Saturday, November 22, 2014

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "THE POWER OF THE WHISTLER" (1945)

Forget about I Love a Mystery and The Shadow Strikes. The movies based on The Whistler are how to bring a radio series to the screen. From their unsettling opening theme music (whistled, of course) to their violent climaxes, the Whistler  B-movies -- ranging from fine to terrific -- put many A's to shame.

The Power of the Whistler, one of the best in the series, tells of the story of fortune teller Jean Lang, who predicts death within 24 hours for William Everest, an amnesiac she meets in Greenwich Village. As Jean and her sister Frances try to put together William's past from the items in his pocket -- a train schedule, lighter, doctor's prescription, and the like -- they gradually discover that the gentle-spoken man isn't quite as gentle as he seems. But as predicted, William keeps his appointment with death right on time.

"I don't know who you are, you don't know
who you are -- come home with me!"
For all its quiet terror, there's a charming, unintended naivete running through The Power of the Whistler. When William has a dizzy spell upon first meeting Jean, she suggests he sit down somewhere close by. "The owner of this car won't object, I'm sure!" she chirps merrily. And when the driver finally does appear, he happily gives them a lift to where they want to go. (This is supposed to be New York, remember.)

That's not a flattering look for him.
Now, say you're a young woman who meets a guy 25 years your senior, and you have no idea who he is. Would you bring him back to the apartment you share with your younger sister so he can stay the night? Of course! There's nothing strange about this, nor how your sister's parakeet suddenly turns up strangled to death when your back is turned. On the other hand, he makes a swell over-easy egg for breakfast the following morning! (The parakeet is just one of three cute little animals who meet a grisly death at his hands. Yeah! That's what I'm talkin' about!)

Frances brings William's scrip to the drug store where it was filled. Turns out it's a prescription for poison. As the druggist says, "There's not much call for it." I would hope not. Is it unusual to fill out a prescription for poison at CVS these days? (William forged the scrip himself, but please.)

William, meanwhile, has strong-armed Jane into accompanying him to visit a "friend" in New Jersey he's suddenly remembered -- the judge who sent him up the river. By now, Frances and her boyfriend Charlie have figured out that William is "an escaped maniac" -- the only kind of maniac they have in these movies. The police were never notified because the prison warden believed William had been cured anyway. That's a very good reason to keep the information from the public. Especially when William sends the warden a birthday cake laced with poison. (Oh, so that's what it was for!)


"Your name's written in ink?
That's good enough for us!"
If that doesn't give you faith in the system, William gets through a police dragnet by offering foolproof ID: a name written on the label of the suit jacket he stole from the prison warden upon his escape. Surely there must be some sort of happy middle between outright incompetence and getting X-rayed at the airport. Fortunately for all, William meets a particularly nasty end in a hayloft that even had my usually-peace loving wife cheering.

Nor have I seen a cop in Central Park
during broad daylight.
Per usual with the Columbia B's, the sets for The Power of the Whistler are drab, but help set the mood. The Central Park scenes, meanwhile, feature ambient studio sounds -- the closing of a door, a chair squeaking on the floor -- I've never heard during my visits. No problem -- at least the actors say their lines correctly! And despite what they say, there are no Dexter or Harris Streets in New York, so don't expect to visit them on your next TCM Movie Tour. 


The Whistler movies appear to be a blueprint for the much-later Twilight Zone. In this case, your host is The Whistler, who always speaks the same introduction: "I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows." He works for the NSA now.
You might want to pay attention to that whistling
shadow behind you, mister.
The Whistler himself -- itself? -- is best described as Fate in sardonic human form, seen only as a shadow with a trench coat and fedora, waiting patiently for the losers in his tales to meet a ghastly end they can never escape.

The other thread running through all but one of the Whistler movies is Richard Dix, one of the most underrated actors of the '40s. Continually described in The Power of the Whistler as "good-looking," he has instead the appearance of a man who's seen too much of life's darker side. He is, to use an archaic phrase, "ruggedly handsome," a description no longer used for today's pretty-boy actors. Just for comparison, Dix is 52 in The Power of
the Whistler, the same age that Tom Cruise is now.
 
Switching with ease from compassionate to terrifying in the bat of an eye, Dix -- as in The Ghost Ship -- gives extraordinary depth to William Everest, a character that other actors would play as a jacked-up nut job. He starts his morning saying grace at the breakfast table. By the evening, he's murderously approaching Jean with a genuinely bloodcurdling expression in his eyes -- and is absolutely convincing both times. By any standard, Richard Dix is the real power of The Whistler.

                                        ***********************************

To read about I Love a Mystery, go here.
To read about The Shadow Strikes, go here.
To read about another radio-to-movie feature, Inner Sanctum, go here.
To read about The Ghost Ship, go here

Friday, November 21, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: IMMIGRATION EDITION

Congressional leaders wasted no time in responding to President Barack Obama's executive order regarding immigration reform.

Senate leader Harry Reid (D-NV) told reporters, "For me, immigration reform was personal. When we in the Senate are working late, we always order in pizza. And it's always some little Latino guy who delivers it, fresh and hot. Cheese never sticks to the box. Without those guys, we'd starve to death. And I like how they deliver the newspapers, too. Latinos are very good at delivering. Something in their blood, I think. That's why I'm against the Keystone Pipeline. Now, give Latinos jobs delivering oil like a bucket brigade, I'll be the first to endorse that."

A different tone was struck by Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH). "The Republicans will not take this lying down," Boehner thundered after the president's speech. "We won an historic victory this month. And frankly, we're not used to it. So instead of holding our fire and behaving like mature leaders, we're going to make sure that we put the lunatics in front of every camera. They've got the talking points -- impeachment, shutting down the government, Michelle's clothes -- to make the American citizens regret they ever voted for us. By the time we're done, whatever goodwill we created will collapse faster than snow on a Buffalo rooftop. Then maybe in 2016, we'll be back in the minority with another Democratic president. That's our kind of victory."

                                                         *******************

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "SAY IT WITH SONGS" (1929)

Al Jolson's stunning late-in-life comeback helped people forget that it was movies like Say it with Songs that drove him out of the public consciousness to begin with. 

So bad is Say it with Songs -- a musical about an emotionally-manipulative singer with a gambling problem who's imprisoned for manslaughter (sounds fun!) -- that it seems like a personal vendetta by scenarist Darryl F. Zanuck. Even the ridiculous call letters of the radio station where Jolson's character Joe Powers sings, QRSA, sound like some kind of a private joke. 

Zanuck couldn't even be bothered giving Powers' five year-old son a name, being referred to only as "the little kid," "junior" and, of course, "little pal" -- the name of the movie's breakout hit. I thought you needed to name your child before bringing him home from the hospital.

Jolson tries not to strangle his little pal.
Joe's imprisonment, by the way, was due to fatally beating up the radio station manager, Arthur, for trying to blackmail Joe's wife Kitty. (He would renew Joe's contract only if Kitty was "nice" to him.) In an outrageous abuse of jurisprudence, the judge presiding over his trial questioned Little Pal regarding his dad's state of mind before the killing. The bigmouth brat's helpful testimony: "He said he was going to kill him dead!" Thanks, kid. Now go play in traffic. 


Killers love nothing more than
being forced to listen to maudlin
pop songs.

Unlike most fresh meat in prison, Joe doesn't get on with the others by providing drugs, but, rather, singing them a chin-up number, "Birdies Sing in Cages, Why Can't You?" Yeah, that's what the boys in gray would want to hear in real life, a third-rate TED Talk set to music. No way would they hold his face down in an unwashed toilet while taking turns being "nice" to him.

Once he's out of the slammer, Joe tracks Little Pal down to the boarding school Kitty has enrolled him in while she works for Robert Merrill (a surgeon, not the opera singer who was always on The Ed Sullivan Show.) After a brief reunion, Joe leaves, not noticing that Little Pal is following him through the busy city streets, where he gets mowed down by a jalopy. Considering that he was the ultimate cause of Joe's prison term, this would seem like just desserts.

"Who's that old guy putting the moves
on you all the time?"
While in the hospital, the kid is diagnosed with damage to his spine, nerves and vocal chords. You'd leave your kid in the hospital for a spell, right? Not Joe Powers. He carries Little Pal to Dr. Merrill, who has loved Kitty since he was "a young intern." Judging by his age, that would have made Kitty about six months old at the time. Merrill offers to perform life-saving surgery for free if Joe gives up kid to Kitty. Otherwise, it'll cost $5,000. That must have been part of the 1929 version of the Hippocratic oath. (Little Pal's private school doesn't even notice that he's missing until Merrill calls them the following day. What the hell kind of medical and educational standards does this city have anyway?)

Taken aback by Merrill's questionable ethics, Joe swears to "rob every house in town" in order to pay another surgeon instead, which makes no sense whatsoever. But he soon has a change of heart, returning the kid to Merrill and his dangerous-looking X-ray machine. (It appears to have the ability to give cancer to people three floors below.) Little Pal can walk once more, but regains his power of speech only when hearing Joe singing "Little Pal" on a record, leading to a happy ending for the audience, who no longer has to watch the movie.


No microphone was needed for Jolson
to be heard over the airwaves.
It's been said that to truly appreciate Al Jolson, you had to have seen him live in concert. And during his upbeat numbers, that legendary to-the-rafters style is infectious, being the only times Jolson performs naturally. But no dramatic actor was he, especially during emotional scenes when his vocal chords quiver as if caught in a wind tunnel. Didn't anyone at Warners remember that Jolson was a star of Broadway musical comedies?

There are times, too, when he appears to be ad-libbing his lines, and not in a good way. When accused by Dr. Merrill of kidnapping Little Pal from school, Jolson replies, "Say, what's the idea? I came in to see about saving my boy's life, and you start beating around the bush!" Umm, yes, alright, have a seat...

Director Lloyd Bacon instructs Jolson
to believably sit still for two minutes.
Say it with Songs has an undeniably cheap look to it as well, with an outrageously phony painting of the Brooklyn Bridge standing in for the real thing being the worst of it. It was a strange way to treat Jolson, who saved the studio's bacon when bankruptcy loomed. After all, The Jazz Singer made movie history in 1927 as the first feature with singing and talking sequences. The following year, The Singing Fool, another part-talkie, immediately became the highest-grossing movie ever made (surpassed by Gone with the Wind 11 years later). 

"Alright, Jolie, enough
already!"
Say it with Songs tried to replicate The Singing Fool's success by bringing back Jolson's co-star, Davey Lee, as his son. The latter movie made "Sonny Boy" the biggest-selling record of the year, so, true to formula, Jolson warbles "Little Pal" over and over and over here. One wonders what this barely-out-of-diapers kid thought of a bombastic entertainer singing in his face like a cyclone all the time. 

Maybe Warner Bros. cynically thought that anything with Jolson's name on it would sell tickets. If so, they were wrong. Say it with Songs premiered at Warners' flagship theatre in Times Square, but was pulled after two days of negative reviews and bad business. While Jolson continued to flourish onstage, movie audiences didn't care much to hear him say it with songs or anything else for that matter.

Parental cruelty alert: Davey Lee retired from movies at his mother's request in 1930 in order for him to have a normal childhood, forcing him to give up a weekly salary of $30,000 (or about $428,000 in today's money). I got Davey's autograph at an Al Jolson centennial convention in in 1985. What was astonishing then was just meeting someone who had starred in movies with Al Jolson in the 1920s. Now, it's knowing that he was only three years older than I am now.  

                                                   ********************* 
 
If you care, here's Al Jolson in Say it with Songs singing the romantically-titled "Used to You."






Tuesday, November 18, 2014

CHARLES AND BILL

We know the world has gone topsy-turvy when an 80 year-old man imprisoned for life on multiple-murder raps is better marriage material than the most beloved comedian of his generation:



He's finally found someone to
make him happy.
What's not to love? Manson isn't allowed conjugal visits, so there's no pressure on the blushing bride's wedding night. And even if the couple were allowed to consummate their holy matrimony, there'd be no chance of their offspring inheriting the swastika that's been carved into Manson's forehead.

Besides, with a 54-year age difference, there's a darned good chance that Ms. Burton will be on the market again in five or ten years. The resulting book contract should make her a mighty tempting "get" for talk shows and husbands-to-be alike. Those yentas on The View probably have the contract ready to sign already.

For the record, Ms. Burton is interested in working on Manson's case -- like there's cause for doubt concerning his guilt -- and marrying him would allow access to information unavailable to non-relatives. She told the AP reporter, "There's certain things next of kin can do." I'd say the first thing Charles Manson's next of kin could do is legally change their name to something less notorious, like Pinochet. 

Even Cosby admits it.
They certainly wouldn't want to change it to Cosby, as in Bill, formerly known as "America's Favorite Dad," and now as the guy who's been accused of drugging and raping at least 14 women since 1969. That was the same year he recorded an album called It's True! It's True!, featuring a bit called "Spanish Fly." Because there's nothing funnier than drugging and raping women.

There's been a trail of these accusations going on for years, but it wasn't until the last couple of weeks that it finally exploded into the mainstream. It's only appropriate that the showbiz-obsessed news media is asking, "How will this affect Cosby's proposed NBC sitcom?" rather than, "How did we miss this for so long?" Such is the power of a cheerful public personality. You don't get to the top of the showbiz heap just by eating Jell-O Pudding, you know. 

As has been noted by one of Cosby's alleged victims, nobody seemed to be interested in their stories until a second-tier comedian named Hannibal Buress talked about it in his stand-up act last month. This should be a lesson to women everywhere. If you've been sexually assaulted, tell your story to a comedian -- a male comedian, that is, even one nobody's heard of -- because the news media will finally pay attention to you.

As for what Cosby has to say about these charges, it's literally nothing. Oh, he paid off one of his accusers some years back, which is a sure sign of innocence. (None of the other women are asking for a dime.) But if you really want to know what he's thinking, go back to It's True! It's True!, the album with "Spanish Fly," and look at the name of the first bit: "It's the Women's Fault." You're asking for it, Cos, you're just asking for it.

                                      *******************************

Friday, November 14, 2014

OVERHEARD IN NEW YORK

Some years ago, before my daughter became an honorary resident of the Lower East Side, she was actually a little scared of that area. I wasn't aware of that until we were taking the subway to Houston St. to meet up with my wife and her brother's family at a restaurant. 

"Do you know where we're going?" she asked with great concern, as we walked up the subway station stairs and out to the street.

"Of course, don't worry," I replied confidentially, "there's nothing to be afraid of here."

As soon as I finished that sentence, one of the locals walked by muttering, "I'm gonna kill somebody. I'm gonna kill somebody!" Pay no attention to the homeless fellow, my child.

Recently, I decided to start paying attention to the random comments made by New Yorkers. None of them have been as good as that from the gentleman on Houston St., but all of them stuck in my mind.

E. 86TH ST. One 8 year-old boy to another: "Would you rather be killed by lava or drown by water?"

YORK AVE. 4 year-old boy singing: "Boys are greater than girls, boys are greater than girls...", before asking his parents, "Are boys greater than girls?"

EAST 91ST. 8 year-old boy to father: "Hey dad, you know that new field? I really hate it!"

YORK AVE. One guy in his 60s to another: "...that's the schmuck who fucked up the pre-industries!" (Note: I have no idea what a pre-industry is.)

YORK AVE. One 70ish guy to another: "I almost dropped dead yesterday!"

E. 69TH ST. 70ish woman training her dog: "Goddammit, walk!"

E. 73RD ST. Mother to  her 10 year-old son: "Don't think the police are going to let you slide just because you're a kid."

E. 84TH ST. Middle aged man on cellphone: "Steve, when doctors start giving you that doctor shit, you can't do it."

1ST AVE. Elderly woman with a walker, to woman going the other way: "Evelyn! Evelyn, is that you? Evelyn?... (to herself) I guess it's not Evelyn." 

E. 84TH ST. 30ish woman outside a daycare center, speaking on cellphone: "I'm going to court on Tuesday and this shit is just crazy and I'm ready to kill somebody."  

Yes! Another random death threat. Thank you, New York!

                                               ********************** 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "THE BIG KNIFE" (1955)

If you've ever had the urge to write an I'll-get-even-with-those-SOBs script about a job you hated, watch The Big Knife to see how those things turn out. In a word, badly. 

The main problem is its dramatic fulcrum: Should A-list movie star Charlie Castle renew his contract with Hoff-Federated Studios? 

Look at your own life. Then look at Charlie Castle, who must decide if he wants to spend another seven years living in a Beverly Hills mansion and having the world snap to attention at his every whim, all the while making a bundle of money. This is drama?

Oh, and not enough liquor, either.



Well, Castle does have real problems. Fooling around with every two-bit tootsie while his long-suffering wife watches from the sidelines, for instance. A reliance on booze to ease his "pain." And then there was his drunken, fatal hit-and-run accident for which his PR guy took the fall. Predicaments, in other words, of his own making, and which are supposed to be on par with The Iceman Cometh. It may come as a shock to people in the movie business, but listen up: Nobody cares about your problems.

To be fair, it took director/producer Robert Aldrich guts to portray the movie business as seedy as The Big Knife presents it. Everyone, from the studio boss to the Hedda Hopper stand-in gossip columnist, excels in moral and emotional blackmail. The studio is even willing to murder Castle's floozie Dixie Evans just to keep her from going public about Castle's hit-and-run. The entire industry is portrayed as a West Coast Mafia, only without the ethics. 

Ida Lupino studies Jack Palance's head
for lice.
The script betrays its original stage origins. In fact, you could close your eyes and not miss a thing, other than subtlety and good taste, which you'd miss with your eyes open anyway. When the dialogue isn't expository ("Here's your agent!"), it's melodramatic to the point of hilarity ("You swat the fly from my face with a hammer!"). Really, I'm more willing than most to give older movies a fair shake, but I'm only human. You could give the original SCTV cast this script and not tell the difference.


"...and right, too!"
"And I can do it with my left hand..."
John Garfield originated the role of Charlie Castle on Broadway, and probably brought genuine angst to an otherwise-unlikeable part. But here, Jack Palance, fine in character roles, never rings true as the leading man with artistic aspirations; he's just not able shake his tough-guy persona. Palance can't even kiss women without looking like he's going to strangle them. 


"You think you've got problems? I went from
working with Orson Welles to this dreck!"
And those women of The Big Knife are fit to cliched type: saint (Charlie's wife), bitch (the columnist) and sluts (the mistresses). As the doomed Dixie Evans, Shelley Winters is sympathetic, being used by studio execs for sexual favors in return for a couple of bit parts. (She's billed in the credits as "Miss Shelley Winters," presumably so as not to be confused with Mr. Shelley Berman.) Everett Sloan repeats his Jewish tragic/comic relief routine from Citizen Kane as Castle's agent Nat Dazinger, offering bromides like "Stop wringing your mental hands!" like he was quoting Oscar Wilde.


"Look at me when I'm declaiming
overheated dialogue!"
But, brother, clear the decks for Rod Steiger's no-holds barred antics as studio head Stanley Shriner Hoff. Clearly based on Louis B. Mayer (with a touch of Harry Cohn and Darryl F. Zanuck), Steiger is full-on, head-collision ham, going from gentle 
father-figure to howling underworld don faster than you can say "sequel possibilities." His performance is a master class in overacting that could be measured by seismometers. You marvel at how the sets remain standing, or that Steiger himself doesn't drop dead of a heart attack by the end -- and the whole time sounding exactly like Marlon Brando! Anyone who takes his performance seriously doesn't know what they're missing. It's like Lionel Barrymore after a year of Method acting lessons.
  

It sounds classier in Italian.
The Big Knife has a certain pedigree, being based on the Broadway play by Clifford Odets. Odets, unfortunately, was one of those "groundbreaking" playwrights whose works scream WARNING: IMPORTANT MESSAGE AHEAD. He stopped off in Hollywood for a spell, allowing an up-close view of how studios work. That was probably when he heard the rumor about Clark Gable's real-life fatal DUI hit-and-run, which an M-G-M executive pleaded guilty to in exchange for a lifetime salary --  a story that's never been confirmed, but I'd like to think is true.


Odets even worked himself into The Big Knife as Horatio "Hank" Teagle, who doubles as Castle's Jiminy Cricket. We know he's the only character with a moral compass because A) he's a writer, B) is moving back to New York to work on an important novel he admits nobody will read, and C) says things like, "Half-idealism is the peritonitis of the soul." No wonder nobody reads his books.

Right column, third from the top: I've heard of casting couches,
but this is ridiculous.
When The Big Knife flopped critically and financially in its 1955 release, Robert Aldrich pinned the blame on Jack Palance for not looking like a leading man, while ignoring everything else -- like the concept, script, acting, the bombastic score and his own direction. However, the upholstered furniture, which actually receives a credit, does a believable job.

The original 1949 stage production of The Big Knife ran only three months, leading me to believe nobody liked it then, either. (It was directed by, who else, Lee Strasberg.) When my wife and I saw its Broadway revival in 2013, we spent most of the time stifling our giggles while our eyes rolled like bowling balls. Somebody ought to take a big knife to The Big Knife once and for all.
 

                                                  ********************

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: POST OFFICE EDITION

Chinese government hackers are suspected of breaching the computer networks of the United States Postal Service, compromising the data of more than 800,000 employees — including the postmaster general’s.

Postal Service spokesman Brad Lanes told reporters that, thanks to the stolen information, Chinese officials have learned how to run a business with unpleasant employees and endless customer lines, while losing eight billion dollars a year. "And if they keep hacking into other American businesses," Lanes warned, "they're going to learn all our trade secrets, like how to rip-off cable TV customers, market potato chips as health food, and force people to keep buying the same electronic devices over and over again. Then where will that leave us?"

                                                    **********************

Monday, November 10, 2014

THE LOW VOICE OF HIGH-HEELED GIRLS

Leave it those genius Millennials to present the world a new theory: quiet people are more relaxing than loud ones.

Hard to believe, but that appears to be the case. And the reason why they know it's true is because it's on the internet. The London Independent reports that videos of people whispering are all the (quiet) rage:

The doctors will see you now.

Practitioner? That word used to be associated with people who had a title, like MD or RN. Someone who actually earned a degree in the medical field. Now it's anybody with a videocam who sounds like they're putting their two year-old to bed.  

Yes, it's come to this: People in our Red Bull-iPad-earbud-smart-TV society have reached a point that they have to watch an internet video to relax or cure depression. That in itself should be cause for depression.

"Hello, ladies. Care to
caress my microphone?"
These videos are said to cause "brain orgasms," which is better than none. This phenomenon was nothing new to music fans in the '30s. Moral conservatives, you see, condemned Bing Crosby during his early days for his then-revolutionary seductive crooning style that allegedly created impure thoughts in young women. Had Mike Nichols been around then, he could have directed Bing in The Road to Carnal Knowledge.

These brain orgasms -- described as "a pleasurable tingling that typically begins in the head and scalp, and often moves down the spine and through the limbs" -- can also be triggered via physical activity, such as hair-brushing. More sensitive people actually claim to feel it via towel folding. My wife must be one of them. When she watches me fold towels, she always wants to push me aside and fold them herself. 


Next time, I'll use this.
At the risk of conducting an extra-marital affair, I watched one of these whispering videos to get a cheap cerebellum thrill. The experience initially was anything but relaxing. The woman conducting our session had an accent of indeterminate origin that I found distracting. I felt like yelling, "What? What're you saying?!" like an old man cupping his ear with one hand and holding a cane with the other. 

It didn't help that I was using our old laptop, whose battery often sounds like a jet engine warming up at LaGuardia Airport. Yet turning up the volume would have defeated the purpose. It's not easy receiving 21st-century medical treatment. (Note to self: This is what headphones are for.)


"Look into my mascara. You are
getting tingly..."
Then there were the visuals. Not so much the background, which resembled a Motel 6 shower curtain, or the woman herself, who looked like a  KGB agent-turned-waitress at the Volgograd branch of Hooters (that's not a compliment, by the way). No, it was how she was constantly, constantly flicking her bottle-blonde hair as if she was in stage one of Tourette's Syndrome. Would you put up with your family practitioner carrying on like Daryl Hall or an aspiring model trying to get the attention of Mark Zuckerberg at a bar?

So I shut my eyes and listened. And sure enough, in a moment my scalp was tingling. I didn't find it particularly relaxing, not when it felt like there were a dozen or so gnats crawling under my skin. But as the unnamed woman in the video continued to whisper her positive messages, I started feeling relaxed, even drowsy, even as she urged me to go to my "happy place" -- which would be anywhere that serves chicken wings & beer.


Can you feel it? I know I can.
As the video continued, my head gradually dropped until it was practically on my thorax. I never fell asleep -- it was only 11:00 in the morning -- but I was cognizant of what was going on. I'd felt these scalp tingling moments when involved in enjoyable moments involving brain activity -- listening to a particularly beautiful piece of music , or even writing this piece. I've gotten it when watching certain movies shot in the Vitaphone process, for God's sakes. This was nothing new.


Yes.
This whispering stunt is for people who find meditation too, well, meditative. They want to feel like they're watching The Tingler, sitting in a theatre seat that's been wired to give them a buzz. The "practitioners" themselves are moderately pretty young women who want to be the next big internet fad: objects of sexual desire, but doing something supposedly useful to mankind. Put someone who looks like ZaSu Pitts in one of these whispering videos, see how many hits she gets. 

You want to relax and fall asleep? Do as my wife does, and watch Vitaphone movies. If you're anything like her, you'll be out in no time. I'll be the guy scratching his scalp for 70 minutes.

                                                   ********************

Friday, November 7, 2014

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "SYMPHONY OF LIVING" (1935)

Some movies tug at your heartstrings. Symphony of Living yanks at them like the Minnesota Vikings and the San Diego Chargers playing tug-of-war. Why make a movie that simply touches you when it can bash you over the head with every conceivable melodramatic plot device? If nothing else, Symphony of Living just might be, if not the birth of a bushel of cinematic cliches, at least the distillation of them.

This is how every middle class
family in New York dresses at home.
Violinist Adolph Greig lives with his two layabout adult children, Pamela and Richard, who do nothing but complain that he's not bringing home enough money. Pretty soon, he's not bringing home any, having permanently damaged his hand when accidentally pushed into a window (it happens all the time to old violinists). Richard sees this as the perfect opportunity to shove off, while Pamela has already eloped with her rich, older boyfriend, leaving their father alone with his severed tendons and a bottle of Schnapps.

Time goes by. So disgusted is Pamela by the memory of her father's career, she refuses to allow her music-loving son Carl to continue with his violin lessons, driving her husband to pay her $75,000 to get lost in exchange for custody of the kid. (This being the middle of the Depression, most people would've said, "Where do I sign?") Meanwhile, Adolph becomes a music teacher, and... oh, hell, I don't have to tell you what happens next and next and next, do I? I mean, I figured it out by the end of the second reel.


Pamela's son wants to know why she
insists on dressing like Nefertiti.

Just to make sure we know whose side we're supposed to be on, the characters have been written with all the nuance of a short-circuited pile-driver. Adolph isn't just a nice man -- he makes St. Augustine look like Ted Kaczynski. Pamela and Richard aren't just ungrateful -- they're a full-fledged bitch and larcenist-in-waiting respectively. And did I say they were adult children? Make that middle-aged. Evelyn Brent, who plays Pamela, was 36 at the time of making Symphony of Living. Sheesh, lady, you don't like living with your old man, move out! Richard, meanwhile, hangs around the house all day in three-piece suits. Well, if you're going to do nothing, you might as well look good not doing it.

You want nasty? It isn't enough that Pamela asks her father to turn off his classical records; she has to sneer, "Muzzle that dirge, will ya?" When Richard, now a full-fledged crook, shows up at his father's music studio after 13 years, his first words are, "Nice little layout you got here" like an underworld enforcer. (He describes himself as "kind of a promoter," code for "crook.") One line of dialogue may be the first example of a particular kind of wisecrack that became de rigueur among jokesters several decades later. Noting the contempt he and Pamela have for Adolph, Richard scoffs, "Nice pleasant little family this is -- NOT!" Had he been born in another time, he'd have been a writer for Friends.


Those kids are actually 40 years old.
Like a lot of low-budget indies of the '30s, Symphony of Living plays fast and loose with its time frame. While the cars, fashion and even radio are vintage 1935, ten minutes into the movie we learn that it's supposed to be 1922. Although it seems like only a few months pass before Adolph becomes a music teacher, it's actually been eight years... until somebody says ten years... before reverting to eight again. Then I think a few more years pass after that, but it's difficult to say, especially when the main characters look the same throughout. Forget about teaching music, Adolph should bottle what ever it is that keeps these people from aging.

So invincible, it went out of
business a year later
What cut-rate high class
looks like.

Symphony of Living is a poverty-row double-header, being an Invincible Picture released by the Chesterfield Motion Picture Corporation (no relation to the cigarette). The New York-based studios give Symphony of Living a low-rent, if ultimately artificial, feel. Adolph and his kids live at 170 W. 210 St., which, while referred to as "uptown," you'll never find on any map of Manhattan. His studio's address is 232 Christopher St. -- which would put it in the middle of the Hudson River. He performs at the Cosmopolitan Concert Hall, located in real life on the Invincible Pictures' soundstage. Pamela's 10 year-old son, however, has a genuine New York accent, despite being raised by parents with impeccable diction. Watch Sweet Smell of Success if you want authenticity.

The big draw here, if you can call it that, is Al Shean as Adolph Greig. Unknown today by anybody except kooks like me, Shean was, from 1912 to 1925, one-half of Gallagher & Shean, one of the most popular stage acts of their time. His portrayal of Greig, a
Al Shean refuses to allow his grandson steal
the spotlight like his damn nephews.
washed-up musician who guides his
grandson to greatness, might have hit home just a little too hard. In real life, Shean was the uncle of a bunch of poor, rowdy siblings who entered show business when they saw how much dough he was raking in. Many years later, those same kids were conquering Broadway as the Four Marx Brothers -- just as Uncle Al's career was going into eclipse. (Look closely at Shean in Symphony of Living and you can see a resemblance to Harpo.) 

Four posters and ten lobby cards were created for
the movie -- probably three and nine more
than were used.
Perhaps thinking he was still doing 1920s comedy shtick, Shean insists on speaking with an exaggerated accent (German? Viennese? Ottoman?) that positively screams old-hat vaudeville. This would be fine if Symphony of Living wasn't so intent on being a melodramatic tearjerker that melodramatically jerks your tears. In other words, a tearjerking melodrama.


I couldn't find any reviews of Symphony of Living from its original release, which isn't surprising. Mawkish pieces of entertainment like this were made for the masses who wanted a good, cheap cry, not the elites over at the Times. Maybe that was good enough for Al Shean, now that his salad days had wilted. But he must have wondered, after toiling away at the bargain-basement Invincible Pictures, how his nephews wound up making the classy A Night at the Opera at M-G-M the same year. Symphony of Just Existing would be closer to the mark.

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Thursday, November 6, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: POST-ELECTION EDITION

Facing reporters after Republicans swept Congress by historic levels, President Barack Obama refused to concede that the results were a repudiation of his administration, despite that all the winners ran explicitly anti-Obama campaign ads.

When asked by the Washington Post's Brad Lanes if he was being delusional, Mr. Obama said no, adding, "And if you don't believe me, you can ask Miranda, the little pink unicorn I keep in the Rose Garden. Miranda never lies to me."

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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

THE OL' FISH-EYE'S ELECTION DAY ENDORSEMENTS

FOR GOVERNOR: The one who's going to keep us safe, and do something about taxes.

FOR ATTORNEY GENERAL: The one who's going after "the bad guys."

FOR UNITED STATES SENATOR: The one who's going to shake up Washington. You know, the one with the nice family.

FOR STATE SENATOR: The one whose campaign commercials make the opponent look creepy by running footage of him in slow motion and black & white.  

FOR ASSEMBLYMAN: The one who's going to fight for your family.

FOR REPRESENTATIVE: The one who's always on Morning Joe. (Not that candidate, the other one.)

FOR STATE COMPTROLLER: What's a comptroller?
 
FOR JUDGE: The same one you voted for last time. If you can't remember who it was, choose the judge whose nationality seems closest to yours. You never know when you're going to need a speeding ticket thrown out.

PROPOSITION 1: Yeah, it sounds alright.

PROPOSITION 2: Better not. It's just a scam to create jobs for the Speaker of the Council's friend who owns a construction company.

PROPOSITION 3: It depends.

Remember: Democracy doesn't work unless you listen to all the robocalls interrupting your meals.

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Monday, November 3, 2014

REMINDERS OF THING PRESENT


Don't bother. You can't fight it.
I don’t know about you, but I’m fully aware I’m getting older. No hints are necessary -- not the offers for life insurance in the mail, or for discount meds in my spam folder. But even though I feel a decade younger than my real age, life insists on whispering into my ear, “You’re not fooling anybody, bub.”

A few weeks back, I was trying on a jacket in a clothing store that featured one of those funhouse-type mirrors allowing reflections from almost every angle simultaneously. I was momentarily stunned, believing I had accidentally stepped into a meeting of Geezers Anonymous.

What made it worse was the hideously unflattering lighting. I suppose it’s so you know how you’d look even in the worst of circumstances, but all I got out of it was wondering was how low my chin could get before it started brushing up against my Adam’s apple. 

Then there's the junk mail from private institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, asking for a “generous” donation upon my demise. Call me old-fashioned, but when did it become acceptable to shoehorn yourself into a stranger's will? As it stands now, I have just about enough for my wife and daughter to purchase a couple of fancy cars, with a little left over for two round-trip tickets to Seattle -- first-class! The Met has plenty deep-pocketed supporters to keep them floating in Cubism and fashion displays for the next thousand years (thank you, Koch Brothers!).


Even a simple haircut holds the promise of a gratuitous elbow in the ribs. One recent holiday season, the barber, in a vain attempt to start a conversation, asked me, "So, are the kids coming home for Christmas?" My daughter was a junior in high school at the time.

The sad thing is, he's got more hair
on his head than I do.
Ever since then, the barbershop has become my go-to place for unwitting insults. At first, it was the guy asking if I wanted my eyebrows trimmed, as if he were working on a hedgerow. (Of course I said yes.) Once he started getting used to that, he took it upon himself to run the clippers on the edge of my ears. Next time, he not only went inside my ears, he made a side-trip into my nostrils. Last week, a woman -- the first time I'd seen her there -- took it a step further and ran the clippers across my forehead

What made that last event even more humiliating was confiding in my wife. She studied me a moment before saying, "You know, you do look cleaner." It's getting to the point where the hair on my head is secondary. Maybe I should go for a Brazilian wax between my hairline and chin and be done with it.


"Next time, I'm buying loafers!"
But at least those things cause only emotional pain -- unlike drastic weather changes. Whenever the jolly meteorologist warns of an approaching low pressure system, I make sure to cancel all upcoming events from my planning calendar. For the next 24 to 48 hours, I'm going to be the three dwarfs that Snow White never met: Dizzy, Achy and Queasy. All I have to do is bend over to tie my shoes or turn my head a little too quickly, and I'm recreating the hanging-from-the-rooftop scene in Vertigo. If it were up to me, I'd pack a lifetime's supply of Voss bottled water and sunblock with a PSF of 125, and move to Death Valley. 

But first, I'd have the post office forward those letters from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to my current neighbor. He's looking pretty old, if you ask me.

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