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Movie Star Popularity: measuring it

In celebrity, film, history on January 31, 2015 at 7:23 am

When movie stars were new as a phenomenon a hundred years or so ago, chosen by floods of movie patrons going specially to see them, fan magazines that had just started up as a way of telling romantic stories (true or false) about the public’s favorite “players” on film began trying to assess their relative popularity. Most favored across Europe were generally versatile character actors like

Asta Nielsen

Asta Nielsen

Asta Nielsen and Valdemar Psilander, both at the Nordisk studio of Denmark, ditto Ivan Mozhukhin (Mosjoukine) of Russia; and comedians Andre Deed and Max Linder of France.
Max Linder

Max Linder

Hence, art cinema. In America, stars were generally those who played similar characters every time so that winningly sweet Mabel Normand in Keystone comedies was tops, and girl-with-the-curls Mary Pickford would soon become “America’s Sweetheart” championing her country’s entry into World War I. Heroic figure Francis X. Bushman was an early male megastar, joined by bouncy man-about-town Douglas Fairbanks.

By 1913-14 Motion Picture magazine had instituted a poll of its readers, hundreds of thousands of whom replied over a period of many months to the question: “Who is your favorite motion picture star?” These early annual polls were probably the most legitimate ever measurement of actual personal popularity of a star during a particular year. But in the late 1920s and 1930s bids for a more comprehensive polling method were made by a number of movie trade publications, most prominently Quigley’s Motion Picture Herald and its closest rival, Box Office magazine, held by some commentators to be more authoritative. (I will refer to the annual MPH poll here, since its box-office surveys were underway by 1930, the first full year of talkies, so fully covering the classic period I am most interested in. The Quigley company continued its poll in some form well into the 1990s. Its successor, the Fame poll, has recently featured a supposed top 10 box-office draws of whom four I have not heard and another three or four I wouldn’t recognise in the street.) These entailed asking twelve to fifteen thousand of the twenty thousand exhibitors in the USA: “Who were the ten stars that drew most people into your theatre(s)?”

The assessed year was from 1st September through to 31st August and a star who had three to five releases in that time (say singing cowboy Gene Autry or child star Shirley Temple) had a much better chance of rating high in this supposedly “scientific” survey than a Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich or Mae West rationed to one project a year. At a time when movies were made much more often as a “vehicle” around the star’s talents, with singers and dancers prominent, this was probably still a much better indication of personal popularity than today, when special effects, art work, theme, stunt technicians and pyrotechnics are much more likely to be the real attraction for an audience than the nominal star (such special performers as Meryl Streep and Daniel Day Lewis and few others aside). Stars then were held to be largely responsible for the success or otherwise of a movie release and a Johnny Depp and any number of others who today can have four or five flops in a row to their name with few or no repercussions to their career would no longer be stars — long out of a contract at a big studio and on the skids from smaller to smaller production outfits.

The MPH through its Almanac each year published a numbered order of stars down to twenty-five (usually edited fast to a top ten by newspapers) and then unnumbered layers of stars and featured players down in the hundreds who might only attract fans in a certain part of the country or for a particular fetish — but got a vote from someone. It is hard to believe such cultivated tastes as withered upper-crust English gentleman George Arliss, specialising in biopics of Disraeli, Rothschild, Voltaire and the Duke of Wellington would enjoy a broad leverage with audiences today. Yet, he was a fixture in Hollywood for over twenty years, listed in that top 25 until 1934. Similarly, rural-style comics Will Rogers, Joe E. Brown and Bob Burns who rated even higher through the mid thirties. It must be noted that the box-office champion team of butt-ugly and aged Marie Dressler & Wallace Beery (later echoed by Marjorie Main & Percy Kilbride) lifted more hearts through the Great Depression than there have been faces lifted in the whole history of moviedom. This is a moral impossibility today, the age of deliberately superficial, skin-deep “beauty”.

The public has long lived with these skewed assessments of popularity. Deanna Durbin, Betty Hutton, Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas, who all starred as the central figures of some of the biggest box-office successes of the classic era, never climbed as high as the top 10 for any year. This, while other performers who seemed like no more than part of the ensemble cast (even part of the furniture in comparison), scored effortlessly. And in contrast to the phenomenal exceptions of Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe who were able to repeatedly (but not over-frequently) penetrate the top 10 stars list while averaging just one movie a year through their heyday decades, a quick tally of some names of all-time megastars who not once made even the top 25 is impressive: Ronald Colman, Charles Laughton, Charles Boyer, Carole Lombard, David Niven, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Lauren Bacall, Gene Kelly, Richard Widmark, Judy Holliday, Anthony Quinn.

Gene Kelly: not as dainty but more versatile than Fred Astaire.

Gene Kelly: not as dainty but more versatile than Fred Astaire.

And this in the face of some unlikely “stars” who did: the gurgling Dionne Quintuplets, Dane Clark, Barry Fitzgerald, Larry Parks, Francis the Talking Mule, Ernest Borgnine, Sandy Dennis. And more all-time performers — all major stars for a quarter century or more — struggled to make the lower rungs of said twenty-five a select few times: Edward G. Robinson (two), Barbara Stanwyck (three), Loretta Young (two), Jean Arthur (one), Katharine Hepburn (four), Olivia De Havilland (two), Henry Fonda (three), Joseph Cotten (one), Lana Turner (three), Rita Hayworth (five), Danny Kaye (one), Ava Gardner (three), Robert Mitchum (three), Audrey Hepburn (four).

In defining a star’s career, his “popularity” can be spun to suit the writer’s intention. Commentators have forever called Gary Cooper an “instant star” at age 24 when he appeared in The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), which actually starred Ronald Colman, Cooper some way down the cast. His position was said to have been bolstered the following year in the William Wellman blockbuster Wings, placing him at a creditable 17th top male in the Quigley box-office survey; further when it was released with sound effects another two years on; still, he was third male “lead” in this aviation saga. By the time of the prestigious A Farewell to Arms (1932) from Hemingway, directed by style master Frank Borzage, Cooper was nominally top banana on screen, admittedly opposite the Oscar-winning performance of Helen Hayes and with stalwart Adolphe Menjou lending panache in strong support. Through this era Cooper’s career was boosted by voluminous press publicity detailing his affairs with a string of glamorous women from spitfire actress Lupe Velez to the Countess Di Frasso. He was enthroned by Paramount in the choice roles of the day, as an adventurer opposite Marlene Dietrich, hottest female in Hollywood (Morocco); City Streets directed by ace Rouben Mamoulian and surrounded by Sylvia Sidney and Paul Lukas; The Devil and the Deep, Charles Laughton, Cary Grant, Tallulah Bankhead; If I Had a Million, Laughton, W. C. Fields, directed by Lubitsch; and super-sophisticated Today We Live from Faulkner, surrounding Joan Crawford rivalled by Robert Young and Franchot Tone, under Howard Hawks, and Design for Living from Noel Coward via Ben Hecht, under Lubitsch again. And again Cooper was one of no less than three stars. He made no progress in his power to draw customers to theatres as reported by pollsters until 1935-36 when cast as the all-American good guy with impeccable morals and manners in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and Mr Deeds Goes to Town. He bobbled between 9th and 11th place (including both sexes) for three years before resting for two years near the bottom of top 20. Cooper was 40 before he started his residency near the very top of polls (1941), though never overtaking Clark Gable until the latter went off to war (1943). Through the war years he was not bothered either by competition from Robert Taylor, Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda or James Stewart, all off doing service; and was still shaded in polls by Bing Crosby and Abbott & Costello, and then by Van Johnson, Ingrid Bergman and Betty Grable as a new generation ushered in. For several years in the late forties he lay 4th in overall popularity behind a combination of those stars mentioned. Then in 1949 he was overtaken by John Wayne, only for Cooper to bounce back as runner-up in 1952 and box-office champ the next year for his one and only time as el supremo. From there he dropped a couple of spots each year and made his last appearance in the top 20 in 1959, within two years of his death (of cancer). It was the era of almost interchangeable western roles between Wayne, Cooper, James Stewart and the returned Clark Gable, and even so limited a screen presence as Randolph Scott, emulating Cooper, was able to overtake his model template in Quigley’s list of the top 10 stars for the first two years of the 1950s.

In contrast to Cooper, both John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart have been used as prime examples of those actors said to have suffered long, torturous routes to superstardom. Yet, at age 41 and 42 respectively they were undoubted superstars in the public estimation backed up by box-office receipts. And it was a status gained without the preceding 15 years of ballyhooed build-up that Cooper received. Wayne had made quite an impressive showing as sole star in The Big Trail (1930) at age 22, but which unaccountably turned out a flop. He was instantly dropped by Fox, and was 31 before given another real chance at the big time. He was a success in Stagecoach (1939) but United Artists (unlike Cooper’s Paramount) had not the resources to make a star, and Wayne again was forced a step back under the shared aegis of Republic and RKO. Though funded sufficiently to star occasionally with good leading ladies like Marlene Dietrich (at her nadir), Claire Trevor and Martha Scott, it was one-off loanouts to Cecil B. DeMille for Reap the Wild Wind (1942) and to MGM for John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945) that got him seriously noticed — and he garnered a mention at 24th (16th top male) in Quigley’s uppercrust of stars. Though this was not quite the status Cooper had reached at age 37 it was way over the odds considering the lack of external resources lent to Wayne’s career.

Like Cooper, Wayne had stayed at home for the war, making hay while a flotilla of Hollywood stars risked everything to safeguard the future of the world. Bogart, little more than a year older than Cooper and Clark Gable, was technically overage like them but might have forced his way into war service as Gable had. (Maybe not incidentally, Gable was the only one of these superstars instantly recognised by the public as such, so striking a presence on screen he featured near the top of popularity polls within a year of first appearing.) Bogart was the only one of these not to be considered for leading roles from the outset. Any number of factors might have entered this collective decision, not least his renowned uncooperativeness with bosses from the Warner brothers down, though not the obvious ones that might first come to mind: Bogart being six to eight inches shorter than Cooper and Wayne, the even more severely vertically challenged and/or pug-ugly Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and George Raft hadn’t found this a bar to lead roles and almost instant screen stardom as similar gangster/hard-boiled characters. First on screen at 30, first noticed at 36 for his menacing Duke Mantee on stage and screen in The Petrified Forest (1936), Bogart was restricted to supporting roles in A’s or lead roles in B’s until the new year of 1941 on release of High Sierra. Nominally second billed to long-established and luscious Ida Lupino, this Raoul Walsh classic written by John Huston rode on his shoulders alone, and it was a matter of months before his similarly dominating performance in The Maltese Falcon under Huston confirmed his superstardom, cemented by Casablanca (Michael Curtiz) the next year. All in the opportunity — those turned down by Raft.

“ROCK MUSIC EBOOK 2013 — SIXTIES WHITEBOY ROCK (Part 2): Beach Boys, Jersey Boys & Beatledom” by G. A. De Forest

In art, celebrity, generational/fashion, music on July 30, 2013 at 8:44 pm

Buy this ebook from Amazon for $9.99 (or borrow it for two weeks for a lot less) — or face the consequences. These include staying ignorant of the real facts of the Sixties music scene, a subject, though a half-century out of date, remains dear to the hearts of all right-thinking people around the world. Rock stars to this day are strongly influenced, “sample” and downright copy sounds from this era. But they do this at their peril because no way can they recapture the excitement and spirit of that music and time — set in context as it is here in this book.

The direct link to the book is: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DQFWEJQ

It is about 60,000 words and has some 60 photos of top attractions of the day — so Bon voyage!

Don’t be the only loser on your block!

UGGOS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!: You have nothing to lose but your body image

In celebrity, film, Humor, music, television on November 15, 2012 at 7:46 am

This post is dedicated to the Susan Boyles of the world, and that big fat guy that Simon Cowell also ridiculed until he opened his mouth — then Cowell’s eyes sparkled with dollar signs; the Roy Orbisons, the Ernie Borgnines, Lee Marvins, Pat Hingles, Dennis Franzes, Charles Laughtons, Ed Begleys, Broderick Crawfords, Edward G Robinsons, Van Heflins, William Conrads, Linda Hunts, Kathy Bateses, Daniel Benzalis…

Even Rod Steiger, who was basically a good-looking guy but was told by a Hollywood producer, “Lose 40 pounds and I’ll make you a star.” Well, he made it anyway.

To Alan Ladd, a head shorter than the usual screen hunk, who was told by the director when playing a love scene in Boy on a Dolphin with Sophia Loren, “Ooh, that bruising’s terrible. Here, stand on this box and you won’t be bombarded in the face.”

To Phyllis Diller, who listened to some schmuck who said, “Hey, just get some plastic surgery and you’ll be cute” — and was never heard from again.

To Clark Gable, who pulled through as the hunk among a thousand babes at MGM, where he was at first dismissed with, “He’ll never amount to anything with those sugarbowl ears.”

To Fred Astaire, a human stick insect who made Jiminy Cricket look handsome, and went down in history as the screen’s most graceful male dancer.

To Judy Garland, ridiculed for a face that was anything but chocolate-box standard and a tendency to retain baby fat, and turned out to have more talent than any of them.

To Liza Minnelli, handicapped by being the daughter of Judy Garland mated with gifted but skunk-faced director Vincent Minnelli, and still made a worthwhile career.

To all the beautiful young women, fashion models, who were told by flamboyant men in charge who can’t appreciate their womanly curves, “Just a few more pounds, ducks” — and became junkies and/or died for it.

To those pretty boys Robert Taylor, Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power, who ignored or made little of their own incredible good looks to prove they had talent.

To Michael Jackson who swallowed all the hype about Aryan looks and paid the ultimate price for it.

And to Marilyn Monroe, one of the most vibrant screen presences ever, who to win conventional stardom submitted to casting couches, nose job, chin implant… so life would be perfect.

Special mention must be made of the stars of British television, who can look like the hind quarters of a British bulldog and still win romantic leading roles on the small screen. Just two of the most popular: David Jason, all 5ft-5 of him, bug-eyed, bulbous-nosed, all set off by a David Lloyd George haircut and Sydney spiv hat — and as Detective Inspector Jack Frost of the Denton police, Thames Valley, harassed by multiple lovers from one series to the next. Hugely popular for forty years, he was most believable as comedic secret agent in the slapstick title role of The Top Secret Life of Edgar Briggs; less as a serious detective still pulling slapstick turns. And Zoe Wanamaker, very successful in the romantic stakes on tv though seemingly hampered by her father Sam’s oversized upturned nose and lacking her father’s large soulful eyes. Congratulations also to Jack Shepherd (Superintendent Wycliffe), overcoming his anteater nose, Kevin Whately (Inspector Lewis), ageing to look like Stan Laurel, Warren Clarke (Dalziel), bulldog by nature and visage, and innumerable other English and Scottish detectives blessed with characterful looks.

Merit Awards for Uggos in American film genres: general purpose misfits Boris Karloff, Raymond Massey, Sam Jaffe, James Whitmore; Eli Wallach, Jack Elam, Neville Brand, Bruce Dern, Warren Oates, Strother Martin, L. Q. Jones for bushwhackers and trail scum; so-ugly-they’re-a-thing-of-beauty Lee Marvin, James Coburn, Lee Van Cleef; hoodwinkers, desert rats and down-and-out gentlemen Charles Coburn, Sydney Greenstreet, Fredric March, Dan Duryea, Albert Dekker, Ralph Bellamy and Edmond O’Brien.

MOVIE LEGENDS — THE THREE GREAT BITCHES (of the screen): Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis

In celebrity, film on November 4, 2012 at 11:55 pm

Joan_Crawford_in_Rain_4Yes, they were complete, consummate actresses and had other strings to their bows, well able in the same scene, even the same line, to switch to sympathetic — though, significantly, none of the three could play out-and-out comedy convincingly. But these three icons of the big screen through the Thirties, Forties, Fifties and into the Sixties will always be remembered for their “strong women” roles and as bitches par excellence. All had eyes that could kill with a glance, their mouths set perpetually (and looking sexiest) between a sneer and a snarl, and the square-shouldered, intimidating bearing that might make large men wither and admit defeat. Their star careers were long — very, very long for those days when a woman both talented and glamorous might not last more than five years or so at peak popularity: Alla Nazimova, Pola Negri, Barbara LaMarr, Dolores Del Rio, Fay Wray, Constance Bennett, Ann Harding, Ruth Chatterton, Sylvia Sidney, Jean Harlow, Kay Francis, Elissa Landi, Mae West, Jeanette MacDonald, Alice Faye, Veronica Lake, Linda Darnell. Each of the three went on in lead roles for 40 years or more before stepping down to semi-retirement. And their ever-presence on the screen belittled the moderate impact of all the politically correct, thoroughly civilised posing of “emancipated women” Katharine Hepburn, Myrna Loy and Rosalind Russell, who in comparison looked like tame graduates from an assertiveness course and might feel faint, definitely repulsed, at the mention or even thought of visceral emotions and impetuous behavior.

Of course the epithet “bitch” was assumed by many to translate to offscreen character too. Bette, demanding quality from all around her, ruffled more than a few tradesmen’s feathers on Hollywood film sets. But she would hardly have lasted her 17 years at the Warner studio (and been forgiven so many times by the Warner brothers) had she been the tyro many claimed. Many friends and coworkers balance out the claims Joan’s adopted daughter made about her tyrannical nature in Mommie Dearest. She was certainly professional and exacting, but most demanding of herself and the most devoted to her fans, answering all her mail personally or putting that touch to replies from secretaries she hired when the going got heavy — thousands of letters a month. But she was not openly rebellious, accepting the fact that though she might be at times the most popular female star in America, at her home studio for more than 15 years, MGM, she sat third in favoritism with no powerful exec to champion her interests. There were enough good roles to go around. Of the three jungle fighters, Barbara was the only one with the guts to freelance outside the shelter of a big home studio where work and good publicity were guaranteed. So she was actually absolutely unique in Hollywood — with not a single peer — among top or even medium stars, men and women, who all chose safety. Showing an uncanny confidence and business sense of her own commercial worth, she started in lead roles at Columbia at 21 (in 1929), and soon shared herself with Warners fifty-fifty. By the end of the Thirties she had worked at RKO, Fox, Paramount, MGM and United Artists too: all five major studios in the movie business and the two almost-majors. (Universal, the only other Hollywood production company occasionally aspiring to bigger things, was then almost of no account. Stanwyck dipped her toe in the water there in 1943 for a half-hour episode of Flesh and Fantasy, for which Universal stretched itself, the probable attraction being similarly imported leading man Charles Boyer.) She was equalled only by swearing-like-a-trooper Carole Lombard by coworkers in her down-to-earth reputation as a “regular guy”: uncoincidentally, another major star who got there by solid professionalism, consistent high craftsmanship and well-applied talent, not box-office hots.

Joan Crawford was the first to arrive, a leggy brunette — the tallest of the three at 5ft-3 and a half (sic) — by 1928, three years into her contract at MGM, a superstar at 24. In some of the last silent blockbuster spectacles she played an uncontrollable “flapper”, “jazz baby” and perpetual-motion dancer. When Joan was named the no.1 US box-office star of 1930, male or female — but on a factory treadmill and bringing in just $1,000 a week at the same studio that was paying Greta Garbo $250,000 per movie per year — blonde Barbara was starting in mature leading roles. Stanwyck worked hard freelancing — four starring roles a year at $50,000 a pop. This was a top fee for the day — the same that Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert earned for all-time Oscar-hauler It Happened One Night (1934), and double what Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland would each get for the marathon Gone With the Wind (1939) production. Only Garbo and Dietrich negotiated much more than this per film in the early Thirties, on special deals to keep them in Hollywood and away from Europe where they were supremely popular (and Mae West, also rationed to one movie a year). Stanwyck fast earned a reputation with respectful film crews for cussing with the best on set, and as an actress in early talkies Barbara was rated among the top five women in Hollywood — “never brilliant and never lousy”, and never coming to rate in overwhelming box-office drawing power with Joan and Bette. At 29, as Stella Dallas, 1937, she would play a frumpy mother with a marriageable daughter — a gutsy move for the image-conscious Hollywood of the day. Bette showed up from Broadway, arriving with her mother on the train (a four-day transcontinental journey), Xmas 1930, and at first contracted to Universal was soon an impressive lead. BetteDavis1932In a year, requested by veteran English star George Arliss as his leading lady at Warners, Bette’s name was made. But she still had a long row to hoe to get her home studio to give her the roles worthy of her immense talent — called the greatest ever actress in any medium by so many of her peers.

From there, in Quigley’s 1931 roundup of box-office attractions in the US, in a top 10 dominated by seven women Joan came behind only sweet-girl-next-door Janet Gaynor, and ahead of Norma Shearer, Marie Dressler, Clara Bow, Colleen Moore and Greta Garbo. The next year Dressler moved up and Joan was still third overall. Subsequently, she was sixth of the women in 1933; then regained third spot behind Gaynor and blowzy sexpot Mae West; and finally for the next two years was top woman (disregarding poppet Shirley temple unbeatable at no.1 overall). Though Joan played the prostitute central character in Somerset Maugham’s Rain (1932) — see first photo at top left — tempting too-upright man of the cloth Walter Huston, and Barbara had occupied the skins of many questionable types too, maybe fiery redhead Bette was first to play the out-and-out vixen type with a vengeance in Cabin in the Cotton and the following year on loan to RKO, Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1934), as an ultimately conniving guttersnipe tormenting nice, desperate Leslie Howard, an over-accommodating artist made insecure by his club foot and settling as her human doormat. That was her Oscar role but she won it instead for Dangerous the year after as consolation: an alcoholic actress making amends to Franchot Tone. A good production of The Petrified Forest starting 1936, again with Leslie Howard facing Bogie this time, was an isolated event in a series of nothing roles as in Parachute Jumper, a distasteful memory she took to the grave with her 50 years later. She refused assignment after crummy assignment, eventually passed on to the Joan Blondells, Glenda Farrells or Lane sisters who usually made something attractive out of these lower-budget projects. Jack Warner put her on suspension without pay and she escaped to England. There, studio boss Jack Warner defeated her in court and restarted her $650-a-week wage — hardly more than 14-year-old Bonita Granville, the studio’s girl detective in the Nancy Drew series; about one sixth of what less-accomplished Loretta Young was getting at Fox. Marked Woman released in spring 1937, playing a razor-slashed prostitute testifying against her kid sister’s gangster murderer, set her roles on an upward climb. Still, she was lucky to survive in the business climate of Warners during the Depression, production budgets being so constricted that the same kind of glossy sophistication attained by MGM, Paramount, even RKO (and both the last two studios had been forced into receivership for a time), wasn’t possible and prestigious stars whose forte was high class settings were let go in accordance with the policy of financial boss Harry Warner in New York: first Constance Bennett (paid an eye-watering $30,000 a week by Warners for two films early in the decade), then Ruth Chatterton (the “Queen of the Warner Bros lot” when Bette first arrived in 1931), then classy soap queen Kay Francis, still retaining impressive top 40 popularity unlike the first two, in 1937.

Joan Crawford is unique in moviedom — a one-off — at the forefront in pictures through three contrasting periods of history. In the Twenties she appealed as the party girl in carefree times; in the Thirties she defied the Great Depression and women fans loved to see her suffering in mink and pretended that she was, after all, one of us; and through and post-war she was the independent woman more than pulling her weight in factory jobs and wiping that lock of hair off her face to look pretty enough for her man. But in the meantime Joan was missing out on plum roles too, with Norma Shearer, the late boss’s wife, ahead of her in the pecking order at MGM, then Garbo. She got some good roles opposite (and had a fling with) Clark Gable, and married lower-case star Franchot Tone, who after a few years got sick of being referred to after the main event — as Mr Joan Crawford. She slipped out of the coveted box-office top 10, and quickly settled into the bottom half of the top 50 — not as far as her competitors Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn had dropped (both of whom, to their credit, would also revive to reinvent themselves by changing studio). The pressure was on Joan to deliver on a salary of $400,000 p.a. in 1937, one of the highest in Hollywood and now for just two movies a year. It was only in the early Forties when both Shearer and Garbo retired and the roles didn’t get any better — supplanted as she was now by Greer Garson, Hedy Lamarr and Lana Turner — that she elected to leave for Columbia to reestablish herself on a fraction of her previous fee. Then in 1944, turning 40, Joan Crawford was snapped up by Warners, amazingly back in the majors at an age when prettier and arguably more talented actresses were out the back door. Bette Davis was queen here at “the studio of working stiffs” where talent and not looks was king, and had long since overtaken Joan through a long series of classic roles 1938-44: Jezebel and Dark Victory to Queen Elizabeth I, at 30 ingeniously playing Old Queen Bess — see photo;Bette_Davis_in_The_Private_Lives_of_Elizabeth_and_Essex_trailer_cropped The Letter, as a prize bitch who murders her lover at the cost of another indulgent husband, Herbert Marshall; The Great Lie, a brilliant collaboration with Mary Astor; The Little Foxes, one of several women’s masterpieces — Herbert was her victim again — under director William Wyler (with whom she had more than a fling); then Now Voyager as an uggo-turned-swan still finding her wings, romanced by Paul Henreid; Watch on the Rhine surrounded by Nazi fifth columnists in wartime USA, with Paul Lukas as the European Resistance organiser (that Henreid was in Casablanca) and villainous George Coulouris; Old Acquaintance, with old, detested acquaintance Miriam Hopkins — Bette said she was the “most thoroughgoing bitch” offscreen since sweet Nancy Carroll; and taking Mr Skeffington (Claude Rains) for granted in favor of shinier wooers. She had just turned 36 and had done it all. There was no one to match her versatility, influence on acting style and sheer domination of the screen until Brando in the Fifties. Never absolute tops at the box-office as Joan Crawford had been a decade earlier, Bette was nonetheless top woman in a male-dominated top 10 from 1939 to 1941 inclusive. In 1942, the USA’s first year in the war, she was overtaken as a movie screen attraction by GI pin-up material Betty Grable and Dorothy Lamour; Ann Sheridan hard on her heels, with Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner making their plays too. Alice Faye was making a comeback, and voluptuous blonde Betty Hutton just emerging. There was only English rose Greer Garson anywhere near even aspiring to her league in the serious acting stakes, and vastly to her credit against the odds Bette hung on until finally dropping out of the box-office top 15 (counting men and women) — fourth among women — two years after the war ended.

Through the latter Forties, “Crawford vs Davis” was embedded in popular culture as the rivalry of two great tragediennes, not least by Warner Bros’ own caricatures of them going head to head in Looneytunes animated shorts that also popularized the images of their top urban tough guys, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Bogie. A director who knew both women well on and off screen contrasted them accurately while linking them at the same time, characterizing Crawford as down-to-earth offscreen and taking on the diva as an acting persona, conscious of her looks and flattering camera angles, and Davis as the starrish diva offscreen and sacrificing all glamor for the realistic portrayal onscreen.

Some of Barbara’s best-regarded movies came in a rush, high comedy, three of them in 1941 alone: The Lady Eve with Henry Fonda under mercurial writer-director Preston Sturges at Paramount; Meet John Doe, one of Frank Capra’s one-man-and-his-girl-against-the-world efforts (Warners); and Ball of Fire, again with Gary Cooper, this time at Goldwyn studios. In these sophisticated comedies Stanwyck did pretty well but tended to look like a fill-in for someone who wasn’t available, Jean Arthur or Carole Lombard being the ideal; Rosalind Russell or Myrna Loy in a pinch. No way could Barbara approach the touching performances of highly sensitive Jean Arthur, ministering and nursemaiding to Cooper/James Stewart as her deflated idealist boyfriend at the mercy of big politics in films of the capraesque style already perfected by the director at Columbia through the latter 1930s. Lady of Burlesque (1943), now at United Artists directed by William Wellman, was a fast-paced backstage murder mystery with strong comedy relief in which Barbara, like Joan, got to show off her dancer’s legs. In writer-director Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), helped by Raymond Chandler in crafting this into the pinnacle of film noir, she played a bitch who gets hers in the end from boyfriend Fred MacMurray, both trying to fool insurance investigator Edward G Robinson. BarbaraStanwycks1940sIt was made for Paramount and she had been playing the studios at their own pick-and-mix game for years, parlaying her spitfire on-screen presence and reliability into a prime position with producers though her box-office was just sound even in her best years, rarely the sole centre of attention in a blockbuster as Joan and Bette were. Her compensation: She was the highest paid woman in America that year, just ahead of Bette. Now in the latter Forties all three would be predominantly at the superior talent factory that was Warners, suddenly overloaded with bitches. In 1945 they gave Joan her favorite role of all, Mildred Pierce, and it was said to be outdrawing Bette’s current project as a teacher in the Welsh valleys (The Corn is Green) at theatres on the all-important Eastern Seaboard three to one. In 1947, just as Bette dropped out of Quigley’s Motion Picture Herald‘s “official” top 25 stars list, Joan and Barbara made their comebacks to the list, their first appearances since the mid 1930s: both ranking in the top half dozen female stars most seen on screen. Other drama queens at the studio hardly got a look in: Olivia de Havilland, finally breaking through to the fringe of top 20 (fifth among women stars) to join her Warners sisters, left for lack of roles after taking many studio-enforced suspensions as Bette had the previous decade; Lauren Bacall, missing the polls entirely, took a much leaner schedule to bear kids and look after husband Bogie; Jane Wyman switched from comedy to drama at other studios, to rank high in the mid Fifties; and Ida Lupino finally quit in favor of directing.

Warners tried Joan out at the rate of $167,000 for just one film a year to test the water — and the water was fine. From 1946 came boffo box-office in Humoresque, as an alcoholic who walks into the ocean when neglected by concert violinist John Garfield — a famous concert artist stuffing his hand up a false sleeve did the fingering on the frets; then Possessed, murdering Van Heflin when he doesn’t requite her lust; on loan to Fox under Otto Preminger, as Daisy Kenyon, fashion designer fought over by Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews; in 1949 back at Warners, sympathetic for Flamingo Road under Michael Curtiz as a down-and-out carnival dancer but getting Zachary Scott, Sydney Greenstreet and David Brian to dance to her tune. She was 45 and the legs and the rest were holding up fine. In 1950 she freelanced at Columbia as Harriet Craig, one of her defining bitches, castrating husband Wendell Corey; then five years later as the Queen Bee, and Barry Sullivan was the gelding doing servitude.

Towards the end of the Forties, when resident tall, slimline beauty Alexis Smith was tiring and sultry wise-cracking brunette Janis Paige was found to be not what the public wanted in airhead musicals, Warners started to invest in gay perky young blonde things hardly showing a brain in their heads, June Haver — borrowed from Fox for two films — and Doris Day, quickly proving a long-term winner. Bette had taken till 1941 to climb to a respectable star wage ($252,333 that year) and elevated herself to a massive $365,000 a year by 1948 — the huge majority of it going in tax in the era of post-war austerity — just as her popularity was dipping at Warners through lack of good vehicles again. That year was Barbara’s fourth Oscar nomination, for Sorry Wrong Number at Paramount: a demanding invalid wife and younger husband Burt Lancaster trying to bump her off; but her next really good one, between her enthusiastic Commie-hunting projects off screen, was Fritz Lang masterpiece Clash By Night (RKO, 1952) and a great ensemble performance again cheating on hubby, this time painfully unaware working man Paul Douglas, with virile desperado Robert Ryan. (It had Marilyn Monroe’s best early role too, a demanding one.) That year Barbara and her husband, her previous leading man when visiting MGM, Robert Taylor, called it quits, she having been the senior partner four years older and admittedly the less pretty one. A positive quality was her sympathy for younger performers — Marilyn Monroe calling her the only one of older generation actresses who supported her. Yet in contradictory mode she could be the hardest-nosed of the three, estranging herself from her adopted son, 19. At the same time she joined the virulently “anti-communist” faction in Hollywood for “the preservation of American ideals”. Ruby Stevens of Brooklyn had dragged herself up by her bootstraps, as she saw it, to be Barbara Stanwyck — so even in youth had opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal, somehow as the myth goes believing that all other poor people could follow in her footsteps.

Bette quit Warners to be in a good drama — over at Fox, All About Eve. She was 42 and showing every well-earned wrinkle. She was too insecure to back herself, taking flat fees ($130,000 for that one) and ending up with a fraction of what other stars got for participation deals out of profits. At the same time her old rival Katharine Hepburn, for African Queen, was taking $130,000 plus 10%; Bogart close to a million eventually for his part; and elsewhere, Cary Grant and John Wayne on half a million, James Stewart in rugged westerns on $600,000, even young Jane Russell on $400,000 with not much more than two assets to show off on screen.

JoanCrawford-colour1950Joan at 50 and Barbara nearing the mark still had the stuff to be glamorous-kinky, usually going after younger men, and both took to rather stylized, erotic westerns in the mid 1950s: Joan just once, maybe impressed by Marlene Dietrich’s outing in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, set in glorious technicolor at age 51. (Note this was at a time in Hollywood when the number of glamor girls aged over 35 and still on screen could be counted on one hand without a thumb.) She starred for auteur Nicholas Ray in Johnny Guitar (1954), romancing all 6ft-5 of Sterling Hayden, made well by tiny cheapskate studio Republic. The technicolor did well for Joan too, not much for vindictive villainess Mercedes McCambridge in a scenery-chewing triumph (later using her gruff voice as the demon’s in The Exorcist, 1973). Barbara starred in a whole slew of westerns through mid decade: Blowing Wild, doing the dirty on Gary Cooper with Anthony Quinn; Cattle Queen of Montana, bossing “Little Ronnie” Reagan (actually his nickname at Warners, said Bette); The Violent Men, a rare good one double-crossing Edward G Robinson for Glenn Ford and Brian Keith (and dismissing young and beautiful Dianne Foster with one imperious sweep of her hand); The Maverick Queen, a cheapie at Republic, this time tricked by Pinkerton detective Barry Sullivan, envied by heavy Scott Brady (this time the beauteous ingenue was Mary Murphy from Brando’s The Wild One); Trooper Hook, a thoughtful subject as a mother and prisoner of Native Americans, rescued by Joel McCrea; and Forty Guns, as a ranchowner again, protecting outlaw brother Barry Sullivan, fairly good under writer-director Sam Fuller. She was 50 and quit films. She took someone’s bad advice and died her hair grey hoping to pass as platinum blonde — it didn’t, and aged her overnight.

Bette came from the starchy New England thespian tradition and didn’t fancy long months in desert locations though she committed herself to guest spots on two of the very best westerns on weekly tv, Wagon Train and Gunsmoke, and her remaining good roles were as old hags, to say it frankly: The Virgin Queen as Elizabeth I again but made in England (1955), this time losing Sir Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd) to Joan Collins, having 16 years earlier done in the Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn) over Olivia de Havilland; underestimated kitchen-sink drama The Catered Affair (1956) from the play by Paddy Chayevsky, adapted by Gore Vidal and directed by Richard Brooks, Bette as the frumpy working-class mother of the bride and co-starring Ernest Borgnine as her henpecked New York cab-driver husband and great support from Debbie Reynolds, Barry Fitzgerald and Rod Taylor; and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962 when she met up with Joan for the first and last time. Warners got its money’s worth when audiences had trouble till the end figuring out who was the biggest bitch up on screen killing off everyone and everything including a pet parrot, broiled. They were still legends but hardly irresistible draws to theatres anymore and going into the project skeptical Bette took $60,000 up front plus 5% of profits to come, if any; Joan took a risk on a $30,000 fee followed by a big 15% of surprise earnings — ending up almost as rich as Liz Taylor was to be soon with $1 million from her two years’ work as Cleopatra.

They were supposed to meet up again in something similar, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1965) but Joan begged off ill at the last moment and Bette got her old Warners protegee Olivia de Havilland to step in. Joan had had her fill of horror by now, apparently caught hacking people’s heads off in low-budget Straight Jacket and romancing jailbate newcomer Lee Majors at the same time. Barbara, always a good mate of Joan off screen (both had been raised dirt poor, one in Hell’s Kitchen, the other in San Antonio), was a tv western star in The Big Valley, which ran from 1965 to ’68, Barbara_Stanwyck_Victoria_Barkley_Big_Valley_1968and got her frustrations out dressed in black leather and wielding a riding crop at offspring Lee Majors (Was he recommended specially by Joan?) and Linda Evans of future Dynasty fame. Preparing for the role, appearing late ’64, Barbara got her kicks on the big screen molesting Elvis in Roustabout, and reportedly in the dressing room on that gig, veteran costumier Edith Head.

Oh ho-hum, just another day in Hollywoodland.

MOVIE LEGENDS — Hollywood Sisters: OLIVIA de HAVILLAND & JOAN FONTAINE

In celebrity, film on August 14, 2012 at 5:33 am

Both born of a British family in Tokyo, 1916 and 1917, just 15 months apart, uniquely Olivia and Joan grew fast but totally independently of each other into major stars during Hollywood’s ‘golden age’ of the studio system. Apart from obvious “superior breeding” that was fashionable on stage and screen up to World War II in the gentlewoman type they did have in common, they didn’t have much truck with each other and the fan magazines of the day hinted at an estrangement, even something of a feud, offscreen. Apparently, in real life, “feud” didn’t nearly cover it and from early childhood Olivia was unaccountably resentful and anything but nurturing towards her younger competitor. A cousin, the high achiever of the family, designed de Havilland aircraft.

Olivia_de_Havilland_in_The_Adventures_of_Robin_Hood_trailer_2From age 18, Olivia was seen as a promising starlet by home studio Warner Brothers, winning leads in her opening year, 1935, in both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Errol Flynn’s first starrer, Captain Blood. While Flynn was an instant superstar, Olivia, just as impressive, was on a slower rise through Maid Marian, exquisitely beautiful in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) — see photo. In David Selznick’s mammoth production of Gone With the Wind the following year she took a step up entrusted with the difficult role of long-suffering Melanie Hamilton — hard not to make her an over-saintly martyr, which she accomplished. Nothing could save her from the overwhelming shadow of the media hooplah surrounding Vivien Leigh in the prime role of Scarlett O’Hara. Each received $25,000 for appearing — Vivien as a one-off newcomer’s fee from Selznick; Olivia for 20 weeks work from Warners, at her normal studio salary of $1,250 a week. Neither compared to Clark Gable’s (Rhett Butler) lump of $120,000 from home studio MGM, who distributed the picture as their price for lending Selznick the prime leading man of the day, who incidentally suited the role down to the ground. While Vivien went instantly on to $100,000 a picture for her next one, this distinctly secondary treatment still after four or five years with her studio meant Olivia would never quite measure up as the heiress apparent to Bette Davis’s status as Queen of WB.

Joan_Fontaine_in_Born_To_Be_Bad_trailer_2Joan wasn’t really as beautiful but was slender, blonde and held herself with ultimate poise, like a mannequin — something of a forerunner to the ladylike appeal of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn but more demure and completely lacking their coy coquetry. Joan’s wry smile did show a sly sense of humor though, giving portrayals somewhat more subtle than her elder sister without showing an “acting” performance that Olivia would develop mostly after leaving Warners. And whereas Olivia played fresh and bright on screen, sometimes passionate, Joan looked world weary, even cynical as she matured. In the meantime Joan had made a slight impression at her home studio of RKO as Douglas Fairbanks Jr’s leading lady in Gunga Din (1939), a somewhat better one in MGM’s The Women later that year and then (dropped by RKO) went straight into major stardom in the title role of Rebecca (1940) squired by Laurence Olivier, and Suspicion (1941), wife and potential murder victim of Cary Grant, of questionable background and character here. She had signed with driven independent producer Selznick, he fresh from the stupendous achievement of Gone With the Wind and both her triumphs were under the most prestigious director of the time, Alfred Hitchcock. Unlike big sister Olivia she was the center of attraction in her movies at 22, and having won the Oscar as Best Actress for the second one — the only one ever for a female under Hitchcock’s direction — she was already overshadowing her. Posterity would not record it thus.

This Above All was a little dreary though highly admired as an RAF love story with Ty Power. In a remake of The Constant Nymph (1943) she took acting honors from the likes of Charles Boyer, Dame May Whitty, Peter Lorre — and shot under Olivia’s nose at the Warners lot. Jane Eyre (1944) with Orson Welles, who did not direct, was a good atmospheric piece and she was moving in the role, compassionate to Rochester’s tortured soul. After that, though she continued as center of attention in comedies and period adventures alike, there was usually something light and fluffy about them, ultimately dismissable though shot attractively with Joan looking glamorous. This applied even to a Billy Wilder ‘classic’, The Emperor Waltz (1948), sumptuous in technicolor and opposite Bing Crosby, and a deadly dull period thriller, Ivy, playing a poisoning murderer, and still unfailingly glamorous. Letter from an Unknown Woman that year was a four-star exception directed by legendary French auteur Max Ophuls and written by Howard Koch, admired even by usually vitriolic critic Pauline Kael.

She was still just 30, but apparently tiring of the Hollywood whirl, her career took a backseat to extracurricular activities: flying, ballooning, golfing, interior decorating — in all of which she proved champion prowess. In 1951, September Affair with Joseph Cotten was a passable “women’s picture” and the last time she was a centrepiece, soon outshone by Elizabeth Taylor, 19, in Ivanhoe. Olivia was in the movie biz for the long haul. By the time she had emerged from the damsel under Errol Flynn’s protective cloak — lastly as Mrs Custer in 1942 — Ann Sheridan had taken over as Warners’ young up-and-comer as the “Oomph Girl”. Soon after, Joan Crawford, a decade or so older, was imported as WB’s grand dame. After a series of weaker ones at WB Olivia, like her career model Bette Davis, went on suspension against Jack Warner to win better roles. As a result, Devotion, made in 1943 about the Brontes and co-starring Ida Lupino and Paul Henreid, wasn’t released until ’46, when she was well clear of the studio.<p>

Out on her own, freelancing, she emulated her sister in winning an Oscar: wartime tearjerker To Each His Own made with flair at Paramount by stylish Mitchell Leisen. She made a decision that must have been a personal breakthrough, to take on unflattering but impressive roles that minimized her beauty to say the least. In The Dark Mirror at Universal she played good and bad twins, one a murderess; at Fox, The Snake Pit as a victim in a mental hospital; and again at Paramount, The Heiress as the homely dupe of young Monty Clift playing a ruthless social climber; she was 34, he was 29. For the last two she won the New York Film Critics award for best actress of 1948 and ’49. She was off the screen for three years, at 35 again daringly playing the older woman coming back opposite Richard Burton, 10 years younger. Though always more popular in stars’ polls, now Olivia had caught up with her sister in theatrical status, effectively surpassed her in outlasting her, and finally relaxed. In real life, she switched husbands and went with the new one to Paris, satiating her acting bug with just occasional roles. In the mid 1960s she emulated Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in turning to grand guignol just short of real horror, Lady in a Cage and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, replacing the ill Crawford to play opposite Davis in the latter.

As far as I know both still survive approaching a century, and the sibling enmity still glows white hot.

TV REVIEW — CELEBRITY COOKS: EGOS BEYOND ENDURING

In celebrity, morality, television on December 31, 2011 at 7:12 am

Since the invention of so-called “reality tv” — talk about The Big Lie — there have been thousands upon thousands of viewing hours under this category on screen that must be admitted are a total waste and actually destructive of the chance to do something useful for an hour. Who ever decided watching someone cook, never mind eat, is entertainment? (Here in New Zealand there are wall-to-wall cooking/dining series on almost every channel, through peak viewing hours and elsewhere.) Cooking shows didn’t start this way. They started in an attempt to make common and desirable dishes more palatable — not, as they revel in today, to explore every square inch of the globe, land and sea, earnestly attempting to turn increasingly rare species into food.

<p>Here in New Zealand there was one local celebrity chef in the early years of television, name of Graham Kerr (1962-66), who later found fame in the States as The Galloping Gourmet — after being unceremoniously dumped from the NZBC for being too fancy. He was replaced by a self-proclaimed cook, who carried on solo for many more years. One half hour a week seemed like plenty to devote to brightening up our home menus a little — Our priorities were focused elsewhere on important things. I’m sure Alison Holst’s, the humble cook’s, heart was in the right place, without ever once attempting to turn the testicles of the Yellow Finned Thailand Octopus into a delicacy the wealthiest among us can’t do without. In the end, eating is something we lucky ones do every day, simply to keep us alive. Anything more is a bonus. And the more superfluous lengths we go to in cookery the more rapacious we humans become — way out on our own as the only species intent on destroying our own and others’ environments, and at an accelerating rate despite all the p.c. hype about conservation. One yearns for someone to finally stand up and shout at the top of their lungs: “IT’S ONLY FOOD — IT GOES IN ONE END AND COMES OUT THE OTHER! IT’S SHIT IN INTERMEDIATE FORM!

<p>Yes, it’s nice if it tastes good, all the better if it’s nutritious and sustains us another day, but who the hell inflated searing animal flesh, garnishing it with aromatic additives to disguise its flavor, and arranging other bits and pieces around a plate into a high art? The program I avoided this evening starred Gordon Ramsay. He is just one of several British cooks on television here in New Zealand who cannot look at an animal without licking his lips and imagining what it would smell and taste like swimming in gravy and infused with an array of spices. To my mind this says it all about how limited they are as people.

Ramsay is travelling around by train to every corner of India to find out its real cuisine. Among the highlights, he is presented with a snake whose heart is still beating to eat. Now you know why I didn’t watch — However it turns out, it’s beyond disgusting to use such a thing as an attraction, no matter how authentic or otherwise it is as a cultural artefact. Don’t get me started on the God-given-rights-in-perpetuity of Japanese and Icelanders to eat whales to their little hearts’ content…

A_Cannibal_Feast_in_Fiji,_1869_(1898)<p>Gordon prides himself on going to the ends of the earth to find authentic dishes. I once witnessed him risking life and limb climbing down a remote cliff face in the Mediterranean to collect the eggs of a rare bird — Yum, yum — irresistible — into the pot is what they’re best for, eh? In the TV Guide article on his latest series he claims that, unlike other chefs he is famous on the back of his work, not the other way round. Come now, Gordon — You seriously believe you’re watched because you can cook something a little better than others, when we can’t taste it, even smell it from where we’re sitting? Please, just cut the celebrity self-delusion.

NEWSFLASH: [PHOTO] “The Shoe on the Other Foot” — Gordon and his crew caught by cannibals on their latest expedition for rare species to endanger.

My New Book: “Black Rock via Beach Boys vs Beatlemania = Sixties Music”

In celebrity, history, music on October 21, 2011 at 10:11 pm

MichaelJasboy284My new book is due out before Christmas — this Xmas, 2011 [CORRECTION: Xmas 2013]. Entitled “Black Rock via Beach Boys vs Beatlemania = Sixties Music”, it is an ebook distributed by Booklocker.com — The price hasn’t been set yet, but should be way affordable for all you rockers interested in reading over 600 pages (over 250,000 words) touching on almost every aspect of the music business in the Sixties. Again, like the previous paperback “Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: Rediscovering Sixties Music” (booklocker.com, 448 pages, publ 2007), it is seen in the context of the Beach Boys vs Beatles debate. The bulk of the original book is still there, and refined. But I’ve added a LOT more (nearly 200 pages) especially on the highly influential and pivotal roles of your favorite neglected African American acts of the Sixties: James Brown, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, Hank Ballard & the Midniters, the Tokens, the Isley Bros, Chubby Checker, Ike & Tina Turner, Etta James, the Chantels, the Shirelles, the Chiffons, the Crystals, the Ronettes, the New Orleans and Chicago schools, Sly & the Family Stone — and all the VeeJay, Motown, Atlantic stars including Little Esther Phillips, Little Willie John, Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions, Bobby Blue Bland and Mercury stars Sarah Vaughan, Brook Benton,Dinah Washington, Timi Yuro.

Don’t miss out on what could be the ONE book on Sixties Music you’ve been wanting.

ONCE A STAR, ALWAYS A STAR?

In celebrity, film on August 15, 2011 at 9:47 am

This is a new phenomenon — I mean new in showbiz terms, measured against the full 100 years movie stars and mass produced/distributed music have existed. It has only developed in music since the introduction of extremely narrow, dumbed-down sounds in music in 1974 — Europap ruled by Abba, Disco under the Bee Gees, Punk and Reggae — and on screen since the false dawn of Spielberg-Lucas three years later. Among stars, the Stallone-Travolta-Gibson-Schwarzenegger-Madonna era got underway in steps from 1976 to 1984, and has never stopped. Apart from various one-offs like Jessica Lange, Leonardo Di Caprio, Johnny Depp, Ellen Barkin, Sean Penn, Robin Williams, most new stars since have been spin-offs of them.

Who could ever have guessed, or wished, that the three bodybuilders Stallone, Arnie and Madonna would go on decade after decade at the top of the tree in sound bites and column-inches of coverage? — which, let’s face it, defines superstardom these days. Today’s vacuous mentality only requires these celebrities to exist to be celebrated, regardless of what they produce. The same of sell-out compromised ‘artists’ Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, who continue as celebrities while people as musically committed and talented as, say The Doors, The Byrds, Steve Marriott, rose and collapsed as stars in three years? Well over ninety percent of stars of the Twentieth Century were under-appreciated or had their careers curtailed

In the Golden Age of Hollywood only a handful of (invariably male) actors sustained superstar status for anything approaching thirty years: Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, James Cagney, John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, James Stewart. In casting a film, no producer or director ever mistook a Gable movie for a Cooper movie, or vice versa. All of them brought highly individual characteristics to a role, and were often able to raise ordinary scripts to something watchable. Today’s stars are all interchangeable, except when a film calls for a particular physique, then it can be faked anyway with computer graphics. But for a few, they tend to sink or float with the material, i.e. How many pyrotechnic effects can the budget afford to divert attention from them?

Actors who ooze a mind-numbing sameness of one-dimensional acting in role after role just go on and on: Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, George Clooney, Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Samuel L Jackson, Angelina Jolie, Jack Black… In previous times actors had to capture the public’s imagination in their first two or three films or they were OUT — and without aid of special effects and other eye-catching gimmicks.

Rap music is another phenomenon that has carried on for more than a quarter century seemingly without changing, improving, developing into something that requires talent. It’s the ideal do-it-yourself ‘music’ for anyone who can fake a Bronx accent — and I’m speaking from New Zealand, where a Bronx accent comes about as naturally as did a Liverpool accent in the Beatle era.

After numerous box-office failures, repeatedly rumored to face forced retirement, Arnie, Stallone, Eddie Murphy, John Travolta have been given chance after chance to reestablish themselves until something clicks and they’re foisted back on us. The only movie stars I can think of that have fallen from the top echelon (outside of death or retirement) in the past 30 years are Burt Reynolds and Kevin Costner. The occasional tv star like Tom Selleck, Ted Danson, Shelley Long and that red-headed guy in CSI-Miami fails to make it in movies, but not very often. Generally, the rule is whoever is hyped by the promoters makes it.

Older female stars, as much as they gripe about the lack of roles for them, are much better off than their sisters of yesteryear. The Bette Davises and Joan Crawfords were automatically on the downhill past 40, no matter how good they were. Now 55, even 60, need not be a barrier. They might not be able to command $200 million budgets like wookies and hobbits can, but what producer with $30 million on his hands for an important subject would pass up Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jessica Lange, Glenn Close, Emma Thompson, Cher, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, Ellen Barkin, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Maggie Smith or Queen Liz in the lead?

MOVIE LEGENDS — BEFORE THERE WAS HOLLYWOOD

In celebrity, film, history on September 21, 2009 at 12:51 am

We are approaching, next year, 2010, the 100th anniversary of movie stars. Motion picture photographic apparatus and film had been devised and developed by at least a dozen different people around the world twenty years before 1910, most famously Thomas Alva Edison in the States, who for twenty years tried to muscle other film producers for using his “patented” designs for equipment to make movies. Short film clips that passed as documentaries proliferated from the mid 1890s in France, Britain, even America: trains coming into stations, boxing matches, royal events… It was never imagined at this early stage by Edison, just one of its ‘inventors’, that film could be used for entertainment purposes.

Narrative fiction on film got underway around 1898, first in France. This was entertainment. But actors, who virtually all came from the stage and already facing widespread moral condemnation for that, were loath to be recognised on screen — for having strayed so far from legitimate acting and sunk to such depths: these early entertainments were mainly appreciated worldwide by poor people, who couldn’t afford to go to The Theatre. By 1909 such brave souls as ‘Bronco Billy’ Anderson, the boss of leading Chicago studio Essanay, and comedian Ben Turpin who worked there, ‘came out’ and allowed themselves to be named in public.

The first international stars were known first by their screen characters’ names — Foolshead, Cretinetti, Max — and personal renown pan-Europe predated the worldwide fame of Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin by four years.

The first American star named and promoted as such was New York’s Florence Lawrence, formerly known only as “The Biograph Girl”, in March 1910 lured by Universal Studio founder Carl Laemmle for the huge salary of $200 a week. Nearby, Florence Turner, until now working as “The Vitagraph Girl” crosstown, had started three years earlier for the Brooklyn studio at $18 a week, boosted to $24 a week for including in her duties sewing costumes while off set. Now a month after the other Florence she was heavily promoted as her rival.

The lid was off and new record salaries continued to be set over the next few years. The best-publicized race for loot was between Pickford and Chaplin, who in 1914 earned $2,000 and $1,200 respectively as a weekly wage. It was just a matter of time before they caught and surpassed the leading Vaudeville players, including Annette Kellermann, champion swimmer whose admired form attracted pay of $5,000 a week on stage as early as the Olympic year of 1908. In 1915 stylish clothes-horse Francesca Bertini of Italy set a new mark on screen with $175,000-plus for the year; along with Russian actress Alla Nazimova filming in New York and paid $60,000 for four weeks’ shooting by the Triangle company (who were paying Pickford’s husband Douglas Fairbanks $2,000 a week at the time). Both Mary Pickford and Charles Chaplin were effectively on a million dollars a year by 1916. In 1919 and through the early Twenties, with Chaplin, Pickford and husband Douglas Fairbanks owning and running United Artists, they could name their own price.

But it had all started so innocently, for the love of art. Parallel with the conscious, hucksterish invention of stardom in the States, in 1910 superstardom in Europe was also flourishing. In early 1911 a Russian popularity poll listed:

1. Max Linder
2. Asta Nielsen
3. Valdemar Psilander

linder3Linder is the recognised first comedy stylist of film. Having overtaken in popularity his Pathe studio colleague Andre Deed, who created the first internationally popular screen character in 1905, Max had been popular too for a couple of years and was just becoming known in America. He was Chaplin’s prime influence.

Asta Nielsen was a truly international superstar from Denmark, a small Nielsen_Asta_01nation that grew instrumental in the new film industry, especially via the Nordisk company that exported films to America, called The Great Northern Company there. The Abyss, about sexual betrayal, made her a sensation across Europe by the end of 1910. She influenced fashions across continents (at first outside America) and became a powerful producer in Germany with her director husband Urban Gad also of Denmark. Known for her androgynous sex appeal, Nielsen went on to play Hamlet convincingly on screen. In different ways she was the forerunner of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich.

ValdemarPsilander, a fellow Dane, was the first heroic screen idol of Europe. In a few years, having foregone offers in America, the evermore dominant nation in film, he would sink with the fortunes of his nation’s industry and commit suicide in 1917. In the meantime, Ivan Mozhukhin (Mosjoukine in France) of Russia rivalled him in screen magnetism and became the most admired actor of silent film.

American popularity surveys in 1912 had brought Vitagraph veteran Maurice Costello (in 1905 one of the first screen Sherlock Holmeses) to the fore, challenged by newcomer Francis X. Bushman. Bushman’s leading lady at Essanay studio, Dolores Cassinelli, was officially named the top female box-office draw both that year and the following one.

In 1913, according to the first contemporary Photoplay magazine poll, that took eight months to complete, comedienne Mabel Normand

Mabel as 'Mickey'

Mabel as 'Mickey'

of Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio was America’s most popular female star, until overtaken in the early months of 1914 by Margarita Fischer, Topsy in an early Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Kathlyn Williams, who had begun to star in her own adventure serial and now in big western hits The Squaw Man and The Spoilers. When voting ended in April 1914 21-year-old Mary Pickford, former Griffith girl and the new favorite of Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Company, was on a fast rise:

1. J. Warren Kerrigan (Victor)
2. Margarita Fischer (Flying A)
3. Arthur Johnson (Lubin)
4. Kathlyn Williams (Selig)
5. Mabel Normand (Keystone)
6. King Baggot (Universal)
7. Mary Pickford (Famous Players)
8. Mary Fuller (Universal)
9. Francis X. Bushman (Essanay)
10. Beverly Bayne (Essanay)

Among the beefcake males, representing pre-WWI pre-Hollywood values, Bushman and Kerrigan in particular jostled for supremacy for five years from 1912, closely shadowed by Johnson until his death in 1916, Earle Williams and Maurice Costello, steadily overtaken by middle age (at a time when men did concede gracefully to age). Note the preponderance of females of high popularity (and accordingly high salaries) in an era supposedly of oppressed women — in contrast to today, when women are lucky to have one entry in the top 10.

Earlier, films such as The Count of Monte Cristo (Selig, 1907) had been shot in the Los Angeles area, and The Squaw Man directed by Oscar Apfel and Cecil B. DeMille for the Lasky Company in a barn locally popularized the district as a film colony. It was 1915 that a new generation of studios, including Universal and Fox, Famous Players and Lasky — soon joining to form Paramount — relocated from the East Coast to the district centered on Hollywood. Before the close of the decade Pickford and her consort Douglas Fairbanks were Queen and Crown Prince of Hollywood, settled at their palace, Pickfair.

BOOK REVIEW — BEATLES BOOK: Can’t Buy Me Love

In celebrity, literature, music on August 1, 2009 at 12:54 am

Can’t Buy Me Love by Jonathan Gould (Piatkus, 2007) is one of those religious books about the Beatles that starts from a standpoint of unquestioning admiration for the Liverpool pop group and ends in total devotion, as in devout worship of a single entity, monotheism. And they were a single entity, as proven by their desultory solo careers in the post-Beatle era, when none of them could foot it for creativity and cohesive output without Brian Epstein to push them along and producer/arranger George Martin to fill in the many gaps in their songs and make each one into a finished product.

In this 400-page love letter to an act, nay, an industry easy to endorse — Didn’t they sell the most records? — Gould doesn’t let tweaking of facts and half-truths stand in the way of a good myth that rates in commercial potency with Harrypottermania and Lord of the Rings, and matches them too in fictional blarney. My question is, Why even bother to write such a book when the Beatle legend has already been so insidiously planted and firmly cemented in people’s minds over the past forty years as the be-all-and-end-all of the Sixties?

The Beatles, mid 1964: The Beach Boys had already proven themselves far and away ahead of The Fab Four by self-producing the single 'I Get Around'/'Don't Worry Baby', released in May.

The Beatles, mid 1964: The Beach Boys had already proven themselves far and away ahead of The Fab Four by self-producing the single 'I Get Around'/'Don't Worry Baby', released in May.

Gould’s total lack of imagination or enterprise in even choosing a relevant title — after all, he doesn’t spend much time covering the Beatles’ Hamburg sojourn when the Beatles did buy themselves ‘love’ from the Reeperbahn prostitutes — reminds me of the pathetic titles chosen by Television New Zealand whenever it wanted to screen a retrospective on the Sixties in general: All You Need is Love, Hello — Goodbye … All done because everyone knows a Beatle title will sell more product.

Among the many fictitious assertions made by Gould in a superficial book are several I have selected in relation to the Beach Boys, the acknowledged Sixties mainstream rivals to the Beatles. I explore these since the American group is one I have studied in depth: see my book Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: Rediscovering Sixties Music.

Assertion 1) — “Brian Wilson accounted for nine tenths of the talent of the Beach Boys”–Gould contrasting them with the supposedly uniformly, mega-talented Beatles.

This is bizarre. Has Gould heard nothing of the immense composing, producing and blues-singing talent of Dennis Wilson? The singing, composing and producing of Carl Wilson? The culturally-relevant lyric-writing and universally-admired bass voice of Mike Love? Al Jardine had measurably more creative and performing talent than Ringo, whose ‘singing’ of lead vocals has been a politely overlooked though glaring debit in the Beatles column.

Assertion 2) — Brian Wilson’s voice wasn’t in the same class as Paul McCartney’s.

McCartney was adept at imitating a rock’n’roll screech — as taught to him by Little Richard. He had a sweet but bland voice on ballads. As for expressiveness and purity, and genuine versatility in turning his voice to any mood, Wilson takes the nod hands down.

Assertion 3) — Brian Wilson’s songs were characterised by “cloying sentimentality.”

Gould doesn’t know the difference between pure emotion expressed in music, in which Brian Wilson is surpassed by no one in mainstream music, and the Beatles’ cloyingly sentimental ‘luv’ cliches regurgitated from Music Hall. McCartney cites his father, a music hall musician, as his major formative influence.

and maybe the most ludicrous statement of all:

Assertion 4) — By 1966 the Beach Boys’ level of production, arrangements and group singing had almost caught up with “the innovations of the Beatles.”

This one sentence contains at least five blatant untruths that I can name and refute:

a) The Beach Boys produced their own recordings from early 1962 on — therefore were ahead of the Beatles in production from the start. This was readily apparent by the time of Surfin’ USA, Surfer Girl and Be True to Your School/In My Room in 1963 and became bleedin’ obvious the following year with I Get Around/Don’t Worry Baby and Little Honda/Wendy. According to the people who recorded the Beatles, including George Martin and Norman Smith, the Beatles continually clamored for the recording technicians to get more of an American sound, i.e. similar to the Beach Boys, Motown, etc–not the other way round. b) The Beatles didn’t produce their records — George Martin did. According to Parlophone/EMI recording engineer Norman “Hurricane” Smith the Beatles barely listened to their own recordings — didn’t even wear earphones in the recording booth. c) The Beatles didn’t arrange their songs — George Martin did, and according to Martin they knew almost nothing about non-rock’n’roll instruments. d) This is laughable. When did the Beatles ever dare to expose their ‘group singing’ via a-cappella? — as the Beach Boys did on occasions from the start. e) What innovations did the Beatles themselves introduce, except watering down rock’n’roll, country music, Eurocafe ballads, etc, etc, and turning around the rock direction of Motown, Atlantic, Vee-Jay, Philles, the Beach Boys, to bring back songs from musicals like ‘Til There Was You’, ‘A Taste of Honey’.? By the end of 1966 their music was more and more electronic, deserted by George Martin to leave a novice electronics wiz in charge of their recording.

ROCK MUSIC — ENGLAND SWINGS?

In anthropology, celebrity, generational/fashion, history, music on June 4, 2009 at 10:15 pm

— an excerpt from another chapter of G. A. De Forest’s book ‘Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: Rediscovering Sixties Music’, published by Booklocker.com in November 2007 and available for around $17.95. Highest position thus far on Amazon’s sales list in the Music: History & Criticism category is #23 on April 26th 2008.

“Eng-a-land swings like a pendulum do/ bobbies on bicycles two by two/ Westminster Abbey, the Tower, Big Ben/ the rosy red cheeks of the little chil-dren.”—Country Music’s Oklahoma stump philosopher of the mid-Sixties, Roger Miller, observing the myth of Merry England. By the time of Miller’s paean—what, in any other era, would have been a giant pain—England had ruled pop music for two years and was conquering the rest of pop culture. The miniskirt, fashion designer Mary Quant, supermodel Jean Shrimpton (Twiggy to come), and Carnaby Street were all household names around the world. In London they took their fashion so seriously that anyone walking down Carnaby Street or Chelsea’s King’s Road out of fashion might have been ritually stoned, in both senses of the word.

The coolest tv program was The Avengers—karate-kicking Emma Peel and immaculately Savile Row-attired John Steed. The chic actresses were Julie Christie on the big screen, by acclaim, and by definition Paul McCartney’s girlfriend Jane Asher, and Mick Jagger’s, Marianne Faithfull—by her own account blessed by an accident of birth with “The Look” and so doubling effortlessly as a chic rock star.

The Beatles in '65: John and Paul styling their hair, Ringo and George still generic moptops

The Beatles in '65: John and Paul styling their hair, Ringo and George still generic moptops

The Beatles came in 12th at American box-offices for 1965, 6th UK. America’s two no.1 movie stars through 1965-66 were Brits Sean Connery (James Bond) and saccharine songstress Julie Andrews, dis-placing all-American team Doris Day and Rock Hudson —suddenly hopelessly outdated 40-year-old born-again virgins, plopped down from Planet Quaint into The Swinging Sixties. The British had cornered the movie market (apart from westerns, fading fast): Bond and Michael Caine the nattiest dressed screen spies; Peter Sellers superseded Jerry Lewis as America’s most popular comic; Hayley Mills still the world’s no.1 child star, turning 20; Margaret Rutherford was the screen’s adored septuagenarian. An entire generation of British actors—Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney, Alan Bates, Tom Courtenay, Julie Christie, Terence Stamp, Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed, Susannah York, Sarah Miles—were said to be the most interesting on screen. The swingingest middle-aged affair involved fifth-time-around Liz Taylor/Cleopatra and her consort Richard Burton/Marc Antony. And more UK actors—Richard Harris (‘MacArthur Park’), Noel Harrison (‘Windmills of Your Mind’)—were held to be the most expressive vocalists in recording.

For the first time in centuries England defined cool. Three months after the Beatles arrived in America, Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan were trying their luck with extended tours in England, previously a whistle-stop. Those who could fake being English to Stateside audiences were flavor of the month, often literally. New LA groups the Byrds—first goofily calling themselves the Beefeaters—and the Turtles, false-advertising themselves as from England, strained mightily for Beatle accents in the frenzied quest for fame before stumbling on to Dylan and folk rock. Others hoping to fool the public were the Buckinghams and Golliwogs (later Creedence Clearwater Revival). For more than two years Americans were mindlessly Anglophile, and it took an English songwriter, Ray Davies of the Kinks, to debunk it all in the spring of 1966 with the flaying derision of ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’. Still, only slowly was the spell broken: Britons had nine number ones in America that year.

While it lasted the edict—more powerful than if a law had been passed—shut out the all-too-American Beach Boys for their obvious aural and visible handicaps: being so un-English as to commit a heresy against revealed wisdom. The Four Seasons, older and more brittle, broke—no longer superstars in ’65 due to media neglect. Wide-ranging surveys in the mid-Seventies by WNBC-New York, WFIL-Philadelphia and WRKO-Boston to discover the most popular hits long term showed that the Seasons were done in by someone: ‘Dawn’, ‘Ronnie’, ‘Rag Doll’, ‘Bye Bye Baby’, ‘Let’s Hang On’, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, ‘Opus 17’, ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’, ‘C’mon Marianne’, mostly greeted without fanfare on release, ended up like most Beach Boys hits among the top dozen or so Eastern Seaboard sellers from their respective years— rated higher than Beatle number ones ‘Ticket to Ride’, ‘Day Tripper’, ‘Yellow Submarine’.

Frankie Valli: “A lot of American groups got lost… Everybody has to have their own identity—it’s very important. That’s what we did. We said, ‘Sink or swim, but we’re going to stay with what we do’ and it’s the only chance that anyone could have.”

The towering, enduring irony was that the best to come out of Britain in the Sixties by its best—The Who, the Kinks, the Stones, Cream—was created on vinyl by American record producers, resettling in Britain because anxious to get in on the scene. Foremost among an array of dominating American producers was Shel Talmy, who described Dick Rowe, “the man who turned down the Beatles”, as “one of the few people in England who was pro-American”. The anti-Americanism was a pathetically hypocritical defensive screen erected by a domestic industry built on a framework of American music as its direct inspiration, and now heavily reliant on imported American talent to make it work.

The Beach Boys would have to overcome the dictates of fashion—a feat unheard of in the pop scene—generated in London and pervading America via New York, always susceptible to trends crossing the Atlantic. In choosing artistic integrity they chose values that held no currency in the prevailing showbiz climate. And if they won they presented a danger that show business might never recover from, a threat to the whole basis of marketing: “Go with the bestselling commodity of the moment. Undersell, then dump, yesterday’s goods.”

For Capitol/EMI, the Beach Boys’ primary business connection —the multinational that manufactured and distributed their recordings but was now dependent on the quick-sale Beatles—the course was clear.

WHEN SIXTIES HISTORIES RECORD THE BEATLES saved pop music from dreary, saccharine crooners of no originality it is partly true—in the UK, not the multifaceted, ever-changing American scene. The Cliff Richards, Shadows and Joe Meek acts including the Tornadoes had already made strides in Britain. For all their individual qualities their passing would not be mourned by the Beatles who, pre-fame, derided them as smoothies in suits. While rock’n’roll had cooled from its original white heat, the American mainstream had the vital three-pronged thrust of the Beach Boys, Motown and Atlantic primed to explode, a mainspring integrating black and white performers now put on hold by the Beatle-led aberration.

The year the Beatles had their first hit—1962—the UK top 20 was full of inferior covers of American records, as bemoaned by Britain’s own industry spokespersons: ‘Moon River’, ‘Tower of Strength’, ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, ‘When My Little Girl is Smiling’, ‘Roses Are Red’, ‘Spanish Harlem’, ‘Bobby’s Girl’, ‘Up On the Roof’…. These remakes and their performers—Danny Williams, Frankie Vaughan, Karl Denver, Johnny Spence, Craig Douglas, Jimmy Justice, Shane Fenton, Ronnie Carroll, Mark Wynter, Susan Maughan, Maureen Evans, Kenny Lynch—weren’t heard overseas except in dutiful British Commonwealth markets loyal to the mother country. Orchestra leaders left over from the big band era purveyed restful ballroom numbers: Acker Bilk, Joe Loss, John Barry. If Kenny Ball—popular in America with ‘Midnight in Moscow’—hadn’t introduced post-War-styled ‘Sukiyaki’ it is unlikely Americans would ever have let the original out of the bottle to contribute to the apparent malaise of 1963.

While rare knowledgeable British fans have been praised by American rock’n’rollers for recognising quality, the UK had an all-powerful clobbering machine keeping rock’n’roll down—“Auntie BBC”, which in its duty to young and old ears alike efficiently suppressed black music under the guise of preserving the country’s cultural heritage: akin to the White Australia Policy elsewhere in the Empire. It was the brief liberalisation of the airwaves, 1964-67, when they finally got some exposure as private ‘pirate’ radio stations flourished around the British Isles, that the rock’n’rollers were thankful for.

So it was that the run of new UK groups formed by 1963 left much to be desired in originality and style, but what did America’s fashion-conscious youths, white middle-class teenyboppers who hadn’t heard real rock’n’roll, care? Most British rock’n’roll in the invasion was about as convincing as Italian westerns or Japanese Elvises. The Beatles and other UK r&b groups always preferred the original US recordings, if they could get them—then spoilt the effect by performing inferior covers themselves, true to the English spirit of anyone-can-put-their-hand-to-it-rock’n’roll, one level removed from the makeshift skiffle groups. Obviously, like the Rolling Stones, the more up-close exposure the Beatles had to American practitioners the better they got, though Paul, George & John’s dumping of virile drummer Pete Best (with his bass-drum and tom-tom driven sound a spotlighted feature of the band) had defeated creating a distinct English rock style for themselves in favor of Ringo’s ballroom versatility.

Still, Music Hall style and sensibility were deeply ingrained in the Brit psyche. David Jones, a struggling singer with several bands, as late as 1967 put out novelty parodies of rock’n’roll: ‘Love You Till Tuesday’ and ‘The Laughing Gnome’ in the style of early-sixties comics Mike Sarne (‘Come Outside’), Bernard Cribbins (‘A Bird Up On My Bike’), Tommy Steele (‘Little White Bull’) and Anthony Newley (‘That Noise’). It was a breakthrough tactic that caused im-mense embarrassment later. With a leap towards cool and a hefty push by Yank producer Shel Talmy he released ‘Space Oddity’ to be one of the great English figures of the early Seventies. By that time he had changed his name to David Bowie.

A persuasive view contra to Beatle omniscience comes from the British documentary tv series Dancing in the Street: American music was progressing very well, thank you, on diverse fronts most broadly represented by an r&b/soul barrage, only to be stifled by a cheapened homogenised product from UK groups with fashionable hair as their claim to popularity, a qualification unmatchable by the black originators of the music.

The coup was resented in some circles to the lengths that a “Stamp Out the Beatles” campaign was organised by Detroit student activists, fans of Motown and devotees of the grassroots r&b and blues of their city. When Paul McCartney heard of it he sensitively riposted that the Beatles would stamp out Detroit. British musicians were by and large clueless to the nuances of Blues, Gospel, Soul and any number of other American idioms of expression. And entrepreneurs of Epstein’s ilk would never have understood the dedication to quality and authenticity of Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller, Phil Spector, Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman, Jerry Wexler of Atlantic, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil of Brill Building ‘pop’ and many others in the American recording industry of that time: Jewish aficionados of black music.

Fans of Motown invaded the broadcast of the Beatles’ second Sullivan show in Miami, in vain. By the end of that year, 1964, a Leiber-Stoller produced, blues-tinged ‘Go Now’ was commandeered by new English group the Moody Blues for their US debut; and the Shirelles’ ‘Sha La La’ overwhelmed by a Manfred Mann cover following up ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy’, yet another song (by Mann-Weil) with girl group written all over it. As Dancing in the Street concluded, if the English acts had saved American music, what had they “saved” it from?

THE BEATLES WERE WORKING-CLASS LADS RAISED as pets of the English business aristocracy (and fast favorites of royalty for that) and a year later were enthroned by America, having freed itself from the British Empire two centuries before only to now don the chains wholeheartedly. Homebred musicians withered from unrequited wooing, shunned by their own media. Who would challenge the invaders?

Not a few bluecoats turned redcoat, going mod in a half-assed process totally out of cultural context. Peroxide-blond ‘surfers’ had carried surfboards through fashion-governed Chelsea in 1963, just for the look, and now the tables were turned with a vengeance. To make the switch was to be “fab”, “smashing”, “gear”. But instead of carrying it off with aplomb as the Beatles and Kinks did, Yanks started looking and acting like Austin Powers: aping foreign fashions, and parroting music alien to them. Just as the English did, to American music. In some twisted sense of karma the Byrds and Righteous Bros latched on to British wartime heroine Vera Lynn, suspecting that her flagwavers of a generation before might be just the ticket, and produced hideous remakes of ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’. The Beau Brummels (‘Laugh Laugh’, see John Candy comedy Uncle Buck) posed English enough to appear on The Munsters as Beatle standins. Their Revolutionary War period costumes were outdone by the bluecoat uniforms of Paul Revere & the Raiders, cashing in on lace and frills but sticking for a while to a tough LA r&b produced by surf music alumnus Terry Melcher.

P. J. Proby: introduced to the UK by the Beatles and had talent overflowing enough to go worldwide and then some.

P. J. Proby: introduced to the UK by the Beatles and had talent overflowing enough to go worldwide and then some.

Ponytailed and knee-breached on the same theme, P J Proby from Texas was befriended by the Beatles, annointed by them on UK tv and had his career made—in England, joined by Righteous Bros-soundalikes the Walker Brothers. The highly talented Proby blew his chance of continuing superstardom (or more important, widening it to his homeland) when in early ’65 he was banned by UK theatre chains and BBC-TV for deliberately splitting his tight britches to get a reaction. Tom Jones, on the same tour, took over as the star. Jones and Dusty Springfield squeaked in by the back door—welcomed by American audiences who thought they were black. The favored groups in both Britain and America now typically offered a maximum of volume and minimum of finesse, or hummable singalong melodies set amid this mishmash of so-called “rock and roll”.

Precipitating all this, the shock of the Beatles hitting America was all the more so when it was realised they were only the tip of an ever-broadening iceberg. England was soon so central to the pop culture of the Western World that within two months of the Beatles landing her two feeblest rock and roll pretenders, Brian Poole & the Tremeloes and Freddie & the Dreamers, were greeted with screaming fits in Australia on a package tour with Gerry & the Pacemakers, Dusty Springfield and adopted Yank Gene Pitney. That May the Dave Clark Five were mobbed by 5,000 fans in Washington DC, helped by well-placed pre-publicity; Fred Vail recalls being told that only two of their tour dates made money. In June the Stones dropped in to Chicago’s Chess studio to jam as equals (in fame) with their teachers Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon; but in Sacramento the Stones managed an audience of only a thousand, not helped by the exorbitant $6 price (personal communication, Fred Vail). Yet by the end of the year top US acts Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, the Supremes and almost the entire Motown star roster on a package tour—aside from the Shangri-Las and many less stellar—were obliged to pay return visits to England for sheer commercial reasons, if not to bow to the new Mecca of reconstituted rock and roll.

Cliff, c.1964, now with pompadour and sideburns trimmed like the tamed-down Elvis

Cliff, c.1964, now with pompadour and sideburns trimmed like the tamed-down Elvis

English teen idols with swished-back hair—but otherwise hardly differing from the Beatles—were not welcome in the US and chief among them, Cliff Richard, had suffered more initial rebuffs than the Beatles. ‘Livin’ Doll’ had made top thirty, prompting an invite from The Pat Boone Show New Year 1960. But his only apparent advance was to lead Elvis Presley’s move from rock’n’roll. A huge seller in Europe, especially Germany where Elvis was still stationed in the army, it is hard to believe the song’s sedate shuffle beat didn’t lead directly to ‘Stuck On You’, ‘Good Luck Charm’ and more sounding a lot like Cliff’s pace.

Three years later ‘Lucky Lips’, another massive world seller on the same lines, made a reentry and then late 1963 Cliff’s remake of ‘It’s All in the Game’, his biggest in the US yet, though short of top 20. Unfortunately the Beatles arrived in America just as Cliff was “peaking” and his pompadour went stone-cold-dead out of fashion. Songs like ‘Don’t Talk to Him’ and others written by a combination of Shadows/Cliff were better than Beatle music of the time though maybe it was matched by ‘Please Please Me’ (after being immensely improved by song surgeon George Martin’s revamp). But he was disqualified from serious consideration Stateside for another twelve years, continuing a household name almost everywhere else. His biggest English teen rivals, Adam Faith and Billy Fury, each had a dozen (shrinking) hits into Beatletime at home. Though Faith was pushed by all-powerful Englishman Jack Good, producer of American tv’s Hullabaloo and Shindig, this resulted in a solitary US top forty hit backed by the Roulettes, the rollicking-good ‘It’s Alright’ early in ’65. Fury too had contacts, but neither got within a bargepole of American acceptance.

The Shadows too—backing Cliff but having a spectacular career of their own ex-USA—were surplus to requirements. They’d been blocked in 1960 by one-hit-wonder Danish guitarist Jorgen Ingmann’s cover of their world multi-million seller ‘Apache’; after that, well America already had the Ventures, thanks for askin’.

For UK audiences local teen raves Helen Shapiro, hitting at 14, and Kathy Kirby, specialising in speeded-up Doris Day retreads, vied with Brenda Lee and Connie Francis. Shapiro even went to Nashville to record in 1963 but remained unknown to the rest of the States but for minor Easy Listening hit ‘Tell Me What He Said’. Anyway, Lesley Gore already had the teen girl franchise in America, Connie Stevens runner-up, and sultry Connie Francis and wholesome Annette Funicello between them cornering beach movies. In January of that year the Beatles, with just ‘Love Me Do’ under their belts, were ranked fifth on the Helen Shapiro show touring the UK, behind secondary American teen idols Tommy Roe (‘Sheila’) and Chris Montez (‘Let’s Dance’). By the end of the year they were at the top and she was nowhere, her demise highlighting the useless waste and anti-female bias at the onset of the Beatle era. The Beach Boys would choose her as the main support act on their spring 1967 UK tour and she later made a go of a jazz career.

There were legitimate, barely decipherable routes to American hearts other than on the lacy cuffs and billowing shirttails of the Brit Invasion.

Dusty, late '63, with the thick mascara and beginnings of a La Ronette hairdo, but still in the gingham a la the country-styled Springfields

Dusty, late '63, with the thick mascara and beginnings of a La Ronette hairdo, but still in the gingham a la the country-styled Springfields

The husky ‘black’ voices of Dusty Springfield (‘Wishin’ and Hopin’’, ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’) and Tom Jones (‘It’s Not Unusual’, ‘What’s New Pussycat?’) saw them embraced as Blue-Eyed Soul, as coined by the Righteous Bros. Neither was quite as successful in the blue-eyed genre as Bill Medley & Bobby Hatfield under Phil Spector, though they lasted longer. And each was courteously credited by black artists with opening ears to black tones, though Britain remained immune to any “black” sounds but the poppiest of Motown pop for some years yet. In reality, Dusty was an acceptable torch singer, her forté the intimate whisper that Cilla Black did badly. There was a whole vocal ladder between her and Nancy Wilson or Dinah Washington, and a good few rungs up to Betty Everett or compatriot Shirley Bassey. In the UK real soul singers of the day like P P Arnold, Madeleine Bell and the Flirtations were hardly appreciated compared with the acclaim showered (mainly justly) on Macy Gray, Joss Stone and Amy Whitehouse two generations later.

Touring America early on with the Springfields, Dusty settled as a solo in New York City and remolded herself from a wholesome Irish-styled colleen belting out country-folk to the first Brit girl replicating Soul. To highlight the new image she took up a bleached-blonde variation of the big backcombed beehive hairdo and black eye makeup of the Ronettes. She cited the Exciters’ ‘Tell Him’ as her style model, and her backing vocalists the Breakaways had done a UK cover of ‘He’s a Rebel’ though Phil Spector and the Crystals’ original became the hit. Thank goodness for small mercies because the Brits had accepted everyone from Tommy Steele to Max Bygraves as stand-ins for the real thing—and continued to, as the French did their own in a rock toujour spirit.

Dusty rivalled Dionne Warwick as top songstress in the States through ’64, but then with the second big wave of invasion a songbird reminiscent of a French-styled Vera Lynn won over sentimental (white) hearts.

Euro-chanteuse Petula Clark as 'Downtown' broke, aged 32 -- an age before which Pete Townshend hoped to die.

Euro-chanteuse Petula Clark as 'Downtown' broke, aged 32 -- an age before which Pete Townshend hoped to die.

‘Pet’ Clark was over thirty and well established in middle-aged French cabaret when she introduced ‘Downtown’. A parallel movie career and accomplished stagecraft assured her place as long as the Invasion lasted and an American career as long as there were musicals on Broadway. In 1967, when Aretha Franklin discovered Soul, Pet’s days on Top 40 radio were numbered though two of her biggest hits came the first half of that year: movie director Charlie Chaplin’s ‘This is My Song’ and ‘Don’t Sleep in the Subway’ by her writer/producer Tony Hatch, by his account modeling it after the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.

lulu It wasn’t until this point, when the thrust of the Invasion was blunted, that Lulu made her biggest impact in the US, ‘To Sir With Love’, helped by the movie starring Sidney Poitier, America’s new no.1 box-office star. Resembling a Scottish Brenda Lee, Lulu went on from her ersatz stab at the Isley Bros’ r&b classic ‘Shout’— faked well enough for the British Commonwealth—to develop an individual delivery on her classics including ‘Oh Me, Oh My’. Some years later the Brits would again show their weakness for little girls in their early teens with big, put-on gravel voices by making Lena Zavaroni a star for her talent-quest renditions on tv of ‘Ma, He’s Making Eyes at Me’ and ‘Personality’.

But at the height of the Invasion America was impervious to Britain’s two best-liked girl vocalists, Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw, both tressed in Brit bobs, enjoying one Top 40 hit each, ‘You’re My World’ and ‘Girl Don’t Come’. Cilla, a Liverpool/Cavern mate of the Beatles, was the US flop for manager Brian Epstein—but a British institution, moving effortlessly to television hosting. Model-like Sandie, discovered by Adam Faith, scored a small consolation in ‘(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me’ outselling Dionne Warwick’s version. But she reached her peak in Eurovision Song Quest winner ‘Puppet on a String’—not the Elvis ballad but a horrendous Bavarian-style oompah song beloved of Brits and other Euros that sold four million-plus.

Cilla Black

Cilla Black

Sandie Shaw

Sandie Shaw

Gawky Cilla, overflowing with English working-class “If she can make it I can make it” appeal, made pseudo-operatic versions of Bacharach-Warwick’s ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ and ‘Alfie’. English aping led to such disasters as a cover of ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’’, just pipped to UK no.1 by the original. Cilla, with Manfred Mann, the Hollies, Tremeloes and Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Titch, participated in the decline of British pop in the late Sixties, now reliant on homegrown writers and producers, laid to rest by styleless Marmalades and Love Affairs. The much better Foundations, Amen Corner, The Move and others were unfortunately short-lived.

But with all this—1964 being above all a novelty year—the biggest American impact by UK-based females was made by one-off novelty takes. Overshadowing Dusty and Dionne for three months, “Millie”, Small by name and frame, promoted her native Jamaican ska beat with ‘My Boy Lollipop’ performed at the World Fair in New York with a bevy of dancers sponsored by the newly independent Jamaica’s tourist board. It was a bouncy ditty that went to #2 in Billboard, attracting as much airplay but not sales as the Beach Boys and Four Seasons through early July. The same beat, same everything, was trotted out for lesser hits. Julie Rodgers in early fall trod her footnote in history with ‘The Wedding’, moving seven million in the next eight years—seemingly played at every second wedding in the Western World in that time. The key line “You by my side—that’s how I see us” rang out the death knell of a romantic era.

IN AMERICA PRODUCERS AND SIMPATICO ENGINEERS had wholly realized advances in the studio. Hailed above them all was Phil Spector as creator extraordinaire—now coming to be rivalled by George“Shadow” Morton and Motown’s team Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. All were widely acknowledged for weaving spells at the control panel—a bewildering press-button device looming large in the lives of girl artists as a metaphor for a loss of control over self-expression and their own careers. Spector in particular was widely modelled by aspiring Svengalis around the world but living up to the substance was something else. In Britain the dark shades and bodyguard-henchman clearing the rabble for the royal procession were embellishments adopted by Andrew Loog Oldham, the echo chamber effects overdone by independent producer Joe Meek.

The Rolling Stones in 1964. From left, Bill Wyman, Mick Jagger,  a stoned Brian Jones, Charlie Watts; a young, relatively humanoid Keith Richards.

The Rolling Stones in 1964. From left, Bill Wyman, Mick Jagger, a stoned Brian Jones, Charlie Watts, a young, relatively humanoid Keith Richard

The Animals in 1964: better musicians and singers than the Stones. Eric Burdon is up front, Alan Price on keyboards and bassist Chas Chandler partly obscured

The Animals in 1964: better musicians and singers than the Stones. Eric Burdon is up front, Alan Price on keyboards and bassist Chas Chandler partly obscured

Along with the scene came girl group songwriters admired by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and others. Goffin & King, writing for Little Eva, the Chiffons and Cookies (‘Chains’), wrote ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ for the Animals and later Aretha Franklin’s breakthrough ‘Natural Woman’. Other major New York spousal teams were Mann & Weil—now with ‘Walking in the Rain’ (Ronettes), ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’ (Animals), ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’’ and ‘Soul and Inspiration’ (Righteous Bros); and Barry & Greenwich—an array including ‘Leader of the Pack’ and ‘River Deep, Mountain High’.

Spector, the model of the go-getter entrepreneur, reveled in the chutzpah it took to make a hit out of nothing in a make-or-break showbiz world as the rock’n’roll era wound down in 1959 and businessmen who made their livings from teen music looked for certainty in trends—a predictability that the best, most vibrant rock’n’roll abhorred, by definition. Three of the Beatles turned to Spector above anyone to produce their starting projects and reignite their solo careers. But as rock moved on, the spontaneity of the original rock’n’roll would only be recaptured in moments, and by the most talented artists.

MOVIE LEGENDS — THE MOUNT RUSHMORE FOUR (Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston)

In celebrity, film, generational/fashion, history, morality on April 7, 2008 at 2:37 am

If there are four screen stars with the granite jaws and steely gazes worthy of replacing the presidents’ faces on Mount Rushmore, they are those who rose as actor-producers in the immediate post-World War II era and projected themselves as larger-than-life characters on screen: Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston. Other stars of the era — Richard Widmark, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Victor Mature, Cornel Wilde — miss the category by being not quite as stellar, less predictable and therefore less conventionally heroic.

Gregory Peck

Gregory Peck

Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston

Burt Lancaster

Burt Lancaster

Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas

In their time and for long afterwards they were derided by critical cognoscenti for not being the same type of actor as Olivier or Laughton or Muni, totally losing themselves in their roles. I’ve come to agree with Bette Davis, who, remarking on her Warner Bros studio-mate Paul Muni, regretted that he submerged himself so far into his role that there was little real flesh and blood showing on the screen. Spencer Tracy, if not Fredric March, might have lent something to them — though he too was too much of a thespian and boozer to be a producer. Brando, too, in the end, thought little of his craft, dabbling in directing often to the detriment of his films, and bent as he was on being an activist.

The Rushmore Four were also liberal activists in their day, even Charlton Heston — sticking his neck out for others’ civil rights, like Burt Lancaster, on protest marches with Martin Luther King. Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster were instrumental in breaking down the Hollywood Blacklist, the brick wall of rabid hatred erected by Senator Joe McCarthy and maintained by Nixon and many others starting in the late Forties and persisting for the next fifteen years with few exceptions. Gregory Peck, particularly after he gained civil-rights iconic status through To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), was near the top of Nixon’s dirty tricks hitlist. As far as acting went, the Four were plenty disciplined enough (unlike Brando) and convincing enough to carry the central role in at least a hundred major films between them from 1945 to say, 1975, though the flow had thinned out considerably over the last decade.

Though all could be relied on best to project virility effortlessly on screen — something hardly captured by the Arnies and Sylvesters with all their huffing and puffing, in their biggest, pumped-up bodies — Burt and Kirk were from the start capable of considerable subtlety of emotion along with the naked power, and Gregory and Chuck improved with age. Greg Peck’s early screen performances were described in terms of various levels of inadequacy even by his major biographer. The open implication always was that he made it on his looks in openings at a time when the real, established stars were off at the war. And at the peak of his box-office popularity in the late Forties and early Fifties he was singled out as “the kind of actor that Humphrey Bogart despised”, whatever species of beast that be. Critics held reservations about Charlton Heston because of what was said to be his “reserve” on screen, slow to come to the boil in front of the camera, for example — though probably it was all down to a highly controlled technique. He had considerably more stage experience than the others, after all. And he never quite made the Motion Picture Herald top 10 in personal popularity for any one year though starring in the biggest box-office blockbusters of all through the Fifties: The Greatest Show On Earth, The Ten Commandments for DeMille again, and Ben Hur — supposedly for lack of any deep connection felt by the audience. Lancaster and Douglas were said to be “terrible tempered twins” though not really much alike — renowned for their egos though, as good friends, surrendering status to each other in the many films they made together. Lancaster once suffered from faint praise by co-star Shirley Booth, admittedly a stickler for stage standards of quality, for relatively rare moments of “truth” in Come Back Little Sheba (1952). All were highly regarded for their ability by British audiences, foremost Douglas just shading Lancaster.

Burt (The Killers, 1946) and Kirk (Champion, 1949) were both launched to stardom at age 33. Greg and Chuck made it at 27 — vi Days of Glory (1944) and Dark City (1950) respectively, though a little less convincingly. None had difficulty filling the screen from the outset — better than say, contemporaries Richard Widmark, who just misses this bunch, with Robert Mitchum, missing only for reasons of lackadaisical anti-heroism — but only two of them made the annual top 10 box-office stars lists, and only twice each, Greg and Burt. Kirk and Charlton narrowly missed the honors list several times, as did Widmark and Mitchum. Sure there was more, and hotter, competition for places in those days. But there also wasn’t the all-fired rush for bigger blockbusters every time. Many of their films were actually made to be personally uplifting. Also, for whatever reason, in recent decades the Harrison Fords, Sylvester Stallones, Arnold Schwarzeneggers, Chuck Norrises, Samuel L Jacksons and Jackie Chans have been named top box-office draws when special effects afficionados would go along to see a trained chimp in their roles.

As far as their acting went, some of their roles have rarely been surpassed: Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life (1956) as Vincent Van Gogh and as the disillusioned colonel in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1958). Lancaster, after a swashbuckling period — The Flame and the Arrow (1950), The Crimson Pirate (1952) — applied himself to as versatile an oeuvre as Brando, including such classics as Elmer Gantry (1960) and The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). Watching him recently in Run Silent, Run Deep, up against the old warhorse Clark Gable, admittedly twenty years past his prime, Lancaster came across as fine — sensitive and subtle. Surely, adding that same year his frightening portrayal of abuse of power in The Sweet Smell of Success and of sexual frustration (pursued by Rita Hayworth at her most alluring) in Separate Tables gave him the acting honors for 1958. All of them infuriated a certain type of critic at one time or another — Peck especially for Captain Ahab in Moby Dick and evil Dr Mengele in The Boys from Brazil, “boring” or inert in other roles; Heston for being irredeemably dignified and monumental — as if he could be anything else in his best, most demanding roles; Lancaster for not being “method” enough to need a therapist — so definitely not the actor’s actor in the Fifties; Douglas, though more “method” and facile in displaying feelings, still too much of a hunk to please other, generally weedy actors.

Burt was an acrobat pre-acting, Kirk a professional wrestler, and Greg and Chuck similarly athletic. That by itself is enough in most circles to consign them to the monosyllabic Action Man category and disqualify them from serious artistic consideration today, when slightly built, androgynous Johnnny Depps, Brad Pitts, Matt Damons and Leonardo DiCaprios rule.

All four retreated to rather routine westerns in the latter 1960s to extend their commercial lives — and all were better for their presence. At the same time they continued extending their experience in different types of roles, just as other old timers essayed risky roles late in the decade, giving their last hurrahs in ground-breaking blockbusters: Tony Curtis (The Boston Strangler), John Wayne (True Grit), Henry Fonda (Once Upon a Time in the West), Rod Steiger (Waterloo), George C Scott (Patton), with Marlon Brando (The Godfather) still to come. Of the four, as always Lancaster and Douglas did best in attempting to stretch the boundaries. Heston (Planet of the Apes) was the only one to lower himself to “disaster movies”, though he fitted them in to finance his Shakespeare and other literary classics.

Douglas produced and directed the anti-establishment western Posse (1975) before semi-retiring into the production side; Peck the same, emerging on screen for superior horror The Omen (1976). Lancaster did best through this era with 1900 and Atlantic City. All four boasted marriage partnerships of extraordinary duration, especially where Hollywood is concerned. And all lived at least into their mid-eighties, Douglas still going at 92, again maybe reflecting outstanding professionalism and discipline.

CHARLTON HESTON: AMERICAN ICON

In celebrity, film, history on April 6, 2008 at 10:43 pm
Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur in William Wyler's film

Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur in William Wyler's film

The death of Charlton Heston two days ago at age 84 has once again brought out all the termites from the woodwork — those who think Anna Nicole Smith and Marilyn Monroe were equals in popular culture, and who feed on the downfall of Anna and great individuals just the same. Uppermost in reporters’ obituaries are a still of Heston as Moses parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956) — as if to imply Heston thought he personally had that power — his suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, and the fact that, in later life, he blotted his liberal copybook as head of the National Rifle Association. It’s hardly a unique failing for a star actor to believe they have superior abilities in other directions — Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood, Shirley Maclaine, Arnie Schwarzennegger, Oprah Winfrey to name a few — so I will concentrate on Heston’s legacy in the main event of his life.

At the height of his career from 1956 to 1968 he was the foremost screen figure in historical roles. It is hard to believe that he was something of a fluke for his role as Moses. From his mid-twenties he had played such demanding epic roles as Marc Antony, Andrew Jackson and Buffalo Bill. And Cecil B DeMille himself had used him as the central figure in the contemporary blockbuster The Greatest Show On Earth (1952). For Ben Hur (1959), made by William Wyler for MGM, Heston was some way down the list in line for the role, behind Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando and one or two others. But it is hard to picture now anyone but Heston as the modern Ben Hur.

Kirk Douglas made good attempts to impinge on Heston’s historical epic territory with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Ulysses (both 1955), The Vikings (1958) and Spartacus (1960); Gregory Peck with David and Bathsheba (1951), Moby Dick (1956), The Guns of Navarone (1961) and a few other more tame costumers; Burt Lancaster the same. But The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur each set spectacular box-office records — the only films to even approach Gone With the Wind in earnings in the twenty years since.

Chuck went on in El Cid (1961) and 55 Days at Peking (1963) and then when overblown costume epics suddenly stopped returning their massive outlay — as with Cleopatra and, spectacularly, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) — one star carried on unaffected, still drawing crowds into The Greatest Story Ever Told as John the Baptist, The Agony and the Ecstasy as Michelangelo, The Warlord (all 1965), Khartoum (1966) as General Gordon, and of course Planet of the Apes (1968) as a futuristic hero of the human race.

Most of these films he carried by himself as sole box-office draw, and along the way out-acted such prestigious names as Laurence Olivier. Yet, never once did he appear in the annual top 10 box-office stars lists. This fact is incomprehensible in an age when Samuel L jackson can claim to be all-time box-office champion by virtue of appearing in some of the biggest box-office takers in history through an era of outlandish prices — even though unrecognizable in Star Wars and others.

It has been said by film historians that he was not overly popular with audiences because his portrayals were impersonal, not intimate enough to engage the viewers on a deeply personal level. If this is so, it is my guess they were suitably awestruck by the fact that Heston appeared to be whatever monumental figure he was playing and certain didn’t need — or wheedle for — audience sympathy in the way that ‘great’ actors like Brando, Olivier and Laughton did.

Clint Eastwood, Movie Legend: Happy 50th Anniversary!

In celebrity, film, ideology, morality on March 27, 2008 at 11:44 am
Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, directed by Don Siegel (1971)

Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, directed by Don Siegel (1971)

Let me be the first to congratulate Clint Eastwood for reaching fifty years as a star. At least, 1958 marked his first appearance in a featured/ensemble role, in Lafayette Escadrille, about the famous flying squadron, alongside Tab Hunter, David Janssen and Darren McGavin. It was only a moderate attraction considering it was directed by that air-ace movie expert William Wellman. But Clint seems to have taken it to heart because for the fifty years since he’s specialised in man’s-man movies with women used as not much more than decoration at best, often as rape fodder. I get the idea he made The Bridges of Madison County just so he could finally win the women over.

There’s no doubt in my mind that, along the way, he superseded the all-American hero that Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, James Stewart and John Wayne once represented. All of them had other strings to their bows of course, Cooper being the most limited in range; I’ve never seen him in a comedic role but for Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire (1941), a romantic comedy with Barbara Stanwyck in which he employs his standard “Aw shucks” shtick as a naive professor this time: a classic of conception and writing by Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett. Clint, apart from a couple of ape-slapstick movies, the same.

Clint’s first starring role on tv, Rawhide, which began screening in the New Year of 1959, had some whimsical moments. Mainly, as the ramrod of the trail drive, he was a tough guy again, but in the early years of the series ranged too to a little goofy and awkward at times to contrast with the older (only five years separated them in reality), experienced and hardened trail boss Gil Favor played well by Eric Fleming. (Given that Sergio Leone came to Hollywood in 1964 first to meet Fleming, who had made a huge impression on everybody in the command of his role, and “settled for” Clint for his spaghetti westerns, it’s irresistibly tempting to wonder, “What if…?” See my separate column on Rawhide and Eric Fleming.) And when Clint became a full-fledged star in 1967, on the big screen, via the “Man With No Name” trilogy — A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, he represented the all-American for a totally new generation where most of the time it was hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Gable and Coop were dead, Fonda and Stewart semi-retired, the Duke at 60 still active but slowing down. That year Duke Wayne starred with Robert Mitchum and James Caan in El Dorado, one of Hawks’ finest westerns that can stand alongside any other in the Sixties. But the new generation of Kennedy-King survivors were anarchists thriving on (on-screen) violence, taking over from disillusioned peace-lovers — who probably weren’t moviegoers anyway, judging from box-office results.

My favorite Clint period must be his first decade, where he showed as much variety as he was capable of, before narrowing his focus down to what might be called “The Clint Eastwood Genre”; Sylvester Stallone and then Arnie Schwarzenegger further focused down to an ‘action’ formula that would infect Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, even Anthony Hopkins among many others. Following on from his opening western series, Clint did war movies Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes, the musical Paint Your Wagon — not as bad as it’s made out to be — and created the classic character Dirty Harry. Play Misty for Me and The Eiger Sanction were interesting and showed more variety, but his cowboys got ever nastier — Joe Kidd, High Plains Drifter — until the reformed outlaw, Josey Wales. For me this picture did what Unforgiven (1992) was hailed for doing, more artificially, sixteen years later. Here Clint plays a reformed gunfighter, a conspicuous man of peace, who in the last five minutes of screen time reverts to the Clint we all know, blazing away indiscriminantly with his six-guns: “Killed most anything that walked or crawled, one time or another…”

In between, amid a lot of dross, came the engrossing Escape from Alcatraz (1979), another of his best directed by Don Siegel, and spy thrillerFirefox (1982), almost as good in a low-key way. Toward the end of that decade he worked his way more into direction (Bird, etc).

This brings us to In the Line of Fire following up Unforgiven, when Clint was 63. This week must be the fourth time I’ve watched it on tv. Written by Jeff Maguire, it always seemed to me a well-plotted thriller with all the necessary suspense, etc, but only now am I grasping its underlying message, which is none too inspiring. And I would dispute Leonard Maltin’s assertion that Eastwood has never been better.

As far as the theme goes, it makes a hero of a pretty dumb guy, despite his conspicuous jazz snobbery and ability tickling the ivories. I think the lesson of the movie is that you can bumble your way through life (he loses his wife and daughter) and your career (apparently in thirty years in the Secret Service he has never rated a promotion) and still qualify as an all-American hero. Throughout, he is pathetically led by the nose by the villain Mitch Leary, a.k.a. “Booth” played by John Malkovich; bullies his young partner (Dylan McDermott) to stay on the force through serious panic attacks and ends up directly responsible for his death; and despite being an obnoxious old fart wins the knockout gorgeous woman as usual — in this case Rene Russo, an exception in being only one generation adrift from Clint’s age.

It helps that his boss is his buddy (John Mahoney) and has saved his ass a hundred times from being terminated from the Secret Service since bungling his first big assignment: protecting JFK in the motorcade at Dallas. Never mind, despite the fact that there are “229” people guarding the president at a banquet, Clint and girlfriend Rene are somehow at the center of things, barking orders at everyone in sight to ensure the president is saved. Clint also pulls through, unlike genius “Booth”. I can’t help thinking this is a movie deliberately contrived for a male audience that might vote in a dumb president because he is the one they “would most like to have a beer with”, even though someone as unexciting as genuine war hero cum intellectual John Kerry slaughtered him in a series of tv debates on the issues. Is it an accident that the genius is a paranoid, homicidal maniac and the hero a dumb, ordinary screw-up? Even catching a glimpse of his own personal file at some stage — Clint calls himself “a borderline burnout with questionable social skills” — doesn’t give him any insight into himself. Somehow, Clint’s character, Frank Corrigan, in his mid-fifties, the age he is playing, retains his professional confidence fully intact, even overblown to the point of arrogance; to say nothing of his sexual confidence, able to draw much younger women though coming out with some juvenile lines of sexual innuendo.

It only got better for Clint in the sex department at the end of the millennium, as he crowded seventy. I once did a review of a movie from 1999 where he seemed to have stepped into a Brad Pitt role that Clint had to take over at the last minute — an alcoholic this time, a full burnout, having lost his wife and child again, but showing off saggy abs and having nubile 23-year-olds falling all over him. I’ll have to dig it up some time.

MOVIE LEGENDS — Women’s Liberation in the Film Biz

In celebrity, film, generational/fashion on March 26, 2008 at 2:46 am

No, I’m not talking about this era of the new millennium — when women movie stars are only superstars in magazines. I’m defining the era of more freedom in the media for women from the time commercial movies began. Men from all over the world had contributed to the invention and technical development of filmmaking apparatus, only for women to grab a bigger and bigger slice of the cake once it was obvious “The Movies” were turning into big business.

From the start, some of the most admired and successful screenwriters — Frances Marion, Jeanie Mcpherson, Anita Loos — and particularly starring actors, were female. In America, from 1910, Florence Turner and Florence Lawrence were as popular as any male star of the day, and from 1914-15, Mary Pickford, Pearl White and Theda Bara more so. Their equivalents in Europe were international superstars the androgynous, “mannish” looking Asta Nielsen who would play Hamlet, and Francesca Bertini, so seductively feminine she had perfume and fashions named after her from Paris to Tokyo. In 1913 a film starring 60-year-old French stage veteran and one-legged amputee “The Divine” Sarah Bernhardt, circulating the United States, made so much money it allowed distributor Adolph Zukor to found Paramount Pictures — proving it was not just the “cheesecake” angle that was successful.

Gene Gauntier

Gene Gauntier

At that period too, beginning before the First World War, Gene Gauntier of the Kalem studio was a combination of highly paid star and screenwriter, while Lois Weber at Universal was among the highest paid directors and producers — and usually starred in her films — moreover specialising in ‘modern’ women’s issues such as abortion and white slavery as her subjects. Alice Guy, head of production at France’s highly prolific and prestigious Gaumont, had formed the template at the turn of the century for such ‘behind the scenes’ women. Later in the US she started the Solax production company, admired for its high standards. But somehow, apart from directing the whole scenario as a screenwriter, not being able to show off in front of the camera didn’t appeal to most women attracted to showbiz.

The popularity of women on screen overtook that of men in the late Twenties and peaked through the Thirties. By the mid-Twenties, Mary Pickford, Norma Talmadge and Gloria Swanson were all on contracts guaranteeing them a million dollars a year; Barbara LaMarr and Colleen Moore similarly averaging $250,000 a film — equivalent to a great deal more than Elizabeth Taylor’s million-dollar fee in 1962, and considering there was then virtually no income tax to pay, probably more than Julia Roberts got at her peak.

La Talmadge: bigger at the box-office than Pickford or Swanson through the last  six years of silents, 1923-28

La Talmadge: bigger at the box-office than Pickford or Swanson through the last six years of silents, 1923-28

Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich were the only stars to sustain these rewards into the Depression years, when austerity measures were introduced and even screen stars were taxed much more. The biggest box-office draw of the early Thirties, bar none, was the extremely homely, elderly Marie Dressler — a union activist in the movie industry and boasting a great comedic talent: everything but cheesecake. Behind her was sweet’n’wholesome Janet Gaynor, who necessarily adopted a policy of tight secrecy about her sexuality, succeeded by Shirley Temple at the very top through the rest of the Thirties. Other top female stars made appearances at the top of the pay heap through the decade: staunch capitalist Corinne Griffith, socialite Constance Bennett, Mae West, Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, and into the Forties, Bette Davis, Deanna Durbin, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and Ginger Rogers.

Money is power, and I needn’t belabor the point here that women have always been at least as adept as men at wielding any power that comes their way. Unfortunately, beginning around 1938, certain powers in the movie industry made sure that particularly independent-minded female stars like Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Mae West, Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn were tarred and feathered as “box-office poison”. All were ‘run out of town’, dead or drastically demoted in the industry. Only Hepburn, Crawford and Dietrich survived at all — because able to reinvent themselves at other studios. And it has never been remotely the same ever since for Hollywood women as far as the power game goes. Sure, more women are directors these days but that isn’t where the power lies.

MOVIE LEGENDS — Is 40 the New Teen?

In celebrity, film, generational/fashion on March 10, 2008 at 8:21 am

Think of Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Leonardo Di Caprio, Matt Damon and a few others who have made it to the top in Hollywood in the past decade and what descriptive words pass through your mind, assuming you’re not a pubescent female? Juvenile? Weedy? Androgynous? Certainly, looking at the films of the first three named above, it is striking how much prettier they were when starting out than their leading ladies on the screen. Other Oscar winners like George Clooney and Denzel Washington might best be described as bland — I’m comparing them to their earlier equivalents, say Clark Gable and Sidney Poitier respectively.

Brad Pitt: looking boyish even behind the suit and grown-up moustache

Brad Pitt: looking boyish even behind the suit and grown-up moustache

And for all the gay innuendo passed off today about late-Thirties ‘pretty boys’ Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power, they were still willing to take the weight of the world on their shoulders when the time came — in a World War. War turned them middle-aged before their time. But think about it… At the age of 42, as Brad Pitt goes around wearing his cap backwards like a street kid — and is the breeding stock of choice for probably millions of women today — Clark Gable was fighting the good fight in daylight raids over Germany, risking his life daily as a tail gunner.

Leonardo DiCaprio: pedophile-candy, even in adulthood

Leonardo DiCaprio: pedophile-candy, even in adulthood

As a general rule these days, young people take on less and less personal responsibility. Today I watched the Dr Phil show as he repeatedly berated a young man who in his early twenties had succumbed to deliberate sexual exhibitionism by a 15-year-old who came on to him. Dr Phil, a psychologist, again and again beat the young man up with The Law, purposefully ignoring his guest’s psychology to paint him as the bad guy. In his own defense this army veteran pleaded that he had experienced the war in Afghanistan and Iraq and as a stress coper became addicted to pornography, which gave way to sex addiction. Phil McGraw’s argumentative reply was “Are you qualified to make that diagnosis?”

Well, Phil is actually older than me, but I can’t help but think that for a good ole Oklahoma boy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and has 30 years’ experience as a psychologist, he has seen very little of real life — or takes his own books too seriously. The first clue that would have occurred to most people is “war casualty”. Not Dr Phil. My grandmother, who was raised not very far from Oklahoma, was married and had a child by fifteen and a half. As were a lot of people in those days, she was ready and willing to take on full adult responsibilities. In contrast, Phil McGraw, admittedly to suit his purpose, kept referring to this 15-year-old girl in question as a “child”, when she might just as easily be a mother.

And, don’t forget, when it suits The Law, it is quite capable of treating 15-year-olds and younger as “adult offenders”. This must have slipped Phil’s mind.

ROCK MUSIC — BEACH BOYS JOIN CAPITOL RECORDS, MAY 1962

In celebrity, history, music on February 11, 2008 at 10:40 am

Excerpt #3 from BEACH BOYS vs BEATLEMANIA: Rediscovering Sixties Music by G. A. De Forest, published by Booklocker.com and available for around $19.95 from Amazon, Borders, Books-a-Million, Barnes & Noble or any other of your favorite Internet stops

Sales peak thus far: #23 on Amazon.com’s hot 100 Music History & Criticism books, April 26th 2008

Early Capitol publicity shot of the Beach Boys, May 1962

Early Capitol publicity shot of the Beach Boys, May 1962. Top row, from left, Brian Wilson, Mike Love; bottom row from left, Carl Wilson, Dave Marks, Dennis Wilson.

Problem #1: According to Nick Venet (in Tom Nolan, 1972), as the company wallahs celebrated their twentieth anniversary in Hollywood, he was at this time the only one of Capitol’s management aged under 62; the others are therefore older than Bing Crosby, Capitol’s most famous client among a roster of legends but now retired golfing at Palm Springs. Among numerous investments that would make him almost as rich as his pal Bob Hope, he went into tv production (Hogan’s Heroes).

From the current generation, just to get on the rock’n’roll bandwagon, scouting and auditioning of hundreds of prospects in 1956 had netted Gene Vincent & his Blue Caps. But Gene was long gone to the UK where he was hero-worshipped, and had not been replaced—unless the pretend “rock and roll” of Tommy Sands counted (‘Teenage Crush’, 1957). LA’s top r&b performer, Johnny Otis (‘Willie and the Hand Jive’, 1958), had trouble crossing over to the pop market. Country chanteuse Wanda Jackson remodelled herself into a rock’n’roller—‘Let’s Have a Party’—and added young glamor to the Capitol lineup through the sixties. While replicating the gruffer side of Brenda Lee she never managed top twenty, switching back to country and still releasing on Capitol into the seventies.

So, far removed from the priorities of youth, tuned out from rock music and the special requirements of the Beach Boys, Capitol bosses were heavily committed to a mature market for such prestigious ‘young’ artists in their portfolio as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Nat ‘King’ Cole—all just one generation adrift in their mid-forties—and the spritely Al Martino, 35, ten years later awarded a comeback in The Godfather by Marlon Brando making an offer that couldn’t be refused. Capitol’s jazz greats Judy Garland and Peggy Lee were entering middle age and still popular with the veteran audience but, established for more than twenty years, could hardly be called promising prospects. There was nothing the Beach Boys could do apart from Murry’s constant cajoling to get the company’s attention, short of severing the head off Bing’s putter for some big shot’s bed.

It must have been all these seniors could do to pretend any kind of empathy even with the straight, collegiate-style Four Freshmen & Preps and Lettermen already on Capitol’s books.

The Kingston Trio, c.1961

The Kingston Trio, c.1961

What relationship they could find with their most popular young incumbents is anyone’s guess: folk group the Kingston Trio, prone to left-wingish social statements in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, the Weavers and other proletarian, people’s troubadours—of whom Peter, Paul & Mary were the latest, but on Warner Bros. The Kingstons—hailing from Hawaii and Southern California but named after Jamaica’s capital of Calypso Folk—had in the spring just past celebrated their biggest hit in three years, ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’—and would have three top forty hits in 1963 plucked from popular albums.

Bing, the most successful recording star of the quarter-century from 1930, and the biggest box-office star in movies through the middle of that period, had come to Capitol when his hit-making days were over, other than drives, chips and putts; he would die on a golf course in Spain. Lowlights he had to look forward to in 1962 were a return of his ‘White Christmas’, which had sold 30 million—but on Decca—and a minor Xmas outing next year for Capitol, ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’, much later remade by Mike Love in solo career.

But, as Capitol would advertise on the dust-slips of Beach Boy albums through the Sixties, Bing remained one of the label’s prides along with acts as diverse as recently deceased thespian Charles Laughton, operetta show-tune belter Gordon McRae, Pasadena parodier Stan Freberg, Soul crooner Lou Rawls, black and soulful Nancy Wilson and Ketty Lester, jazzman Cannonball Adderley, country & western stars Sonny James and Buck Owens, and the orchestra of Carmen Dragon, musical director at the Hollywood Bowl and father of Daryl Dragon, later to feature prominently as a session man for the group, a collaborator with Dennis Wilson and the husband and Captain of Tennille.

In other words, the Beach Boys were not exactly the single-minded focus of this major label that wanted to be all things to all listeners. Capitol tended to poach established stars, and many former staffers from the sixties have been scathing about the company’s lack of insight in picking quality in new performers. As one put it, as one might expect from a company represented by Bozo the Clown, “They threw stuff at the wall to see what would stick.” New York vocal group the Tokens, coming from their one huge hit, were hired by Capitol early in 1962 as producers on a one-year contract. Learning to produce as they went along, all ten demo recordings they submitted were rejected including the last, a lively r&b number which they got the Chiffons to record independently on Laurie. Having been knocked back on this song by other labels, a simple rejection letter wasn’t enough for Capitol and the Tokens were treated to a full description by Voyle Gilmore memo of just “how bad it stunk”, according to Token Phil Margo who played drums on the record. ‘He’s So Fine’ became the most durable no.1 of 1963, and copying the melody for ‘My Sweet Lord’ landed Beatle George Harrison in trouble years later.

Of the middle-agers Frank Sinatra had recently founded his own label, Reprise, breaking out of a long fallow period that wasn’t bringing many residual sales for Capitol. “Old Blue Eyes”‘s bestselling albums from the fifties, including Come Fly With Me, would wait for a new millennium to be certified gold. Hollywood-Las Vegas “Rat Pack” buddy Dean Martin followed him from Capitol. Near-namesake Martino stayed a company man sharing in the middle-aged market: ‘I Love You Because’, ‘I Love You More Everyday’, ‘Spanish Eyes’, ‘Mary in the Morning’—as did Cole: ‘Ramblin’ Rose’, ‘Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer’, until cut down by cancer early in ’65.

None—young, old or in between—could live in the same ballpark as the Beach Boys: rookies of the year promising a third-base hit every time up at bat, thickly peppered with high-flying homers. The softening of the way for later rock groups arriving at Capitol—including the Beatles—might be jotted under “Beach Boys: runs batted in”. Capitol’s runner-up harmony act, the Lettermen, whose pristine but low-energy sound was already spacing their top 40 hits out three years apart, couldn’t compete. The Four Preps, popular on campuses for their satirical revues, had started strong with the almost rock’n’roll “I was a ‘Big Man’ yesterday—but boy you oughtta see me now” amid gentler fare. Now they were noted for satirical parodies ‘The Big Draft’, and to come, ‘A Letter to the Beatles’.

From the day they signed it was obvious (if only to Nick Venet at Capitol) that the Beach Boys would be the most important thing to happen to the company for the foreseeable future—i.e. over the next year or so. He disdained their youthful cockiness though only 23 himself, and at the time even he doubted their durability. But Capitol had nothing to lose and everything to gain by going all out on the group. It didn’t happen that way.

bobby-darin[Bobby Darin: Mr Cool of 1962 and supposed successor to Frank Sinatra]

BOBBY DARIN, ROCK’N’ROLLER THROUGH ‘SPLISH SPLASH’ and ‘Queen of the Hop’, switching to crown prince of the teen idols with ‘Dream Lover’, had restyled himself as a junior Sinatra by redoing classics ‘Mack the Knife’, ‘Beyond the Sea’ and ‘Up the Lazy River’ in a swept-up jazz style, not even the so-called rock and roll beloved of teenieboppers. In late summer ’62 came his biggest hit for some time, the self-penned (“Thinkin’ about”) ‘Things’, and Capitol lured him from the home of Drifters/Coasters r&b, up-and-coming Atlantic where creative conditions were right to make all Darin’s hits. Capitol must have suspected they didn’t have the producing scope to match Atlantic and his star dimmed within a year. The time and energy they spent on Bobby went to waste though Venet, seeing the Beach Boys handle themselves in the studio, relished his time in New York recording him. Bobby would return to Atlantic when it had grown into a major. For the burgeoning career of the Beach Boys it meant just one more distraction for their new record label that they couldn’t afford.

Hard up against Motown, girl groups, the Beach Boys and Four Seasons, the time for crooners was over. They were slow to get the message from young record buyers, insulated by continuing high play by radio stations as a hopeful alternative to rock’n’roll. Yet by late 1962 Fifties survivors Pat Boone and Paul Anka disappeared from even Billboard’s top twenty, Darin following in another six months—the most youthful, Ricky Nelson, reprieved for a further semester.

There would be little recognition from the management of the fact that within a year of the group joining Capitol the company was boosted from lowly eighth place to second in singles sales figures (Murry Wilson in Tom Nolan). 1963 would see it overtake such industry giants as RCA, Decca, Philips, Mercury, Warners and ABC-Paramount and drive clear of hungry youth specialists Atlantic, Motown, Cameo-Parkway and Philles—thanks to the Beach Boys’ seven songs in and around Billboard’s top twenty that year: exactly half of Capitol’s biggest hits.

The prior claims of the sedate, white vocal quartets signed by Gilmore and Venet (who had to sneak even the unchallenging Lettermen in through the back door) explains why Capitol repeatedly through the Sixties attempted to tone down the Beach Boys’ rock sound—by eliminating the instrumental grunt from the group’s recordings by electronic processing, sanitising them into pale reissues, resembling as far as practicable the old-styled groups’ mannered, almost monastic harmonies. In early ’63 Brian went in tears to Murry, complaining, “They’re changing our sound.”: a situation not wholly remedied by ‘going independent’ in the middle of that year; Capitol still owned the master tapes. It was the opposite of what they did for the Beatles, beefing up the volume and other rock-enhancing effects. Listeners always had to tweak up the volume knob on a gramophone to even hear the Beach Boys. Aside from consistently castrating the drums and bass, and boosting the treble-scale giving them an anaemic ‘whitebread’ taint, the most notorious specific example of wanton interference has to be hacking off the ending, the climax, of ‘Fun Fun Fun’ as heard on the Brian Wilson-produced single— Brian’s wailing falsetto refrain backed up by Dennis’s thumping-good drum flourishes: mindlessly deleted and not restored until the 1990s.
If not exactly cultural vandalism ranking with drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa, such interference in an artist’s work can hardly have had a parallel since the Renaissance. Did 18th Century sheet music salesmen ‘improve on’ Haydn or Mozart scores for publication? The attitude would worsen—undoubtedly a factor in the Beach Boys being written off in many circles as lightweights: a speeded-up version of the insipid offerings that proved readily acceptable to Middle America from Capitol’s college glee club foursomes. But, come to that, they were white, with whatever advantages (and later disadvantages) that brought.

ROCK MUSIC — Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: SURFIN’ US/K

In celebrity, generational/fashion, history, music, politics, television on February 10, 2008 at 1:04 am

Excerpt #2 from BEACH BOYS vs BEATLEMANIA: Rediscovering Sixties Musicby G. A. De Forest, published by Booklocker.com and available for around $19.95 from Amazon, Borders, Books-a-Million, Barnes & Noble or any other of your favorite Internet stops

Sales peak thus far: #23 on Amazon.com’s hot 100 Music History & Criticism books, April 26th 2008


In 1965 the world was looking scary — and not only because the most inane warblings of the British Invasion looked like they were here to stay. Twenty years after the end of WWII it turned out that old tensions and seething enmities between cultures had only been swapped for new ones. The USSR, China, and satellites Eastern Europe, Cuba, North Korea and North Vietnam lined up against The West. In January, Britain’s Winston Churchill, savior of western democracy and hawk of the Cold War, died. Khruschev of the USSR had been deposed for not bringing the West to heel though his USA opposite number John F Kennedy was dead a year. In little more than twelve months the three potent figures of the post-War world were gone.

In February and March two events denied all the brief Kennedy Era stood for. Malcolm X, Black Muslim and leader in the civil rights movement, was murdered, spurring race riots in the Watts district of LA. And President Lyndon B Johnson (“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”) committed the first combat troops to Vietnam, an undeclared war plaguing the American psyche long past its ten-year duration.

The Beach Boys, summer of '64, three months before their first UK visit. From left, Carl Wilson, leader Brian Wilson, middle brother Dennis Wilson, cousin Mike Love, and Brian's Hawthorne High School grid iron teammate Al Jardine

The Beach Boys, summer of '64, three months before their first UK visit. From left, little brother Carl Wilson (lead guitar, vocals), big brother and leader Brian Wilson (bass guitar, keyboards, falsetto harmony and lead vocals), middle brother Dennis Wilson (drums, vocals), cousin Mike Love (lead vocals, occasional saxophone), and Brian's Hawthorne High School grid iron teammate Al Jardine (rhythm guitar, occasional lead vocals)

The Beach Boys, victims of their idealism, were about to be trapped in a time warp, objects to be vivisected by the fashion police. For a year pop commentators had questioned the reason for being of these stubborn squares who seemed naïvely unaware of all Beatledom had to offer. The Byrds, switching to folk rock and Dylan, still made the effort to look and sound like Beatles; everyone knew they were “America’s answer” to them. It was “in” and “far out” to conform to the new ‘Counterculture’.

Dennis had gone some way toward beatlesque, hair-wise, in summer ’64; a year later the others were looking fluffier too, if not longer, yet. Mike grew a neatly trimmed beard to distract from his thinning hair, lending a ‘Peter, Paul & Mary’ professorial look to the frontman of a group already up against it with ever younger record-buyers. In November 1966 for their Good Vibrations tour of the UK the eldest Beach Boy — months younger than Ringo Starr and John Lennon — would go the whole hog for the Oxford don look, posing for group publicity stills dressed eccentrically in British tweed, country gentleman’s cap and holding a pipe. Brian (to be replaced in spring 1965 by the lean and handsome, if bland, Bruce Johnston for touring) and Carl were unfashionably chubby — and still clean-shaven unlike the bulky turned-on musos of San Francisco psychedelia just emerging, who knew where it was at and let it all hang out: Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Bob Hite of Canned Heat…. It was all a clear snub to populism: the Beach Boys would go their own way, in their own time.

FEBRUARY 15TH 1965 BROUGHT A REALISATION THAT irreplaceable figures had died in the past two months: Sam Cooke, murdered; Alan Freed of a failing spirit; now Nat King Cole of lung cancer. For the Beach Boys the year opened with their first ever shows in Canada — good for a dozen big hits so far, their second expedition into the foreign territory of the British Commonwealth (following Australasia a year before). First came a date at Vancouver, the French city of Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. Brian, hungry for new experiences, plays all but the last, replaced by Glen Campbell. They will take in the same round of cities again in September, with Bruce Johnston and supported by new stars Sonny & Cher.

BBstoday On vinyl, from the completed Beach Boys Today, a new 45 is lifted that fatal February day. On top of a wall of sound but in a flourish of driving, modernized rock, is their rebirth of ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’ both spirited and lush — so maybe too American. Dennis’s sole solo hit, it’s the top debut in the Nashville top 40; streaks fifteen places into the St Louis ten to quench a nine-month drought there; L C Cooke, brother of Sam, rushes out an alternative version that hits the St Louis r&b chart. In the Midwest’s Chicagoland, Milwaukee, Twin Cities, Cincinnati, the Southwest’s Dallas, Phoenix, Tulsa and the Eastern Seaboard’s Washington DC, Baltimore, New England, Newark, Hartford, it is top five with West Coast markets Seattle, Portland, San Jose, San Diego — though here sales are split with its B-side (haunting ballad ‘Please let Me Wonder’); #6 in the South’s St Louis, Memphis, Norfolk, Richmond; lower top ten Montreal, San Francisco, Vancouver, Kansas City. Taking off the gloss are below par receptions just outside in Philadelphia, New York (best at WINS, #12-13, its level in the major national hit parades), Miami and Toronto; and languishing lower top 20 on the playlists at influential stations in Detroit, Houston, Pittsburgh and hometown LA (where it nonetheless peeks in at #6 at local stations in Van Nuys and San Bernardino). Elevated to no.5 in the ShowTime chart distributed to newspapers nationwide, additionally no.8 by United Press International, and no.9 by Gilbert’s youth survey for the Associated Press, mainstream in the leading trade papers (Billboard, Cash Box, Variety) it is no threat to Herman’s Hermits and Freddie & the Dreamers with their red carpet treatment from the media and squatting pampered in the Brit penthouse hosted by the Yanks. The current WABC-New York sales survey, covering the USA’s biggest market, lists Brit acts taking 11 of the top 16 tunes.

In the UK it wasn’t released (‘All Summer Long’ was — later celebrated by George Lucas at the end credits of his American Graffiti but a joke in terms of the hard tack Brits expected from groups at the time), maybe because EMI feared it could take long-term sales from its Cliff Richard & the Shadows’ 45. Following as it did their recent European tour, ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’ should have reinstated them on the Continent, which had given the previous two singles the silent treatment. While it was bought in loyal Scandinavia and played in Italy, it was invisible in Germany, France, Holland and now Australia too, preoccupied with all things Fab.

‘Please Let Me Wonder’ went to #1 as the chosen ‘A’ in San Jose and San Bernardino; #3 in Chicago, Seattle and upstate New York; similarly top five in Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Sacramento; top ten Philadelphia, San Francisco, Houston, San Diego, Milwaukee, Columbus, Hartford, Fresno; Los Angeles, Detroit, Miami, San Antonio, Denver, Vancouver, Buffalo the twenty. It drove to no.9 separately in the Associated Press chart a week before its designated A-side but stalled halfway up the two big charts’ top hundreds, though rising to no.32 in Variety. It is a favorite on compilation albums and retrospective videos.

April 21st they played both sides on Shindig, ‘Help Me Rhonda’ just released and pocket jams of ‘Fun Fun Fun’ and ‘Long Tall Texan’, demolishing English guests Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders and Cilla Black, producer Jack Good still plugging his countrymen and women though as many would come unstuck as stick; no.1 Italian songstress Rita Pavone also ran. They met up too on set with the Shangri-Las and the Ikettes—from that first bill over three years before.

Both hits were — happily — out of sync with prevailing (lack of) taste, which saw what was already a year-long lapse accelerate into a headlong dive. The public was forcefed the silliest pop ditties yet, Top 40 stations now programmed via remote control by bosses in the biggest cities at network h.q.s, even star DJs straightjacketed from injecting local content or personal favorites. Songs masticated into the new chew for a few weeks, losing what bland flavor they had. Previously this trend was signalled by the Beatles’ superior ‘And I Love Her’ and somewhat lesser ‘If I Fell’, both lapped up by sentimental moviegoers. The Dave Clark Five jumped at the Beatles’ lead, and made them utterly sickening: ‘Because’, ‘Everybody Knows’ — two glutinous-syrupy ballads vying with Brian Poole & the Tremeloes’ ‘Someone, Someone’ for most nauseating weepie of the era.

The Beach Boys sustained their fun-loving, exuberant image, seen in a stocktake-of-things-that-matter Carl wrote for Tiger Beat:

Brian: a Cadillac Eldorado and Mustang

Dennis: a Ferrari and Cobra

Mike, the real collector: a Pontiac MG, Jaguar and Classic MG

Carl: an Aston Martin (James Bond style), Triumph 500 motorbike

Al, ever sensible: a lone T-Bird, as featured in ‘Fun Fun Fun’

The Beach Boys posing with their muscle cars a year before in early '64, the Beatles about to arrive (as can be seen by Brian's experimental hairstyle): From left, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, Mike Love

The Beach Boys posing with their muscle cars a year before in early '64, the Beatles about to arrive (as can be seen by Brian's experimental hairstyle): From left, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, Mike Love

By now the three Wilson brothers had bought their own homes on the outskirts of Hollywood. Mike and Al stayed close to home at Manhattan Beach. A roll call of Dennis’s pets told much of the elemental Beach Boy: two (wild, freedom-loving) horses, an otter (at home in water), a parakeet named after mother Audree, a power-dog German Shepherd and ever-present underdog for Dennis to look after — a lost puppy run over outside his house, with a broken leg needing healing. Always a mass of contradictions, supposedly least talented when the group started, he was turning himself into a multi-instrumentalist. The most Beach Boy — runner-up in a Hawaiian surfing tourney, an accomplished danger-skier on hair-raising Rocky Mountain slopes — he was also the most un-Beach Boy, developing a husky, cracked blues voice.

It was Dennis in full flight who pulled as much mob appeal as a Beatle. Fans would breach the carefully mounted barricades at concerts, and all of the boys had their clothes torn and were taught tactics to escape girls’ clutches — rolling out of the tackle grid-iron style. Dennis, though, sometimes surrounded despite the best game strategies, had several times been literally k.o.’ed by love. In Louisville, Kentucky, coincidentally the home of Muhammed Ali, he required three stitches to his head. When audience reaction was deemed out of hand local police forces used their ultimate power of censorship, cutting the feed to amplifiers or yanking down the stage curtain mid-performance, much to the group’s disgust. In l.p. liner notes Mike remarked on the Cincinnati fans as champion “cop-dodgers” and “Then there’s the helpless feeling of seeing a girl, who maybe spent her last dollar to see us, crying or something, ’cause the cops wouldn’t let her stay and get a Beach Boys autograph.” Unlike the Beatles, the group never had sealed, womblike limos to duck into to separate them from their public, and for less hysterical crowds would often stay behind for hours to sign autographs and chat.

UNLIKE THEIR HERMETICALLY PROTECTED RIVALS the Beach Boys no doubt felt themselves in the full swim of the Swinging Sixties. Carl named his favorite acts as the Beatles, Four Seasons, Supremes, Manfred Mann and the Animals—in preference over the Rolling Stones. The Stones, he said, showing considerable prescience, would be around as long as they made hits. Brian, in a 1996 interview, said that he and Carl “liked John [Lennon] a lot” — and that he wrote ‘Girl Don’t Tell Me’ as “a kind of tribute to John.” Said at one time to have been intended for the Beatles to record, it was one of Brian’s favorite songs, written on vacation in Hawaii without a piano or guitar: “And it’s the only song I wrote that way.” He had penned ‘Kiss Me Baby’ months before in a Copenhagen hotel room, also without much in the way of composing aids.

Certain other revelations Brian has made about his lifestyle at this time have shed light on his creative processes: Put simply, take marijuana and sit down at the piano. For The Beach Boys Today!he was experimenting: “The whole second side had been written and arranged while I was high. Compared to previous Beach Boys albums the music was slower, more plaintive, and emotional. The chord patterns were more complex, the production denser, richer in sound, and my thinking in regard to making records was different. Able to break down songs to precise little increments, I began to deal with each instrument individually, stacking sounds one at a time” (BrianWilson.com).

Three months later in April he took a quantum leap into the drug world with his first experience of LSD. He at first justified this by the fact that it led instantly to the composing of ‘California Girls’. Later, he noticed that it was the beginning of auditory hallucinations—voices talking to him, often threatening ones — and an everworsening fragility of mind. It was about this time too he wrote and recorded its flipside ‘Let Him Run Wild’ in hommage to Burt Bacharach’s renowned chord progressions — and that’s as far as any resemblance goes.

ROCK MUSIC — Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: “WE LOVE YOU BEATLES, OH YES WE DO!”

In celebrity, generational/fashion, history, music on February 9, 2008 at 6:16 am

Excerpt #1 from BEACH BOYS vs BEATLEMANIA: Rediscovering Sixties Music by G. A. De Forest, published by Booklocker.com and available for around $19.95 from Amazon, Borders, Books-a-Million, Barnes & Noble or any other of your favorite Internet stops

Sales peak thus far: #23 on Amazon.com’s hot 100 Music History & Criticism books (April 26th 2008)


The Fab Four, mops flourishing by mid 1964

The Fab Four, mops flourishing by mid 1964

To be caught up in Beatlemania ’64 was something as exciting as it was indescribable. Imagine Irish music, Riverdance and leprechaun outfits taking over the world—held aloft for everyone else to aspire to: a crude but apt comparison. The Beatle phenomenon has been uncritically celebrated long past the point of drop-dead kicking-the-corpse boredom, so to this day no one has been able to say convincingly what their music had to do with it. But you had to be there—the pop culture ‘happening’ of the mid-Sixties. It was experienced so deeply by many youths it seemed all that was needed to fix the world was immersion in Beatledom so everything would turn “fab”. Harrypottermania is the only phenomenon to compare with it today.

Tony Barrow, rock journalist and Beatle publicist: “The whole thing changed. The balance of power fell from an average age of 40 to 25 overnight.”

Derek Taylor, Beatle and later Beach Boy publicist: “We saw them in that sense [of being saviors]. People saw them as being some sort of answer to the miseries of the world or in our own little lives. They were the four-headed Santa Claus.”

Astrid Kirchherr, designer of the Beatlehair: “My heart just opens up with pride and joy to know I was so lucky to get to know these wonderful people who deserved all this fame and fortune.”

Astrid Kirchherr: “You could tell Paul really hated [Stuart]” (Salewicz).

Murray Kaufman (Murray the ‘K’), star DJ and self-proclaimed Fifth Beatle: “To this day when you hear [other superstars] you know it. With every album The Beatles gave us a 180-degree change. A completely different change, a different sound, a different attitude. They kept changing with us. The Beatles inspired a lot of the political and social revolution that took place, because from a subliminal standpoint The Beatles represented change. We saw the Beatles change right in front of our eyes.”

This habit of the Beatles being diverted every six months sounds alarmingly like a description of one of the Sixties’ most charming and persuasive fakers, Andrew Loog Oldham, by his friend John Douglas: “… a dilettante: though he’d got natural ability, he didn’t stick long with things, because there was always something new to have a crack at.”

George Martin, who produced all the Beatle records: “In my book The Beatles were the greatest performers and writers ever… They were never satisfied with sticking to one style, one format, one sound… I think I was part of a five-piece group… My particular specialty in the beginning was introductions, endings and solos. The rest of the song was theirs. Later on it [was] the addition of things they hadn’t thought of—all the backward guitar stuff and that kind of thing.”—Excerpts from Pritchard & Lysaght’s The Beatles: an Oral History (1998).

Note that Martin’s “specialty” was composing beginnings, endings and middles of Beatle songs?! “The rest of the song was theirs”, he adds amusingly. For Martin it all came down to how well crafted the song and the variety of ways they were presented. For Murray the K, how mutable the sound and attitude. Changeability was the common theme. So they might rate above Gilbert & Sullivan in adventurousness but below genuine artists in not having a recognisable style. Picasso changing his Blue Period and succeeding phases every four to six months?—the interval between Beatle albums. Novelty, and reading constantly changing trends— Murray the K: “They kept changing with us””—was their real stock in trade.

These four Liverpool lads of Irish descent had no small touch of the blarney in their blood: the pixieish wit; the crude, crying-into-your-beer sentiment and, encouraged by Dylan, self-pitying bitterness in layers; and Celtic “animal magnetism”—as ascribed by Brian Wilson to the Britons in general. If the Irish kissed the Blarney Stone for luck the Beatles and their minders must have ravished it full-frontal. Ritualistic mystique was all there staged in the Beatles—the Parisian styled hair, the Gallic cut suits, the Beatle bow in unison from the waist. Even Paul’s intriguing German-made ‘violin’ bass guitar, like no other. Was he dead?—Only true initiates could read the signs. It all assumed titanic significance, like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter overlapping into real life.

Clean-cut American Beach Boys as they looked on the arrival of the Beatles, February 1964: didn't stand a chance

Clean-cut American Beach Boys as they looked on the arrival of the Beatles, February 1964: didn't stand a chance

They had charm by the bucketful; presence—not the smarm or vacuous additood that passes for it today and is glibly called charisma. To immune observers they were interchangeable mop-tops, but fans knew better: John, the defiant leader with a loose chip on his shoulder, standing at the mike bowlegged gunslinger style; Paul, the smooth, fun-loving pretty boy and the most versatile musically, popping out melodies literally in his sleep—but called “the shrewdest and the toughest” by a teacher who knew them both; George, “the Dark Horse”—only fragments showing above surface, the most “vociferous” at the first meeting with George Martin and the most business minded, but passive-aggressive because dominated by his senior partners, overlooked until his death prompted a gushing media, when his palatial estate showed he had just as massive an ego; Ringo, contributing his personality on drums and off, the best actor in films—seemingly earthbound, living off a suitcase of baked beans on a spiritual exploration of India (the others ate theirs in the studio, scooped from silver service). Starting with no higher ambition than to open a hairdressing salon once the Beatles had struck modest success, ironically he was probably the most spiritual one through his childhood illnesses. But he was painted goofy. Girls liked to mother him for his melancholy. Later, with his head shorn, on his unshaven days he bore an unfortunate resemblance to Yasser Arafat.

At the start they were so… fluffy—and so saleable. While little girls wanted them as cuddly toys who walked, talked, peed and sang, mature females too fantasized about cuddling up to one or other of them. It wasn’t that the marketing strategy was inspired— just that everyone jumped on the bandwagon at once creating an unstoppable momentum, the more venal devotees grabbing fortunes hand over fist. The worldwide money-go-round was carved up continent by continent by seriously monied men, who made Elvis’s Colonel Tom Parker look like a nickel-and-dime grifter. There were Beatle suits and ties, Beatle shoes, Beatle wigs, even Beatle guitars and drum kits. On their first trip to the US, from their tiny cut of the money generated by their own image the group made more from Beatle bubblegum than from performances.

Despite their “Luv, Luv, Luv” mantra, nasty personal politics emerged in breakup as all burst into song unflattering to all—tit for tat attacks in unbounded superstar self-indulgence, abusing their exalted position to demean their art form. Yet because the group died violently in its prime (and resisted all pleas for a rebirth) the Princess Diana Effect mummifies a far-fetched pristine image. There is no question of speaking ill of their legacy, and an objective reappraisal of their value will wait till all media contemporaries in their thrall have retired from the airwaves.

While the Beatles weren’t responsible for every loopy gesture of fandom a finger points at them for hyping it: shaking their hair got their biggest audience reaction, not playing a favorite song—all of their songs were favored. The fans were screaming too loud to care how the music sounded, or if it sounded at all, so that the group at times stopped singing (or substituted bawdy rhymes) unnoticed. Their unbounded, unconditional success has a lot to answer for in foisting a travesty on the musical world, preventing a genuinely new course for modern popular music. They could be accused of corrupting rock in their own way as much as the tame Elvis-lookalikes they allegedly saved rock’n’roll from.

AS AMERICAN POPSTERS PROTESTED AT THE TIME, the Beatles—first called “the English Everly Bros” though Phil & Don weren't thrilled about it—were offering little that Stateside acts hadn't, musically; they had once even called themselves the Four Everlys. Their records were unsophisticated, producer George Martin having no experience in rock, coming from the show tradition of the Goons (Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan & Harry Secombe), forerunners of Monty Python. Sound engineer “Hurricane” Smith had to work with primitive UK studio equipment. So it is no wonder to the ears of American industry professionals ‘Please Please Me’ sounded like the Country Pop of the real Everlys. In fact it is very much like ‘That's Old Fashioned’ (1962)—so, an attractive recording but obviously nothing new.

English record producer and former rock journo Charlie Gillett: “For a while in the mid-Sixties, to be an American producer in Britain was to be in a distinct category, as Americans were recognized to have more adventurous production styles [and] played an important part in educating our engineers in American production techniques.” Yanks in the UK included Jimmy Miller helming the Rolling Stones and Spencer Davis Group, Shel Talmy the Kinks and The Who, Bert Berns (a.k.a. Russell) of Don Kirshner/Brill Building pop producing recordings for Them and Lulu, Felix Pappalardi for Cream, and Phil Spector, eventually, for the Beatles themselves. Yet Gillett claims Beach Boy music, from the same mainsprings of rock, was outdated on the arrival of the Beatles— without offering any illustration of his point—and presumably came right on first hearing the Beatles in 1964 (?)! Maybe it is to fit this outlandish statement that Gillett post-dates the commencement of Brian Wilson productions three years to ’65.

While well-bred manager Brian Epstein put his twopenn’th in about what the Beatles should record, the group obviously knew better and were happy leaving to chance Capitol’s doctoring of the master tapes in America—recognising virtually any Americans (and Capitol ‘experts’ fell into that category for rock’n’roll) would improve on Parlophone’s work done with the Beatles’ own input. No surprise that many Beatle records, especially releases outside the US, have a quirky feel of Tin Pan Alley uncomfortably mixed with rockabilly, or an English attempt at it.

Yes, they were different, in their Old World charm that urban Americans had long forgotten. If their charm and humor was Irish via Liverpool, the down-to-earth opportunism—and an awe of all that was flashy in American culture—was pure working-class England. An American equivalent might be experientially deprived hillbilly Jethro Beaudine coming to the big city and aping all he saw—in his fashion. Their presentation, via influences from Bert Kaempfert, Klaus & Astrid & Jurgen, Brian Epstein, came from Continental Europe. Not only appearance: Close your eyes and listen to early Beatle music, and picture everyman’s Liverpool-via-Hamburg group putting out the same: an act that Rory Storm & the Hurricanes could call their equal. People who knew them and their music intimately at the time said it. It was on top of hundreds of years of European traditional music that they attempted to overlay rock’n’roll. Question: Was this rock’n’roll, an advance on rock’n’roll, or a diluted alternative more related to other Euro acts: Edith Piaf, Johnny Halliday, James Last, Kraftwerk?

Lennon & McCartney came up with a perfect combination of show tunes and ersatz rock’n’roll—not a blending of the two but a craft division as in two assembly streams in a song factory. Their rock’n’roll was as straight as they could make it, improving in the late Sixties with ‘Revolution’ and ‘Back in the USSR’; and their Music Hall songs, which by Sgt Peppers they learned to give a rock veneer, were pure sentiment. Everyone could take something from it, and this catchall ‘something for everyone’ approach— that Elvis had turned to in 1960—brought unparalleled success.

It was all over after the music critic of The Times anointed Lennon & McCartney “the greatest composers since Beethoven”— not even Gilbert & Sullivan. Their habit of descending a third from minor to major, then another third back to major (as in ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’—personal communication from Celia Wood-Calvert)—brought comparisons with Schubert but was the sort of thing untutored musicians not hidebound by academic orthodoxies were likely to stumble upon in the normal course of exploring possibilities. It was their good fortune to be hailed for it.

Alan Livingston, Capitol president and inventor of Bozo the Clown, presents the Beach Boys with what be their first RIAA Gold Discs in 1965: they were always albums, and awarded so late because audited belatedly.

Alan Livingston, Capitol president and inventor of Bozo the Clown, presents the Beach Boys with what must be their first RIAA Gold Discs in 1965: they were always albums, never singles, and awarded so late because audited belatedly.

A passage in Gerry Bloustein’s Musical Visions: Selected Conference Proceedings from 6th National Australian/New Zealand IASPM compares Lennon-McCartney songwriting with Brian Wilson’s. “The songwriters who most often utilised blues-based songforms were Brian Wilson and John Lennon-Paul McCartney. Wilson’s surf and hot rod songs… often involve original and creative adaptations of the standard blues form, and in this sense Wilson should be accorded more credit as the songwriter who was best able to create a logical development of 1950s rock, and surf groups should be considered to be updated rock and roll bands.

“Wilson’s use of the blues-based form is deserving of some detailed attention. He rarely used the form for a complete song… Most of Wilson’s songs are verse-chorus forms, while in some songs (such as ‘Little Deuce Coupe’, ‘Little Honda’) the blues form is employed in the verse but not the chorus. In others (like ‘Dance Dance Dance’, ‘Drag City’ and ‘Surf City’) the reverse applies. The other technique employed by Wilson was to vary the standard chord progression over the last four bars of the form, thereby creating a striking hook effect, usually in combination with prominent multi-part vocals and a strong lyric hook. This technique is evident on ‘Shut Down’, ‘Drag City’, ‘Surf City’ and ‘Three Window Coupe’.

“Lennon-McCartney also used (copied?) [Bloustein’s term] this latter technique, most notably in ‘Day Tripper’ and they too created some idiosyncratic adaptations of the form… Like Wilson, Lennon-McCartney rarely employed the form for a complete song. Their nor-mal procedure was to use the blues scheme for the A section of the typical AABA form and to create a strongly contrasting B section by using a progression totally unconnected with the blues idiom, as in songs such as ‘I Feel Fine’, ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ and ‘She’s a Woman’.”

Bloustein goes on to point out that during 1963-66 no other successful writers but the Motown ones make significant use of the blues-based form. But Beatle use of it was strongly tempered by their AABA scheme, which “had been commonly used by popular songwriters for ‘thousands of Tin Pan Alley tunes… a form totally predictable to mid-century listeners’.”

The AABA songform is four 8-bar sections. Many Beatle songs were dependent on a quirky, not to say cute ‘middle eight’ (B) section that caused traditionalists to prick up their ears in gladness.

The myth of Beatle omnipotence—almost a religious belief in which faith triumphs over facts—was reinforced by the likes of Gillett when he misinformed his readers (1975) that “the Beatles brought the idea of the organic songwriting, singing and instrument-playing unit to the American record business”—a myth perpetuated by Murray Kaufman as late as 1998. It was there in germ form in Johnny Cash & the Tennessee Three; even, mostly, Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, Bill Black & D J Fontana; and Buddy Holly & the Crickets. The Beach Boys took it to the ultimate before the Beatles, as such, were ever recorded.

ACCORDING TO THE ROCK HISTORIAN’S BOOK OF Genesis one summer 15-year-old Paul McCartney saw John Lennon, twenty months older, singing with his band for the local Woolton village fete in their home city of Liverpool, the chief north-of-England port that serviced Lancashire’s coal mines and had cargoed cotton from the Confederacy during the American Civil War in defiance of Abraham Lincoln. Equivalent to New York City’s East River dockland but without the prosperity—Great Britain had won the war but “lost the peace”—Liverpool working people were clannish and proud of their scrappy cum entrepreneurial Irish roots. For the Dead End Kids, in the Hollywood B-movies that had informed so many British Empire kids, read John, Paul, George & Ringo. Who can imagine latter-day serene guru George Harrison as the head-butting kid he was, as described by Paul, when he joined the Quarry Men? Lennon, better at lyrics, and McCartney took quirky Scouse humor and added clever wordplay for their songs. Once they started mixing with the fashionable-arty London crowd in 1963 literary pretentions crept in.

It was early 1958 that the three-man core of the Beatles consolidated. This was three years after Lonnie Donegan hit with skiffle, and Bill Haley & His Comets impacted rock’n’roll on Britain with deva-stating results via ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ and ‘Rock Around the Clock’, the theme from gang/rebellion movie Blackboard Jungle. English youths—egged on by violent Teddy Boy subculture—reacted accordingly when Haley & the Comets toured just a few months before, rioting and tearing up seats with flick knives. More than the Teddy Boy image and attire rubbed off on the Quarry Men. Reportedly, the lads themselves were not above a bit of opportunistic rough-housing to get what they wanted from the mean streets of Liverpool or Hamburg.

And it was two years after Elvis Presley. The younger and better looking Elvis had burst from the Tupelo, Mississippi backwoods into throbbing blues center Memphis, Tennessee to mix r&b and country music and take over Teen America. His scintillating, melodramatised performances of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and ‘Hound Dog’ were frenetic and frailly breathless, and held to be extraordinary, coming as they did from a white man’s vocal cords. His ‘Jailhouse Rock’ broke a year later at the time Lennon and McCartney were meeting, with Buddy Holly’s ‘That’ll Be the Day’ and ‘Peggy Sue’, and Jerry Lee Lewis’s ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire’ just as popular.

Though less authentic than Elvis’s earlier Sun recordings of ‘That’s Alright Mama’, ‘Mystery Train’, ‘Baby Let’s Play House’ and ‘Good Rockin’ Tonight’, white rock’n’roll was, after a breach birth, coming out of incubation. Always just a heartbeat and last gasp away from crib death by misadventure, it would soon be rolled on in its slumber by hefty corporate America, rock’n’roll’s domineering stepmother.

Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Fats Domino had already scored their first hits on the (white) pop charts—‘Tutti Frutti’, ‘Maybelline’, ‘Bo Diddley’/‘I’m a Man’, ‘Ain’t That a Shame’. All were remorseless rock’n’rollers, until Richard repented, and were black—so couldn’t be teen icons in the eyes of the music industry of the time. The substitutes who were allowed to make white girls go all gooey were pale-complected, fussily groomed Italo-American boys—Bobby Darin, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Freddy Cannon, Bobby Rydell, James Darren, Lou Christie. Ethnics like Tony Orlando, Teddy Randazzo and Steve Alaimo who didn’t ‘regularize’ their names had viable recording careers but were obviously less stellar. The teen idols were promoted by Bandstand and Pat Boone’s series from the 1957-58 tv season, Billboard magazine and its new Hot 100, and a host of other mass media outlets.

The absence of Elvis Presley in the army for two years cleared the way for these ballroom imitations to replace real rock’n’roll.

BEACH BOYS LIVE in New Zealand, 2007 — REVIEW

In celebrity, generational/fashion, music on January 21, 2008 at 10:58 pm

THE BEACH BOYS (Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, John Cowsill, et al)

Supported by: Christopher Cross & band

Vector Arena, Auckland, New Zealand; 7.30 to 10.50pm
18th November 2007; $NZ129

Promotion was good for this show. There had been an interview done with Mike Love on the Australian leg of the tour, shown on New Zealand current affairs tv two nights before the Auckland concert. And news footage of the Beach Boys entourage of Thirties-Forties American classics, speeding up the highway the morning after their New Plymouth show, heading for Auckland 400 kilometres away. But the fact that ticket sales were slow was shown by the fact that after four months, the very day before the show, there were still tv ads trying to move them. In the event, a crowd of 5,000 (my estimate) filled the 12,000-capacity Auckland venue with joyous noise and singing.

The tv ads for the concert had only mentioned Christopher Cross in support, so it was with mixed feelings—torn between irritation and resignation—that we entered the arena three minutes after start time to be greeted by a nondescript ‘girl band’ intent on singing Queen and ELO songs. (All these people must have come simply for nostalgia, so anything pre-Rap will do, right?) I had been expecting to grit my teeth through Chris, the one-time crown prince of castrato Easy Listening, but this was too much. Ambiguously called the Ladykillers, I recognised two of the four as popular Kiwi stars of yesteryear, one of them (Suzanne Donaldson that was) going back the entire forty years and more to the mid-Sixties heyday of the Beach Boys, the other (Tina Cross) merely to the beginning of Disco. They might have been reasonably entertaining in their field of Cabaret Soul on another occasion, accompanied as they were solely by a pianist, but I just wasn’t in the mood. Why not give an opportunity to local up-and-coming rockers—someone at least vaguely in the spirit of things?

I had bought two tickets in July when the box-office opened, half intending to take my usual girlfriend. Only, whenever I had played her the Beach Boys on record or DVD before she had made unfortunate remarks like, “They should do songs that are easy to sing, like Abba or the Beatles.” By a few days before the concert I’d suffered months of daytime nightmares involving her sitting through the concert, seemingly enjoying herself, as she always did, then remarking, ‘Ah, that was quite nice… But if only it had been Abba, or the Bee Gees!” I’d asked my mother first if she wanted to see the Beach Boys—she’d expressed a liking for their music for years, in fact forty years. But, inundated with it whether she wanted it or not, as she’d been since the Sixties, I wasn’t sure that she wasn’t just being sociable in hesitantly assenting. At these prices I wanted someone who would actually appreciate the experience for what it was—the last ever visit to these shores by representatives of the greatest sound ever. I was determined not to take my best (male) friend, as I had to Brian & the Wondermints in December 2004. So “Maw” it was.

The brilliant planning of logistics that went into this special evening—I only fork out for shows when at least one Beach Boy is involved—was something to behold. My mother is elderly, heading well towards frail, is diabetic, and needs a walker to travel more than fifty metres at a time. She needs careful timing of meals and snacks, and she’d decided to leave her walker at home.

I’m glad the current Beach Boys turned out to be worth every penny and every bit of inconvenience. For quality and enjoyment I would rate them well ahead of the February 1978 lineup—made up of the five originals —and behind only the April 1970 lineup (Bruce substituting for Brian) with its immaculate reproduction of recordings. And this show outdid the classic 1970 show for enjoyment because of its overwhelming crowd reaction compared to the staid, inhibited audience of that time, offering polite applause.

As it happened, the surprise guests mainly acted to slow the show down, heralding the beginning of long setting-up delays and disruptive but fortunately intermittent lighting problems. It was a happy surprise that Christopher Cross was more of a rocker than I expected (I only knew ‘Theme from Arthur’ and ‘Sailing’). Though I’m certainly no expert, Christopher seems a fluent, skilled lead guitarist and his accompaniment—good vocals also—especially from a sexy blonde California Girl keyboard player and veteran bassist, improved things beyond anything I’d anticipated. His voice is somewhat stronger and more versatile than it sounds on record, and its Carl-Wilson-before-his-balls-dropped quality would come in very handy on a sincerely felt ‘I Can Hear Music’ guest spot within the Beach Boys’ segment; and later faithfully rendered ‘Carl’ vocals on ‘Kokomo’. The final song in his set, ‘Hey Laura’, was a lovely solo tribute to Dennis & Carl.

The Beach Boys Band, a more accurate description surely than what is implied by coopting the Beach Boys’ name with all there is to live up to, came on around 8.50pm after a 15-minute interval, to the tune of ‘Wipe Out’. This, in a single moment, set the tone—with a contagious bonhomie flowing out to the audience and back again in waves. Make no mistake, this was “The Mike Show” delivering a hits package—but all in great style and spirit. It was actually like being back in the Sixties, a claim I can’t make for any other show I’ve seen, by anyone. The Big Kahuna surfboards brought on to stand either side of the stage set helped, and two or three sweet little girls later invited on stage to singalong with ‘Barbara Ann’, ‘Fun Fun Fun’…

What Mike Love has lost in mobility at 66, possibly due to reported back problems, he has certainly made up for in working the crowd far better than I’d seen from him during the previous Beach Boys shows in Auckland. He has blossomed, admittedly belatedly, out from under the gaze of Brian and the others, regardless of the rights and wrongs of all feuds among the original members—which will never be resolved objectively or justly no matter how long the arguments continue to fly back and forth.

Bruce Johnston, 63, on keyboards—backed up by a specialist producing all sorts of sounds from a multi-deck instrument—was no slouch, the cheerleader for Mike and others at the slightest sign of the pace of the show flagging. The only time it happened was during the aforementioned lighting problems. Bruce sang ‘Do You Wanna Dance? well, with surprising energy—and performed ‘God Only Knows’ even better.

Certainly the most energetic of all was John Cowsill, who must be well into his fifties. Taking the trouble to reproduce percussive subtleties in a way Dennis rarely did live, at times he looked a lot like Dennis, flailing as he did in his youth, long hair flopping on his face. Apparently this was a warm-up tour for him, before he returns to his own family band, the Sixties’ Cowsills—styled halfway between the Beach Boys and the Mamas & the Papas. This Cowsill sang ‘Darlin’, ‘Help Me Rhonda’ and ‘California Dreamin’ (more like the Mamas & the Papas original than the Al remake) passably well.

Of the three unknown players thus far unmentioned, two were young guitarists and the other a bass player/falsetto. The falsetto sang a serviceable solo on ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and so on but of course without anything like the dexterity and feeling of Bri. He was better singing backup on the likes of ‘Surf City’, where a somewhat limited, shrill high voice would serve. Between the three of them they sang about ten of the leads—I can only assume engineered by Mike and Bruce to save energy.

Given that, the only jarring interpretation came from the young rhythm guitarist, who on ‘Then I Kissed Her’ gave nothing like the quality of Al Jardine (and isn’t the primary role of stand-ins to reproduce the sound of the originals?), but more like an American Idol contestant trying to do Phil Collins. An interesting variation on this song, though, was contained in the middle break—there isn’t one in the Beach Boys’ recorded version of 1965—reverting to the Crystals’ more elaborate 1963 original.

If I was tempted to carp a little more I would mention the Latin rhythm rather annoyingly employed on ‘When I Grow Up’— seriously missing Denny’s innovative stick work heard as a highlight on the original track. Conspicuously missing: ‘Heroes & Villains’, and all others from the Smile era—obviously not a Mike scene. And the way Mike has brought ‘Kokomo’ into focus for the encore instead of ‘Good Vibrations’ is a little obvious. Mike himself, as always, was best in his his deeper registers, on ‘Catch a Wave’, ‘Hawaii’, ‘Still Cruisin’, ‘Kokomo’…

Early on, the two ‘Dance’ numbers were performed best, and seven songs in, on ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love?’—a revelation, counterpoint harmonies that wouldn’t be matched the rest of the evening. ‘Warmth of the Sun’, ‘Good Timin’ and ‘In My Room’, in that order, also boasted excellent harmonies. Somewhat surprisingly —and all the more so because following a lacklustre ‘Sloop John B’— ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’, which was written off as “obscure” in 1970 by an Auckland reviewer, raised the humungous audience response of the night: a standing ovation and singalong from start to finish. Not to disparage the motive for such an overwhelming ovation, it is probably due to (a vastly inferior version) being the theme for Cadbury chocolate ads, played on television here for years.

Yet, ‘God Only Knows’, the theme to tv’s Big Love, got nothing like the same reaction, though equally beautifully done all round. ‘Little Honda’ was all excitement, attracting second biggest response and almost bringing the house down, then ‘Surf City’ and ‘Surfin’ USA’, with ‘Little Deuce Coupe’, ‘Help Me Rhonda’, and ‘Fun Fun Fun’ other big participation numbers. Strobe lighting effects pulled out for ‘Good Vibrations’ were highly effective; ‘Surfer Girl’ had been introduced as the “cellphone participation song”, prompting innumerable flashes toward the stage from all points for the duration. By the time of ‘Barbara Ann’—with the Christopher Cross band joining the Beach Boys on stage in a party atmosphere—all the stops were well and truly pulled out and what had been a fast-paced show accelerated still as ‘Surfin’ Safari’ segued frantically into a rocking-out ‘USA’.

Oh, and Maw really grooved, as well as she was able—as I was taking notes in the dark. I’m glad I gave her one of the highlights of her life as it winds down. She still tells people about it more than two months later. Count them: three dozen hits in two hours flat. I call that value for money.

SETLIST

1. California Girls 20. Don’t Worry Baby
2. Dance Dance Dance 21. Still Cruisin’
3. Do You Wanna Dance? 22. Little Deuce Coupe
4. Then I Kissed Her 23. 409
5. Darlin’ 24. I Get Around
6. When I Grow Up 25. In My Room
7. Why Do Fools Fall in Love? 26. Good Timin’
8. Sloop John B 27. California Dreamin’
9. Wouldn’t It Be Nice? 28. God Only Knows
10. I Can Hear Music 29. Good Vibrations
11. Surfer Girl 30. Help Me Rhonda
12. Do It Again 31. Rock and Roll Music
13. Surf City 32. Barbara Ann
14. Catch a Wave 33. Surfin’ Safari
15. Hawaii 34. Surfin’ USA
16. Little Honda
17. Be True to Your School Encore:
18. Warmth of the Sun 35. Kokomo
19. Getcha Back 36. Fun Fun Fun

G. A. (Gary) De Forest
‘Beach Boys vs Beatlemania: Rediscovering Sixties Music’
Booklocker.com, November 2007

To be published in the “Beach Boys Britain” newsletter

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