) And for those of you who don't understand Greek-accented English, there's subtitles:

Nice to hear the term "fruit" applied to the whole of the human race rather than one put-upon segment of it. I think Walt Whitman would agree.

Like a lot of movie and TV actors, Michael Constantine did his share of memorabilia shows, such as this New Jersey one nine years ago. Also in attendance was Alice Cooper, Robert Loggia, Dean Cain, and Gomez Addams himself, John Astin. In this very noisy clip, Astin chats with Constantine:

I can't make out what they're saying either. I just think it's cool they knew each other.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Vital Viewing (Free as a Winged Rodent Edition)


Actor Michael Keaton was born on this day in 1951. He was best known for appearing in movie comedies when filmmaker Tim Burton, who had earlier directed him in the movie comedy Beetlejuice, tapped him to play this dour figure:

Batman was released onto and into the nation's movie theaters in June of 1989, and somewhere around that time Keaton went on Late Night with David Letterman to promote it. I must say, as impressed as I am with Keaton as an actor (loved him in Night Shift), watching this clip, I may be even more impressed with him as a talk show guest. Earlier in his career Keaton had moonlighted as a standup comedian to make ends meet, and his talent for ad libbing  allows him to deftly counter Letterman's wisecracks while getting out the basic information on the film he's there to promote:

Hmm...Maybe too much information is gotten out. As you just heard, it's supposed to be a surprise that the Joker killed young Bruce Wayne's parents. It certainly would have been a surprise to several generations of readers of the comic book. In the 1939 origin story, it's an unnamed mugger who murders the tyke's mom and dad. Finally, in 1947, the cretin's name is revealed to be Joe Chill, whose move up the ranks from street criminal to Mafia boss comes to a lethal end when his gang finds out his role in creating the superhero and thorn in their collective side in the first place. As for the Joker, according to the 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke, he was just an unsuccessful standup comedian who couldn't get a booking, not even on Letterman.

Here's the opening scene of Batman. As film scholars will note, Gotham City owes a little something to Metropolis. Not Superman's Metropolis, but Fritz Lang's:

Even if they were somewhat nonplussed by the liberties taken (which included giving the Joker an actual name), fans of the comic book mostly greeted the movie with a sigh of relief, along with high hopes that the film's success at the box office might finally replace and erase the legacy left behind by...  

...this actor, whose campy portrayal on the 1960s TV show these same fans felt defamed the reputation of their beloved Dark Knight. So that you can compare the two actors, I'm going to show you this clip not from the actual TV series, but a 1966 theatrical film rushed into production to capitalize on the TV series. You should still get the basic idea what that show was all about:

The riffraff of the world thanks you, Batman.

Honestly, I'm not so sure that Adam West's take on Batman and Michael Keaton's take on Batman were as far apart as those comic book fans would have liked. For one thing, both men talked in hushed tones when they put on that mask. And regardless of whether the surrounding atmosphere was dead-serious or tongue-in-cheek, both men played the character as an anal-retentive moralist who just couldn't enjoy life as long as there was somebody somewhere doing something that they weren't supposed to. And I guess that's to be expected. Hip, laid-back types rarely become masked vigilantes.

OK, this particular masked vigilante is indeed hip and laid-back, but, curiously, only when he's in life-and-death situations involving the criminal element. Otherwise, his alter-ego is quite...


As long as we're on the subject of alter egos...

The biggest difference between Michael Keaton and Adam West is not how they played Batman but Batman's alter ego, millionaire Bruce Wayne. We'll look at West first: 

Bruce Wayne's championing of capitalism would be more impressive if all his money wasn't inherited (as for Dick Grayson, aka, Robin, look what a difference an adoption makes.) But that's neither here nor there. What I hoped you took from the above clip is that the difference between Adam West's Batman and Adam West's Bruce Wayne is, well, no difference at all. Costumed or not, it's the same old (um, 30-something) hushed-tone pontification that you might think would actually bore a criminal into signing a confession just to get him to shut up. Speaking of criminals, I think if the Penguin or the Riddler was in that room just now, it would take them all of two seconds to figure out that Bruce Wayne and Batman are the same person. For that matter, Aunt Harriet should have figured it out by now. Of course, it could be she never met the Caped Crusader. Society matrons and superheroes don't necessarily attend the same soirees.

Now here's Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne: 

Did I just hear the Joker fart?

First off, Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne talks in a regular voice when in civvies, saving the hushed tones only for when he's in mortal combat. Also, he got very emotional there, didn't he? At worse, Adam West might blush if he came across a jaywalker, but otherwise he kept his cool. Then again, Keaton's temper tantrum might have just been a ruse to get the Joker to shoot him (a serving trey hidden in his shirt allows him to survive.) I don't think anything like that would have happened in the 1960s TV series because, frankly, I don't recall ever seeing bullets on that show. Unlike Dallas, Memphis, or Los Angeles, 1960s Gotham City seems to have had rather strict gun control laws (but as you just saw, that was all over with by 1989--the NRA must have bought off some local Gotham politician.)

For our final Michael Keaton-Adam West comparison, we look at affairs of the heart, or the groin, or--just watch the clips and figure it out for yourself.

Twenty-five years later:

Licking may even be more natural--to the point of being animalistic. Pur-r-r-r-r.

Thus ends my Michael Keaton-Adam West comparison. There's no winner because it's not a contest. You're allowed to like them both (I do.) And anyway, the comparison is as much between filmmaker Tim Burton and television producer William Dozier and television writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. as it is between any two actors. The funny thing is, even though the two Burton-directed movies, Batman and Batman Returns, were together seen at the time as a sudden break with the superhero's franchise TV past, if I compare the Burton films with the later, 21st century-but-1970s movieish Christopher Nolan trilogy, Burton's take seems more like the TV version, not less. Sure, one's lighthearted and the other's definitely not, but both versions never forget that it's all based on a comic book and not The French Connection or Taxi Driver. 

As for the various others actors who played Batman--Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale, Ben Affleck, whoever's in that one Legos movie--it's not their birthday today. As I said earlier, it is Michael Keaton's, so lets get back to him. In case you haven't heard, Keaton's going to have one more go as Gotham City's favorite crimefighter, though this film's actually about another superhero, the Flash, who lives in another fictional metropolis, (though not the fictional Metropolis.) Keaton turns 70 today. Is that too old to play Batman? Maybe, maybe not. When it comes to superheroes, it matters not the age of the actors that play them as long as...

...the garments remain forever young.