Archive for the MUSIC Category

On “Top of the Town”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2021 by dcairns

Devoted Shadowplayer Chris Schneider contributes an appreciation of obscure (to me, anyway) thirties musical TOP OF THE TOWN. You can watch the whole film on YouTube (bottom).

Someone was just saying, in connection with the writing of director Jacques Rivette, that the crazier your choice of “best” is, the more you’ve proved your (cinematic) love. This was extrapolation, mind you. Perhaps, then, I should prove my love of Thirties musicals by choosing the decidedly odd TOP OF THE TOWN (1937).

TOP OF THE TOWN is a dog’s-dinner of a picture, let’s be clear, but it’s not without interest. For one thing, it can be cited as the first Universal picture to employ the “twirling stars” studio logo. Secondly, it has a score by a very decent pair of songwriters — Jimmy McHugh (music), Harold Adamson (words) — which contains a genuine, soon-to-be “standard,” “Where Are You?” See recordings by Frank Sinatra and Chris Connor and Mildred Bailey.

Also of note is the historical oddity that TOP OF THE TOWN is one of that handful of pre-WW2 films, films like the Barbara Stanwyck/Robert Young comedy RED SALUTE, using interest in the Soviet Union as a source for comedy. What that means, here, is a flighty heiress (Doris Nolan) who has returned from the USSR with a tendency to call people “comrade” and now wants the nightclub on top of the family-owned skyscraper, the famed Moonbeam Club, to produce Important Art. This places her in conflict with the boyish musician (George Murphy) who simply wants to lead the club’s band and put on a good show. 

You might know Doris Nolan as Katherine Hepburn’s sister in HOLIDAY. She gets no songs here, only attitude. George Murphy, a talented yet not especially appealing dancer, was Astaire’s rival in BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940. He only gets one chance to dance, toward the end. Since nothing much happens between Nolan and Murphy, the strategy is to distract the audience with character performers like Hugh Herbert (as Murphy’s friend) and Gregory Ratoff (as his manager) and Ella Logan (as a diminutive song-belter) and Peggy Ryan (as a child doing an Eleanor Powell dance impersonation). Gertrude Niesen, as the band’s torch-singer, goes missing, but manages to sing “Where Are You?” And did we mention the trio of contortionists in sailor suits who do animal imitations?

Coherence is, shall we say, not one of the strengths of TOP OF THE TOWN. The director is Ralph Murphy, whose one notable film might be THE NOTORIOUS SOPHIE LANG. The script, allegedly, has uncredited contributions by Robert Benchley and Morrie Ryskind.

Another famous name, Mischa Auer, does put in an appearance. As part of the Moonbeam Club’s new Significant Entertainment, Auer shows up and does the “To be or not to be …” in full Hamlet drag — tn the accompaniment of a moaning choir in blackface. This is, um, problematic, as is a dance number involving salt-mine laborers being whipped. Luckily, the show is saved and the club patrons satisfied when a spontaneous jazz “jamboree” breaks out. Sorta like the number at the end of La Cava’s HALF-NAKED TRUTH.

TOP OF THE TOWN has its good points, to go with its silly or offensive ones. Notable among the plusses are the film’s gleaming look, in accord with its *moderne* title lettering, and Glasgow’s own Ella Logan scat-singing and dancing. This is the woman, let us remember, who later created the female lead in FINIAN’S RAINBOW.

And how can you say no to a film, I ask you, featuring Mischa Auer in his Hamlet Drag doing a conga-style pelvic thrust?

Surely Jacques Rivette would understand.

Star-Craving Mad

Posted in literature, MUSIC, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2020 by dcairns

I went down a rabbit hole investigating The Jet-Propelled Couch, a chapter of the book The Fifty-Minute Hour by Robert Mitchell Lindner, a celebrated collection of psychiatric case histories.

In The Jet-Propelled Couch, Lindner tells of successfully treating a “government scientist” seemingly involved in the atomic bomb project, who had gone partway off his rocker reading sci-fi novels in Polynesia as a child, and was spending increasingly long periods of mental estrangement when he believed himself to be away in the future, battling in distant galaxies. Lindner boldly combatted the obsession by going into it himself, identifying with his patient’s mania until he reckoned himself to be at some risk of getting lost in it. Fortunately, there wasn’t room in this particular constructed universe for two, and Lindner’s elbowing his way in helped “Kirk Allen” escape.

Lindner disguised his patient’s identity so carefully that we still can’t be sure who “Kirk Allen” really was. The best guess to date has been that he was science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith, real name Paul Linebarger. If this is so, it kind of suggests that “Allen” wasn’t wholly cured of his obsession, since Smith was to construct an entire future history spanning tens of thousands of years, lovingly piecing together whole civilisations that rose and fell, spawning new species (the underpeople! a very appealing character in A Planet Named Sheol has been assembled from bits of cow) and leading to “the Rediscovery of Mankind.” His stuff is absolutely nuts, and it’s easy to find yourself believing the author had mental issues. But maybe he was just really good?

Harry Harrison, sf scribe, on British TV was asked if you needed a special mind to write sci-fi. “No, just talent.”

Linebarger was remarkable in all kinds of ways. As a China expert, Linebarger’s proudest achievement was aiding in the surrender of thousands of Chinese troops in Korea. Cordwainer Smith expert John J. Pierce writes that the troops were averse to surrendering, considering it shameful. Linebarger had leaflets printed explaining that the men could come forward shouting the Chinese words for “love,” “duty,” “humanity” and “virtue.” Say these words in Chinese in that order, and you have phonetically said “I surrender in English.” Smith’s stories are pun-happy too.

I came across the Linebarger-Lindner story in Brian Aldiss’s critical history of science fiction, The Billion-Year Spree. He got his info from one Leon Stover, who was subsequently very cagey about how he’d supposedly heard it from Lindsay. The Linebarger-Lindner connection is tenuous at best, though we know Lindner knew other sf writers including Theodore Sturgeon, and we know Linebarger spent a lot of time in analysis. In Behind the Jet-Propelled Couch, Alan C. Elms, at work since forever on a Cordwainer Linebarger bio, examines the evidence in detail.

Since Linebarger was a cultural expert on China for the Pentagon, not a nuclear physicist working at Los Alamos, we can see that Lindner must have disguised him pretty thoroughly, but a lot of the biographical facts do add up, or find equivalents in Linebarger’s lonely and dislocated upbringing. (Loneliness has been remarked upon as a recurring theme in his fiction, from the astonishing Scanners Live in Vain — “I need to kranch!” — right through to his final published works at the end of his short life.)

Remarkably enough, Lindner’s chapter was televized as an episode of Playhouse 90 in the fities, under the direction or Burgess Meredith and James B. Clark (the combined talents behind THE YIN AND YANG OF MR. GO and A DOG OF FLANDERS. The show starred David Wayne as “Kirk Allen,” Donald O’Connor as “Dr. Robert Harrison” (so Lindner gets his own pseudonym), and featuring Peter Lorre and Maila Nurmi in her Vampira guise. I’d love to see it. It sounds dreadful and/or wonderful. A live broadcast, it doesn’t seem to have been preserved.

The TV play evidently interested Stephen Sondheim, who planned to make a musical out of it, but this never materialized. I would be interested! One can imagine a more serious WALTER MITTY affair, and it would be best if the sci-fi elements had some real clout and conviction, instead of the more usual Flash Gordon parody stuff. If one had access to Cordwainer Smith’s work and knew of the rumoured connection… it’s not too late! Paging Mr. Sondheim!

Other plausible candidates have been proposed as the real Kirk Allen. “Kiko” Harrison, a scientist who really was at Los Alamos, and who also had similarities in his personal history to the case file recounted by Lindner, could be the man. Nobody had managed to find a series of sci-fi stories starring a character called Paul Linebarger or even just “Paul” which would fit the description Lindner gives of his patient discovering a hero with his own name. Other investigators have looked for a physicist called John Carter, assuming that the most famous sci-fi hero in print at the time was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian adventurer. Aldiss suggests E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series as a likelier fit to K.A.’s intergalactic romps. Which would, with a bit of shoehorning, fit — the Lensman books don’t have heroes with usefully similar names to any of our protagonists, but Linebarger did later adopt the name Smith for his sf writing.

Saul-Paul Sirag, championing the “Kiko” Harrison hypothesis, does find a sci-fi hero called Harrison, star of two stories by Stanley G. Weinbaum which appeared in Wonder Stories, a 1930s pulp magazine. It’s not a long series of books, but at least there’s a name-match. I don’t know how likely it would be for “Kiko” to find a US pulp mag in England, France or Scotland, where he was living as a kid in 1934 (going by how impossible it was to find Famous Monsters of Filmland in Scotland in the seventies, I’d say not very likely), but per Lindner Kirk Allen discovered his namesake in a crate of imported literature on a Pacific island, so “Kiko” Harrison could have done the same thing when his family moved to the Philippines.

(I’ve read one of Weinbaum’s Captain Harrison stories, The Valley of Dreams, and it’s terrific. Hawksian sf adventure with alien ecology and plenty of mystery.)

It would be an exaggeration to say you could go mad thinking about this. But I’m getting a bit obsessed. I do think Cordwainer Smith/Paul Linebarger makes the most poetically beautiful candidate, because if it’s him, he OBVIOUSLY WASN’T CURED. Which is fine, because the tall tale Dr. Lindner span about “Kirk Allen” is wildly implausible and the techniques he describes would be highly unlikely to “cure” anyone suffering from a psychotic break. Still, schizophrenia, for instance, can come and go for no obvious reason, so maybe “Kirk” (the name suggests another, later space captain) just got better on his own? Or maybe he was never ill? He had a responsible position, but his bosses became concerned about his space fantasy obsession, his doodling on official documents using alien pictograms of his own devising, and sent him to a shrink? Lindner’s account of his therapy ends with K.A. saying that he’s realised for some time that all this futuristic stuff is “just nonsense,” but he didn’t want to admit it and disappoint Lindner, who seemed so into it. How much is Lindner distorting here? Obviously, he was duty bound to disguise his patient’s identity, falsifying details in the process. This of course means that we can’t fact check him.

Alan Elms points out that Linebarger/Smith’s working title for his only novel was Star-Craving Mad, which doesn’t work at all for the book that became Norstrilia (about a planet named after Northern Australia — Linebarger had an Australian friend so he got the vowels right), but would fit perfectly as an alternative title for The Jet-Propelled Couch.

Which ends with Lindner wondering about Kirk Allen and his apparently abandoned universe…

“How goes it with the Crystopeds? How are things in Seraneb?”

(Seraneb is Benares backwards. But that doesn’t seem to be a clue to anything.)

The Orphic Triangle

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2020 by dcairns

I hadn’t seen LAST TANGO IN PARIS for a long time but remembered it being interesting. Fiona hadn’t seen it in probably an even longer time and remembered it being boring. We watched it together for the first time and I was right.

But it was a really good illustration of Time’s effects: Fiona now found Brando sexy, whereas before he was just a creepy old guy. She also now found the film really funny, mostly thanks to Brando, who may be trying to take the mickey out of everything, suspecting that Bertolucci wanted to expose his raw inner being on celluloid or whatever: Brando perhaps is half-trying to make the film collapse under an attack of ridicule from within, and walk away from the rubble whistling as he had from so many other films.

He’s met his match.

Hard to imagine what this must have seemed like at the time when we were five and six years old and wouldn’t have been allowed in. Not only would the feigned sex have been startlingly graphic, considering a real movie star was involved, but the level of obscenity Brando comes up with in his improvised dialogue must’ve been an eye-opener. Fantasising about a threesome with a dying pig is… not normal. I believe even Nancy Friday would frown in consternation.

Thing is, despite the grotesque elements, this is an extraordinarily beautiful film. I don’t know if Storaro had sorted out his unique personal colour theories yet, but the variations on golden-brown he produces here are just sensational, and the combination with Gato Barbieri’s sax score is somehow just perfect. I was trying to figure out how Bertolucci came across this Argentinian jazzman whose previous movies as composer are obscure, but it’s the Pasolini connection: Barbieri is in PPP’s NOTES TOWARDS AN AFRICAN ORESTES.

But now — discovering I own a copy of David Thompson’s BFI Classic monograph on the film, I learn also that Barbieri’s wife worked on BEFORE THE REVOLUTION.

Awkward extratextual comedy as Marlon bemoans his spare tyre and his late wife’s lover show him his exercise bar. Years later, Brando would get one of those with the special boots you hang upside down from, but he was very heavy by this time and reportedly almost smothered inside himself. This goes along the story about him padlocking his fridge and then hiring the local burglar to teach him lockpicking, and the story about him making his own hypnosis tapes (“You will still be able to eat all the things you like, but you will eat less of them”) and others. There seems to be a cruel delight in Brando fat jokes, as there was with Welles, because we love to see great talents brought low… on the other hand, Brando’s fat stories are genuinely surprising and interesting.

One of the things about this film is that MB is still incredible attractive but right on the cusp of decay. And fear of aging, embodied in the film’s revulsion at the crumbly tangoists, is some kind of theme of the film, I guess. Images of death and decay. And grief. Brando’s monologue to his dead wife’s body made Dustin Hoffman run and hide behind a pillar when he saw it. I told this to Fiona but I had to repeat it like three times. Something about the anecdote appeared to be ungraspable.

Though Brando and Schneider are incredible presences and sexy people, I don’t find the sex scenes sexy, especially THAT one. Bertolucci’s betrayal of Schneider — adding the detail of the butter at the last minute to humiliate her — probably resulted in her being unwilling to trust filmmakers later on, and I don’t blame her. I think she acquired pretty good radar for when something was going to be a Bad Scene and ducking out of CALIGULA was a good call. Getting fired from THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE wasn’t necessarily a tragedy either — who wants to play an object?

What’s strange is that a distressing rape scene turned into a smutty joke for decades, and nobody used the obvious word “rape” when talking about the scene (the character’s seeming acceptance of what’s done to her obviously confused people but isn’t necessarily unrealistic — responses to sexual abuse cover a wide spectrum).

The British censor originally cut a few seconds from this scene. Bertolucci in interview smiled sweetly and said he had the feeling they did this “just to show… someone cares.”

The film’s obscenity and profanity do serve a necessary balancing function because the film might be in danger of vanishing up its own arse, without the aid of a dairy product as lubricant, if not for its sense of humour, which is mostly supplied by Brando. There’s even an Inspector Clouseau French accent joke: “Do you theenk I am a whirr?” “A what? Do I think you’re a whirr?” Another joke, cutting from the lovers groaning to a duck quacking into a rifle mic, might be one of Bert’s famous homages, to the early porno LE CANARD, but is probably just a bit of silliness. The editor is the co-writer…

Thompson’s book doesn’t offer a definitive theory of what the film really means or is about or why it exists, so why should I? But he does offer up T. Jefferson Kline’s reading of the story as a version of the Orpheus myth, though he’s a bit dismissive of the book it comes from, Bertolucci’s Dream Loom: A psychoanalytic study of cinema, which he calls “convoluted.” This idea does open up interesting possibilities, and if Paul is Orpheus (his bongos tying in with both the Greek’s lyre and Brando’s own musical proclivities) then I may have figured out why the empty apartment is on Rue Jules Verne, which has puzzled critics including Thompson. The association with science fiction, adventure, exploration and impossible voyages seems vague and unhelpful, but if the specific reference is Journey to the Centre of the Earth, then a ready connection to Orpheus in the Underworld may be drawn.

Bertolucci may have been hopelessly optimistic in assuming anyone in the audience would make this leap, but it’s better for this kind of reference to be obscure, provoking thought, rather than obvious, provoking smugness. Now excuse me while I go off and feel smug.