Archive for Benny Goodman

Young Men with Horns

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2019 by dcairns

I picked up THE BENNY GOODMAN STORY from a charity shop on a whim, not knowing anything about it. The DVD didn’t say who the director was, though I kind of doubted it was going to turn out to be Luchino Visconti.

In fact, it was a person called Valentine Davies, who never directed anything else. He did originate the story of MIRACLE ON 34TH ST, though, as well as working on scripts for SYNCOPATION, THE GLENN MILLER STORY and others. Well, what the hell, I got lucky with BOY SLAVES, also from a one-off feature helmer (PJ Wolfe). Thus, while the Blu-ray of ROME, OPEN CITY languishes unviewed in a drawer, I popped this second-rate biopic into the Panasonic so I could enjoy Steve Allen pretending to play clarinet.

It turned out that Valentine Davies was labouring under twin disadvantages. Firstly, nothing interesting ever happened to Benny Goodman, or at least nothing Davies could put in a film. He didn’t even fly off in a thick fog: worse, he was still around as the film was made, the last thing you want for a biopic. (Note: this is pronounced “bio-pic.” Don’t say it to rhyme with “topic” — it’s evil.)

From Wikipedia: According to Jazz by Ken Burns, when someone asked him why he “played with that nigger” (referring to Teddy Wilson), Goodman replied, “I’ll knock you out if you use that word around me again”.

I’d really like to have seen Steve Allen say that line. He does actually have reasonably good tough-guy delivery in the few moments he’s called upon to be firm. But obviously Universal didn’t want to go there, so we have some nice examples of Goodman interacting with black musicians in a positive way, but no instance of him making an actual stand.

Valentine Davies’ second handicap was, he had no talent. Not as director, anyway. Right at the start of the film he gives us a bonafide camera angle, but that must have made him nervous because he never tries it again. Nor does he move the camera. Anyone who can leave the thing sitting rigid on sticks while Sing, Sing, Sing plays at Carnegie Hall has no cinematic feeling whatever.

Whatever filmic virtues the piece might conceivably have are hampered by the DVD being in the wrong aspect ratio. All the compositions looked, cramped, choppy and ugly, and I eventually realised it had been framed for 1:1.85 but my disc was 1:1.33. Universal generally masked off their 35mm frame to create a cheap widescreen effect, but protected themselves for TV by making sure their shots still worked with the extra space at top and bottom. I tried resetting my TV to 1:1.66, thinking this might give me a better sense of the Valentine Davies cinematic experience.

It didn’t really help much.

For all I know, I was watching a 1:1.66 chopped-down framing of a 1.1.33 chopped down framing of a 1:1.85 chopped down framing of the original 1:1.33 negative, but if so the original must have been like watching Goodman from the back row at Carnegie Hall.

Incidentally, I reckon Goodman’s celebrated 1937 concert at that venue must have inspired the fictitious protagonist’s climactic gig in ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND, released the following year. Clearly, if only Donna Reed had had John Carradine to drive her, she wouldn’t have been late for the gig.

Best thing I can say for this one is that Allen makes a very good Goodman lookalike, and Barry Truex, son of Ernest, playing Goodman as a boy, makes a very very good Goodman lookalike lookalike.

I turned to YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN, no doubt unconsciously looking for a more cinema-savvy version of the same kind of thing. Of course, Michael Curtiz provided what I sought. Though the film, based on a novel based in turn on the life of Bix Beiderbecke (with whom Goodman played), doesn’t quite have a real story as such, and the happy ending feels very artificial — you can practically see the tacks holding it on — it’s bursting with meaty scenes and star perfs, the framing is beautiful, and Curtiz glides his camera to the music to evoke jazz rapture.

Damn good role for Juano Hernandez, too.

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Old School

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2012 by dcairns

When John Waters appeared at Edinburgh Film Fest to talk about his career and his monologue-movie THIS FILTHY WORLD, he spoke of the tragedy of Divine’s passing — not only did his star miss out on the success of HAIRSPRAY, but his death cast a pall over the film. “Who would say ‘Let’s go see that comedy starring that guy who just died?'” he asked, rhetorically. This didn’t stop a drunken female fan in the audience from bellowing “I would!” Waters, who is a real gent, which one might not guess from some of his movies, looked slightly pained, and answered, with great restraint, “Yes, but you know what I mean.”

Well, I’d been meaning to revisit THEY ALL LAUGHED, and Ben Gazzara’s passing seemed as good a reason as any. Fiona had never seen it. While not having Gazzara around any more is a cause for sadness, in a way it was good to see the film with a slightly different pall over it than the usual one, which is of course due to the presence of Dorothy Stratton, murdered before the film came out. And it’s hard to separate that tragedy from the movie’s history. When the distributors decided to write the film off, Bogdanovich bought it back from them and distributed it himself, which bankrupted him.

So the movie has baggage — it also has John Ritter, who died much too soon, and a lingering view of the twin towers during the opening credits. A pretty heavy load for a movie to bear when it’s trying to coast along on charm.

Because there’s virtually no plot, something which perplexed me when I saw it as a kid (it was one of the few movies our local VHS/Betamax rental place had in stock). I got the distinct impression I was missing something — a bunch of characters are set in motion for obscure reasons, move around Manhattan, get up to mysterious stuff, switch partners, fall in love, and then it’s over. I grasped that some of the men were private eyes, and I grasped who they were following — Audrey Hepburn and Dorothy Stratton — but since the husband-clients who engaged the ‘tecs spend most of their time offscreen, and are virtually never seen conferring with their hired snoopers, I had little idea why anything was happening. It’s like Truffaut says to Hitchcock, whenever A & B are discussing an absent C, the audience scratches their scalps and wonders who the hell C is.

On top of the puzzlement, there’s an almost total lack of dramatic tension, a necessary ingredient in farce and screwball, I’d have thought. Some of the slackness comes from our not being sure what’s afoot, some of it from a genuine sense of there being nothing at stake. The characters deal with romance in such an easy-going manner — the film takes it as read that everybody is unfaithful to everybody else, and nobody seems to mind except a couple of unsympathetic husbands — that it’s hard to get engaged with the entanglements of the lead characters.

Yes, characterS — the hero role is split between Gazzara and Ritter. BG brings movie-star manliness and dignity to a bed-hopping character who arguably lacks dignity in some key ways, while Ritter, as absolutely everybody has pointed out, is playing Bogdanovich, down to the blazer and big plastic specs. His impersonation is so good he illuminates the ways in which Ryan O’Neal before him had channelled the Bogdanovich persona. But O’Neal’s own, more muscular personality still came through, whereas Ritter is subsumed.

The other cast member who suffers is Colleen Camp, who most people seem to find annoying in this. I think the problem is that she’s been drilled in the mannerisms of Madeleine Kahn in WHAT’S UP, DOC? (herself modeled on the henpecker in BRINGING UP BABY), and it’s too one-note, especially as the character has more screen time and seems intended to be at least somewhat appealing.

BUT — there are compensations for all of the above, even for those who don’t like country music (yes, it’s set in New York and has a largely country music soundtrack, with a splash of Sinatra and Benny Goodman). Bogdanovich’s conceit of transposing screwball style onto a 1981 location-shot New York movie is, in itself, quite charming. Patti Hansen (now Mrs Keith Richards) is a sensational discovery (rather eclipsing Stratton) as the lady cab driver who casually flirts with Gazzara. She’s got cute freckles and an unselfconscious manner which suggests she doesn’t quite know what she’s doing but trusts it all to work out.

There’s a very young Elizabeth Pena!

Bogdanovich’s daughters play Gazzara’s daughters, and are terrific — everybody’s got the Bogdanovich 40s timing down pat.

Audrey Hepburn has too little to do — it’s an odd romantic comedy which spends most of its time stalking — but when she finally gets a line or two, the film gains emotion. But it’s weird, with one character getting divorced, how Hepburn never seems to consider ditching her fat-cat hubbie for new love Ben. Hard to feel heartbroken for her. Maybe she’s afraid she’d lose custody of her kid, but if so, that’s a dramatic point which the film ought to bring out. It’s as if PB is so intent on keeping things light, he forgot to charge the story’s batteries with some actual motivating power.

To be honest, skipping through the director’s filmography, it’s a problem I tend to find in his original screenplays. Where the source material provides an edge, you get THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. Where he has to engage with the dynamics of the thriller, as in TARGETS, it’s rather electrifying, in part because of his discomfort with the nastier qualities of the genre (and his story collaborator, Polly Platt, was a good influence). But Bogdanovich on his own wrote AT LONG LAST LOVE — not as awful as its reputation suggests, but singularly lacking in forward momentum.

The movies Bogdanovich admires usually only seem to coast along. While I admit I can’t remember a thing about the storyline of TOP HAT, I do recall that THE GAY DIVORCEE sets up narrative expectations early on and even delivers a superb plot twist. And Hawks’ disparagement of plot should never be taken at face value — his characters nearly always have goals.

In the end, THEY ALL LAUGHED is pretty enjoyable — we didn’t know precisely why we were watching, but we never felt like switching off. And the film would appear to be seriously overlong, at nearly two hours, but survives. I can’t resent its formlessness too much — the plots of Bogdanovich’s best films, which are seriously good (PAPER MOON was my first exposure to The New Hollywood, and I still love it) always threaten to disintegrate, and hang together against the odds. So one should allow him the odd film which doesn’t quite make it to the finish line intact. The sad thing about his career is that Hollywood, or the public, or fate, did not allow him these “failures”.

Ants In Your Plants

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 4, 2010 by dcairns

THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1937 is one of those uneven-by-design revue movies — with minimal plot and mismatched stars — of which poor Mitchell Leisen handled several. MURDER AT THE VANITIES is a kind of demented masterpiece, and there are definitely high spots amid the floating debris of THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938, including a touching rendition of “Thanks for the Memories,” (featuring Bob Hope, not usually Mr. Sentiment), a slapstick dance number by Martha Raye, and various comedic stylings by WC Fields, who plays pool and steps on a fellow human being’s head, but TBBO37 is lumbered by a script which unites disjointedness with witlessness, although there’s one good line: “Talking to her is like shaking hands with an empty glove.”

The empty glove is Gracie Allen, for whose comedy I’ve always had something of a blind spot. Her characterisation of kooky idiot-woman who gets everything wrong seems somehow… lacking in nuance. George Burns as a younger man just doesn’t make any sense to me. And he seems like a thug. Actually, all the men in this movie are louts, from venal agent Ray Milland (a Leisen favourite, which sometimes seems reasonable and sometimes, like here, inexplicable), snide radio producer Jack Benny, and egotistical singer Frank Forest.

Forest at least gets a good musical number, allowing Leisen to indulge his enthusiasm for mood lighting and all things South of the Border. He’s not the most coherent dance director, tending to pile together overlapping layers of dancers, all doing different things, the ones in the foreground too close to comfortably follow with the eye or the camera, but the designs and compositions here are sumptuous kitsch.

In fact, it’s best to ignore the slender plot and the weak comedy and savour the guest numbers — Benny Goodman and his band get a zippy number with animated wipes that dance to the music, while Leopold Stokowski and his band receive more solemn treatment, with Leisen lighting the conductor like Franchot Tone in PHANTOM LADY, all looming hands.

Leisen’s cameraman is Theodor “Mr Sparkle” Sparkuhl, and the two together create some marvelous effects, whenever there’s no plot or acting to get in the way. And Leisen contrives a walk-on, as Arkansan comedy turn Bob Burns hunts for Stokowski to demonstrate his musical bazooka (don’t ask). “Did you ever -” he begins to asks the brisk director. “Sure, lots of times,” snaps Leisen, and is off.

Here’s more musical malarkey to give you an idea of the skills Leisen brings to this somewhat unpromising material —