Wednesday, July 24, 2013

As Long As There Are People (Douglas Sirk, 1959)

Yes, that's Imitation of Life under the English translation of its German title, Solange es Menschen gibt and if there's gotta be an alternative title, then let it be one that captures Sirk's pessimism so perfectly.

But check out the DVD cover:
Ok professionalism is clearly not on the menu. The chap on the right is John Gavin, the film's ostensible love interest/Rock Hudson placeholder. But he's mentioned nowhere on the cover. Even more damning, chap on the left (Dan O'Herlihy) is a character so vestigial that I had to wiki him despite having seen the film two nonillion times. Beyond mere sloppiness, then, it's clear that the cover reveals how much the designer balked at Sirk's radical vision. Not only does it ignore the film's exploration of the inequities experienced by its African-American characters, Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) and her daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), it attempts to juice a non-existent heteronormative triangle from the much more central feminine collective of Lora (Lana Turner), Susie (Sandra Dee), and Sarah Jane that remains at the end. Even in the digital era, Sirk is still picking at the scabs of the bourgeoisie.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Liberace, Elvis controversial

I knew I was right last month pegging Liberace as the first rock 'n' roller! On the eve of "Don't Be Cruel"/"Hound Dog" hitting number one on the pop, country& western, and r&b charts, a July 21, 1956 Billboard item called "That Thar Gold Still A'Showers" describes Elvis Presley as "the most controversial entertainer since Liberace [and he] continues to be red-hot at the box office in spite of an unusually irate, cold-shoulder treatment from the press" (23). That's what the "still" refers to: ASCAP/Tin Pan Alley types were assuming/praying that the demon rock 'n' roll would just evaporate on a raft of Mantovani strings. Didn't happen, natch, although Mantonvani didn't go away either. Still, enjoy your golden showers, Elvis. And Liberace!

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Friday, July 05, 2013

Winner Take All (Paul Bogart, 1975)

I had no high hopes for this TV movie and watched it solely due to my fascination/repulsion with gambling. But a peek into director Paul Bogart's creditable-plus filmography should have tipped me off to its high quality. He helmed Sondheim's fine TV musical Evening Primrose (1966) and with Torch Song Trilogy (1988) succeeded in creating that rare beast - a gay film worth watching. Now Winner Takes All has me wondering what other gems lie in his prolific TV work.

Shirley Jones stars as a housewife well on her way to destroying a second marriage via a betting addiction. She's lost $30,000 of her husband's money and most of the screen time is devoted to her attempts to win it back...and more. Slowing spiraling out of control on the doomed logic of luck, she navigates a landscape of bookies, professional gamblers, pawn shops, bankers, race tracks, sleazeballs, local hotel rooms, poker tables, etc. This is a film set intensely in the public sphere with Jones taking the family station wagon from Circle of Hell A to Circle of Hell B. And Bogart suffocates us with it. Most noteworthy, the score rarely pokes through the soundtrack and fails to cushion Jones' decline as a result.

Eventually, the film will evoke the creepy standstill that characterizes casino temporality. During a climactic poker game, there's a cut away from a closeup of Jones to a shot that tracks drearily back to the table. It means to measure the passage of time. But with not even a dissolve to anchor us, we have little idea how much time has passed. We're just encrusted in the ever-present of loserdom.
In such a stupor-like state, it's easy to forget Jones even has a family. In fact, Bogart suppresses the domestic so decisively that the few brief scenes with her husband and stepdaughter hit the viewer like cold slaps of water on the face in a casino bathroom. Clearly, we're supposed to feel sorry for (if not disgusted with) Jones' messing up her life. But as with such classic melodramas as The Reckless Moment or Madame X, the surface tension masks a longing to escape the home and the forced option of housewifery. No matter how low she descends, she derives some sort of self-actualization from her fall, a fact the happy ending (which comes hard and fast, like all happy endings) does nothing to undermine.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Gimmicks and Sounds Are Soooooo 1922

So it's 1952 and you're bemoaning the current state of popular music recordings, if not recordings themselves. You cannot stand the music industry's thirst for trendy studio gimmickry, non-musical sounds, and bizarre instrumentation. Well, Dave Dexter Jr. wants to drop some history on you. In a Billboard article entitled "Have Gimmicks Replaced Music? 'Sounds' Made Hits for 25 Years," he reminds mourners that gimmicks and "sounds" stretch back at least as far as the early 1920s and then provides a de facto playlist proving his point. 

So voila - a mini-seminar on sonic gewgaws of the 78rpm era.

"The Okeh Laughing Record" 1922:

Johnnie Ray hit big in 1952 with "Cry." Deaf, gay, Methody, punk-as-fuck in retrospect, he himself was a gimmick. Dexter pegs Gene Austin and his "extreme" falsetto as Ray's progenitor. Pretty weak connection but here he is floating through "My Blue Heaven."

Hot harpsichord? Artie Shaw used it:

You can hear Gray Gordon and his trademark tic-toc rhythm (along with other sounds) on this 1939 date:

Shep Fields used a coke straw and a fish bowl for his Rippling Rhythm sides:

Duke Ellington emulated a train on "Daybreak Express:

Sidney Bechet led a one-man band for a brief moment in 1941:

Satchmo trafficked in non-musical gimmicks in "Hobo, You Can't Ride This Train":

Ditto in "Laughin' Louie":

Glen Miller anticipated the rhythm gimmick of then-contemporaneous smash "Blacksmith Blues" with "The Anvil Chorus":

And there were gimmick tunes aplenty. Here's "The Music Goes 'Round":

Not sure what's so gimmicky about "Oh, Johnny" but here's The Andrews Sisters scatting away at it:

And here's a little masterpiece called "The Hut Sut Song" accompanied by an appropriately insane Soundie (that word!):
Above is "Knock, Knock, Who's There?" from Fletcher Henderson's ork.

And finally some "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen" from The Andrews Sisters again:


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